First Person: A conversation with David Kelley, founder of IDEO and Stanford


David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Stanford talks with First Person host Lisa Van Dusen about his mission to help as many people as possible regain their creative confidence, the universal applicability of human-centered design and the importance of play. He reflects on his summers growing up in the Midwest; his friendship with Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass; and his very early desire to become a school bus driver.

Sitting in his stunning Woodside house that he designed in collaboration with Sottsass, Kelley relishes the architect's unconventional approach to design--everything is designed to be human and emotional. Kelley reminisces about their longtime friendship, including Sottsass's annual birthday parties in France and "love of lunch." Kelley had the rare sense that he was in the presence of greatness.

Growing up in the Midwest, Kelley was long on what he calls "inventor heroes." The "design heroes came later" and Sottsass was clearly one of them. They knew about who invented what — from Alexander Graham Bell, who patented the first telephone, to the cotton gin man, Eli Whitney.

Kelley had to find his own way to human-centered design and was instrumental in creating Design Thinking as we know it. Kelley has seen design move from the "kids' table to the grown-up table" - becoming the first step rather than an afterthought in Silicon Valley over the past 30 years. Enter teaching.

Kelley teaches with passion as a Stanford professor, and more recently through a new online course via IDEO U. His consulting work with companies and other institutional IDEO clients also constitutes a form of teaching. Just ask him about the power of micro-successes.

Kelley shares one example of excavating the unexpected human need involving the San Francisco Unified School District's lunch program. It turned out that what they actually needed was "an extraordinary social experience" with a little food thrown in.

A lot of Kelley's work involves play. In fact, play is not the opposite of work, contends Kelley. "It allows permission for doing things differently," he said, adding it's an essential ingredient for creativity. Stanford will soon be offering a class on play and coincidentally and the Palo Alto Art Center will concurrently be featuring an exhibition on play.

Kelley, a purveyor of play, human-centered design and creative confidence, offers those who are trying to find their path in life some advice: "Don't take a job that looks good but feels bad."

He suggested people take a gap year or experiment.

"Don't try to pull it out of your big brain," he said.

• Watch the video

• To watch previous First Person video interviews, click here.

Host/interview, Lisa Van Dusen

Video, Veronica Weber

Production Managers, Lavanya Mahadevan & Alexis Weisend

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


7 people like this
Posted by Andy
a resident of Woodside
on Nov 5, 2017 at 7:28 pm

I'm curious how the writer has decided that Kelly was "instrumental in creating Design Thinking as we know it" when the name and philosophy were first outlined in the book "Design Thinking" by Peter Rowe in 1987. More likely, there's clearly some collegiate rivalry here as Rowe was Dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard from 1992 to 2004.

Like this comment
Posted by Lehrer
a resident of another community
on Nov 6, 2017 at 9:32 am

This the only one of which the news has come to Stanford,
though there may be many others but they haven't been deciphered.

1 person likes this
Posted by Andy
a resident of Woodside
on Nov 7, 2017 at 4:22 pm

Dear @Lehrer.

I would think that a prestigious university as large and significant as Stanford would have the personnel, if not the integrity, to research and acknowledge others who went before them. It also seems arrogant to think that Stanford "deciphered" design thinking when a number of people who contributed to the formation of design thinking have written extensively on the subject well before Stanford/IDEO came along. Herbert Simon - who originally wrote on the subject in 1969 - won a Nobel Prize in part for his work on Design Thinking. Moreover, a simple Google search would uncover a considerable number of experts - the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Interactive Design Foundation, Hong Kong Polytechnic University among many others - who've done just as much as Stanford-IDEO to contribute to something as important as Design Thinking.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Legends Pizza Co. replaces Palo Alto Pizza Co.
By Elena Kadvany | 10 comments | 2,559 views

Premarital and Couples: 10 Tips for the Holidays
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 2,314 views

What is a "ton" of carbon dioxide anyway?
By Sherry Listgarten | 13 comments | 2,211 views

Do city officials ever consider giving taxpayers a break?
By Diana Diamond | 17 comments | 1,126 views

By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 957 views


The holidays are here!

From live music to a visit with Santa, here's a look at some local holiday activities to help you get into the spirit of the season.