Not your Average Designer

by Erin Biba

Don’t consult IDEO’s Sandy Speicher about fabric patterns. She’s got schools and prisons to reform. 

There’s more to design than throw pillows and color swatches.

Sandy Speicher
IDEO’s Sandy Speicher

While those things are essential and important to give interiors life, they’re also just a small part of a larger picture. Often design is wrapped up in areas of our life and our world that we don’t even consider. It is used to solve problems and provide solutions. That’s the idea behind the concept of “design thinking”—a way of using design to tackle the world’s biggest and most complex issues. It’s an approach at the core of IDEO, the San Francisco-based outfit renowned for taking concepts of design to the next level.

“Design thinking is about taking the methods and mindset of design and applying that to the problems we see around us,” says Sandy Speicher, a partner and managing director of the company. “How might we design better health systems or survive through emergencies? The heart of what IDEO does is to take these skills and mindsets of a designer and work on bigger and bigger questions.”

Speicher says that people are at the heart of design thinking. In order to succeed, the first step is to understand what “motivates them, compels them and inspires them”—a big shift from the traditional way designers tend to work. “People can often forget to get to know the people they’re designing for,” she notes.

Design thinking is a growing trend in the consumer product world, inspired in some ways by Apple. (IDEO designed the first mouse for Apple in 1980). According to Speicher, consumer awareness of the importance and impact of design in their lives has grown steadily—especially in the last 10 years. Today, she says, governments, schools, hospitals and municipalities are starting to catch on. “The times are changing pretty fast, and when the systems you’ve created aren’t working as well, you’re not performing as well, you’re going to have to design a new solution,” she says.

One of Speicher’s favorite examples of this is a project that IDEO worked on called Innova Schools. A Peruvian entrepreneur, Carlos Ruiz Pastor, was struggling with a disconnect between a rapid rise in Peru’s middle class and the failure of the government’s school system to advance and serve that community. The education system was ranked 63 out of 65 on a global survey. “That means—even with all this economic opportunity—if they don’t have the talent or readiness, their country has not fulfilled on its potential. So he decided to create a school system that would help,” she explains.

Ruiz Pastor turned to IDEO. He tasked them with designing a new, and affordable, private school system from the ground up. (“When I say, ‘design something’ that’s not just buildings. It’s much deeper than that.”) The school system must be internationally competitive and tuition should cost no more than USD $100 per month. And it had to be scalable: Pastor wanted its model to be capable of expanding across Peru to up to 200 schools.

“We had to go on a journey to design the system,” she says. “I think I lost years on my life working on it. I worried a lot in the process. When your job is to innovate, you don’t know what the answer is when you start.”

Speicher and the IDEO team spent a month in Peru speaking with teachers, students, parents and everyone who would eventually be involved with the school system. Among other discoveries, they learned that teachers had graduated from the same faulty school system they were now leading. For the new schools to be successful, she observes, the IDEO team designed a “blended learning model.” First, they hired 55 teachers (Peruvian and American) to develop 18,000 lesson plans. Then they told the local teachers to keep 70 percent of the plans and change 30 percent to tailor to students’ needs.

The ability to upgrade, adjust and perfect their learning plans has helped the teachers “learn as they grow.” The schools are on their fifth round of lesson plans now. And the program has grown to 41 schools serving 31,000 kids. It’s been such a hit that other countries are showing interest. Speicher says they’re even beginning to look at scaling it into Mexico.

I think I lost years on my life working on it. I worried a lot in the process. When your job is to innovate, you don’t know what the answer is when you start. Sandy Speicher


And it’s not just schools that can benefit from design thinking. IDEO has numerous projects that utilize these techniques. Currently, Speicher is working on a new project with Justice System Partners, a group that works to improve quality of life for people in the prison system in California. Speicher can’t say much yet, since the effort is in its infancy, but she reveals that it will use a recent research finding that young people’s brains don’t stop developing until they are 25—as opposed to the traditional expectation that adulthood starts at 18—to rethink programs for young men in prison.

“What do these men need as they transition back into society, and how might we redesign prisons before, during and after in order to help them in their development?” she asks.

Just as with the Innova Schools, they’re going into the problem with a lot of questions. “We have to have a path to follow and come to the answers,” she declares. The knowledge will come by design.

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