Ryan Jacoby studied Systems Engineering at the University of Virginia, then spent four years as a Deloitte consultant before attending business school at Stanford.
Before the Stanford d.school was officially official, Ryan studied and prototyped there under the likes of IDEO founder David Kelley, among others. After graduating, he joined IDEO full-time in the Bay Area for about two years before helping open the company’s New York City office and co-founding its Business Design practice with several others.
Ryan and I chatted a while back about business and design and education and how the three are interrelated – or should be. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation:
ThinkingDesign: How’d you get into all this business design stuff?
RJ: When I went back to business school, I really wanted to get back into sort of how things are made. My background was about understanding systems, and I knew enough about business to be dangerous. My first design class was called “Interdisciplinary Design and Innovation,” and it hooked me.
Our team was made up of a computer science guy, a mechanical engineer, a product designer, and me – we decided to design next-generation user interfaces for teen girls. That’s a dumb idea, right? Four guys that know nothing about being a teenage girl.
People were betting about how bad we’d flame out. But we did amazing work by sticking with the process we learned. Because we were so outside of our element, it gave us an entirely different view.
ThinkingDesign: how did you go about it that time?
RJ: The way the d.school teaches it. Basically hanging out at shopping malls and just trying not to get arrested or kicked out. I remember one day with my teammates going to a high school girls’ basketball game and sneaking a video camera to act like we were shooting the game but actually shooting this gaggle of teen girls, doing these amazing behaviors with their cell phones and communicating with each other at the same time. Just seeing all of this playing out in front of us and thinking about it. We talked to an expert in teenage girls, and we talked to an expert in language.
I remember one of the professors agreeing with one of our findings -- that information is power in these collectives [of teenage girls]. And he actually encouraged us to attempt to change that. As a team, we sat around and had to decide whether to design for the behavior, or whether to take on the mantle of trying to change teen girlhood forever.
ThinkingDesign: What’d you decide?
RJ: We totally tried to encourage the behavior. We did flash prototypes of interfaces and designed a whole system around it. We showed models of our interface designs at a table during high school lunch until security guards kicked us out. We got away with a lot by saying we were a Stanford student and doing it for class.
As an experience, it was really inspiring. I really got into it. It was a blast and a different way of thinking which I certainly appreciated, because it was a nice complement to the systems thinking and business background that I’d developed.
ThinkingDesign: How did the "Business Design: The Curriculum of 2012" idea come about?
RJ: It was one of the easiest [blog] posts I’ve ever written. I did it on a flight from New York to Florida, actually. I’d been thinking about it and started playing around with it, because I do a lot of hiring for the business design discipline at IDEO. As a student in many business programs, you have to cobble together and approximate the kind of experience we’re looking for.
So, it made me ask the question, “Why isn’t there something else that is preparing people to do what we do here [at IDEO]?” Business design is a craft and approach. If you believe in that craft, then where’s the educational support system to create those craftspeople? And what should it look like? I knew it would be hands-on and action-oriented and hard, but hard in the way that something that’s extremely rewarding is hard.
ThinkingDesign: Are business schools getting better at combining business and design?
RJ: I think there are a couple of professors at each school that have picked up the mantle of design thinking. But we’re still in the very early stages. Most programs are still rooted in the traditional institutions. It’s not taught as craft, but more of a mindset. That’s a big deal in itself, but I’m still waiting for someone to close the gap with a start-up mentality.
There are a lot of prerequisites that people think you need to have before doing this stuff. You can worry about that and wait to get that experience, or you can dive in. Business schools teach people to do the right thing, but innovation and design asks you to do something different than that. It’s about being stupid as much as being smart. It’s helping people get over that scary feeling of being wrong and looking stupid.
blogged about not too long ago -- so appropriate and so funny)
Imagine going into a business school and promoting my curriculum – you’d get thrown out on your ear. I was really trying to figure out how to give people experiences in this way while waiting for these institutions to change?
ThinkingDesign: You mentioned before that business design is a craft. What do you mean by that, and how do you know you’re good at it?
RJ: When you call it a craft and not a skill, you realize you can always get better at it. And you realize there are tools and methods in the world that you can acquire that can inspire you to get better.
If I were drawing it for you, I’d draw a smooth curve with a pencil and then zoom in on it. When you see it closer, you realize it’s not a smooth line but more of a jagged line. A craftsperson can see the jagged elements of it. So, one of the ways I think you know you’re really good at business design is that you can see the underlying assumptions in these business models and communicate them in ways that people can understand.
You’ve kinda got a quiver of things you want to try and a quiver of ideas that you’re constantly working on. It’s different than saying I’m really good at math, for instance. It’s saying that I can work my way through these problems and constantly staying inspired around these business issues and business models.
ThinkingDesign: Do you still do as much prototyping in business design as you do in product design?
RJ: We use discovery-driven planning a lot. You basically start with the result and work backwards. So, if you start with a scenario of a $10 million a year business situation, then what needs to be true to make that happen and what are the assumptions that underlie that outcome? What are the prototypes, pilots, and tests that we can put into place to learn into that plan? It’s like options thinking. People that can think in options in the world of business are few and far between. A lot of business design is how you can think about generating, evaluating, and learning into options – if you see what I mean.
ThinkingDesign: Okay. I’m kinda confused. How else can I think about business design?
RJ: Another belief I have is that when you’re designing the experience, you’re designing the business and vice versa. They are intertwining activities. If you look at the web 2.0 space generally, a lot of folks are figuring out the online experience at the exact same time they’re figuring out the business model. If they are creating a great experience, then a business model can come out of that. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in that approach.
Another way to look at it – I sometimes say business design is a mix of entrepreneurship, commerce, and art – it’s a pragmatic mix of those things. It’s not business + design or design + business. It’s a craft and it’s something different.