IDEO's Barbara Beskind on wealth, time, fantasy & design

It's not every day you get to peek into a designer's notebook -- not to mention one whose personal history is as broad and as deep as Barbara Beskind's. A look through Barbara's notebooks is like exploring a greenhouse of colorful and fast-growing plants. It's little wonder she works at IDEO.

Oh, Barbara is 90 years old.

Her design work started when she was 8 years old, designing toys for friends during the Great Depression. She went on to work with World War II and Vietnam veterans as an occupational therapist, going overseas to Germany for two years. The 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary, she said, was the scariest time of her career. Eventually she founded an independent occupational therapy clinic -- the first in the US. These facts of her life were covered by The Wall Street Journal this past April.

On Tuesday, Barbara visited the d.bootcamp class -- the d.school's introductory class in design thinking offered to graduate students. She shared some of the lessons she has learned in her work leading up to and now for IDEO.

Design for the aging ... and the ages

Much of Barbara's current work centers around design for the aging, particularly those with deteriorating vision. A two-time cancer survivor with macular degeneration, Barbara advised the students to explore design around the aging given the demographic shifts in the population as the Baby Boomer generation continues to get older. In 25 years, she said, there are slated to be 12 million customers with macular degeneration plus other conditions causing low vision.

Barbara showed the class her designs around improving the walker, which leaves many users with weakened muscles that render them less able to walk with the normal arm swing and gait pattern that is essential to maintaining good balance. She also shared her designs around technology to cushion people when they fall or glasses that would, with voice recognition and camera technology, recognize people and help those with declining vision or memory loss.

For those who choose to design in "the areas of the aging and the things that they need," she said, "the world is your oyster."

Wealthier than Warren Buffett

"I'm probably wealthier than any person in this room," Barbara declared to the class, "I may be wealthier than Warren Buffett. Now, tell me how I measure my wealth?"

The students guessed randomly, suggesting that the source may be improving other people's lives, her life experiences, or contentment. All of them were wrong.

"The way I measure my wealth is by time ... uninterrupted time. I am the lowest tech person you will ever see," she said. In an exchange after class, she added: "I can spend 4-6 hours of uninterrupted time thinking through my design constructs. I have a cell phone for emergency use only, and no laptop since I can't see. I urge you to give yourself the luxury of free uninterrupted time to cultivate your creative solutions. "

On sleep and best ideas

"Sometimes your best ideas come when you wake up because you've been working on it all night," Barbara told the class. The advice came just as the students were in the midst of their third design project, which can prove to be the most challenging as the fall quarter kicks into high gear before the Thanksgiving Break. Student teams were called on to address the challenge of the "30 million word gap" in collaboration with Sesame Workshop. Encouraged by the Sesame team to have fun and think well outside the box, students are being called on to put together their final presentations this week, which they will deliver in the form of an expo and video.

When loss is a gift

"I feel that my loss of vision is my gift," Barbara told the students, reading her notes from a large projector screen behind her. "I think it's God's gift and I'm here to explore it."  She went on to tell the class that though she had never been formally trained as a visual artist, she had always been able to draw pictures -- a skill that improved with practice. Today, however, due to her loss of vision, while she can write her notes, she can no longer read them.

"Keep it simple, stupid."

"It's hard to do a simple design," she told the students. She quickly followed that with her personal motto: "Keep it simple, stupid."

"It's hard to remember and learn that you have to solve one part of the problem at a time. You think you have to solve it all, but you don't."

Fantasies and radical collaboration

"I know no limitations. I'll try anything," said Barbara, "Fantasies. You can go wild on fantasies." "just go wild. ... Some of your fantasies will turn out."

Her prototypes are a manifestation of this. She makes all of her scale models out of drinking straws and foam board -- "all of those important pieces of equipment." Flipping through Barbara's notebooks, I was reminded of DaVinci's flying machine or the sketches of Picasso. Her binders are filled with sketches or potential prototypes -- some she hopes to carry forward and others she has already given up on. There are newspaper clippings and paragraphs of observations and insights.

When asked what she does in terms of her collaborative work, Barbara said simply, "I go to IDEO. I've had the best working experience there." Her career has been "gravy" she told the class, going on to describe her work as a "layer cake" with IDEO as the "frosting."

Barbara said she has been invited to work at IDEO once a week, working primarily out of Palo Alto, but occasionally working on projects out of the San Francisco office as well, getting herself to the office by train -- something she trained to do prior to even applying for a position there.

Favorites and frustrations

"It depends on what I am designing," she said when a student asked about her favorite part of the design process. She brings together so many different technologies in her design work, such as the technology of the package delivery firm UPS, and the maglev system and monorails.

Another student then asked whether she ever got frustrated. "I don't get very frustrated," she said, though her vision sometimes frustrates her -- such as not being able to read her notes.

"I can write, but I can't read," she told the class. But her inability to read, doesn't mean she isn't voraciously consuming information. That does not include audio books, however, which she said she was never very fond of and for which she doesn't have time. Perhaps, she says, when she loses more of her vision, that time will be dedicated to audio books. Today, she uses much of her time walking (she walks several miles a day) to design, dedicating that time to her thinking process before coming back to record and share her ideas.

Students in the d.bootcamp class will be presenting their student team designs around the challenge of bridging the "30 million word gap" on Friday at the d.school. Are you inspired by Barbara's story? What are other stories you would like to read around design thinking and personal experience. Let us know in the comments.