Oddballs and workarounds: finding inspiration for innovation

Watch video of the lecture

For students who want to create the next big invention, inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. Dennis Boyle, general partner at design consulting firm IDEO, gets his ideas from everyday observations. Whether one is designing a spinal surgery tool or a toilet, Boyle mentioned some key ideas at Thursday’s lecture that will enable engineers and technologists to think outside of the box.

Boyle’s first tip was to keep designs human-centered and to pay especially close attention to extreme users.
“Keep looking at people,” Boyle said. “It seems like a no-brainer, but you have to keep reminding yourself to do this. The smarter you are, the more likely you are to want to just go solve the problem alone. And don’t just look at the center of the bell curve. Look at the outliers. Get inspiration from the oddballs.”
Boyle provided numerous instances where this human-centered mindset led him to success in his career. His examples ranged from streamlining an injectable medication system to preventing submarine crashes.
Another one of Boyle’s suggestions is to observe the “workarounds” that people use. Workarounds – homemade solutions to everyday problems – are subtle signs that there is demand for a product. Boyle mentioned visits he made to workplaces where doors were propped open with hammers and computer screens were balanced on top of reams of paper.
“Sensitize yourself to those kinds of things. Keep on eye open to the things that make you say, ‘Isn’t that funny?’ or ‘isn’t that odd?’ or ‘shouldn’t that be fixed?’”
Boyle also emphasized cultivating an attitude of playfulness and laughter. He put this into immediate practice by sharing a few of his favorite humorous product ideas. The audience was amused by the photos of pocketless Velcro pants, a lawn-mowing tricycle, a catch-and-release flyswatter and half a dozen other joke ideas.
“Whatever you’re doing, get things out there. Build things, even if it’s out of paper. Make prototypes. Make videos.”
Boyle parted with a list of advice that would help engineers embrace the spirit of innovation.
“Find ways to get involved in teams, even here in school. Learn how to sketch. Learn about anthropology. Push yourself to understand the big picture. Go beyond just looking for the solution to find out what the real problem is. The best engineers are not just problem solvers; they’re problem finders. That’s what leaders do.”
The lecture gave students inspiration and food for thought.
“I liked what he said about having humor in engineering,” said Manufacturing Engineering and Technology major Phil Rindlisbach. “It really is beneficial.”
Jordan Meraz, an Electrical Engineering major, said, “I thought it was interesting that he said not to just search for the solution, but to look for what the real problem is. Also, what he said about workarounds was good. I mean, everybody does them, and they do them for a reason.”
IDEO is an international company that specializes in design and innovation. Boyle, who is one of the founding members of IDEO, has been instrumental in maintaining company clients such as Apple, Dell and Proctor & Gamble. He received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s in product design from Stanford, where he also occasionally teaches.


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