Creating Positive Impact Through Design

Minnie Bredouw + Nivi Ramesh
Sep 30 2016

IDEO is an award-winning global design firm renowned for their collaborative culture and human-centered process of innovation. IDEO has won numerous design awards and contributed to many groundbreaking inventions, including the first Apple mouse, the world’s first laptop computer and Steelcase’s “Leap” chair ; a 1999 ABC Nightline episode profiling IDEO (“The Deep Dive ”) is required viewing for many design programs and business schools in the US and abroad.

Minnie Bredouw (UW VCD BFA 2010) and Nivi Ramesh (UW VCD BFA and BA 2008) are two UW Design alums who work at IDEO. Additional UW alumni currently at IDEO include Willie Franklin (UW IxD 2014); Chloe Lee (UW IxD 2016) and Allison Chan (UW IxD 2017). Ex-IDEO alumni include Scott Tong (UW VCD 2004); Sue Tan (UW ID 2004); Luke Woods (UW MFA 2008); Zachary Krane (UW ID 2008); Ryan Moeck (UW M.Design 2015) and Shawn Terasaki (UW VCD 2017).

Part One

Navigating the Post-Graduate World

UW Design students present Open Door at the 2010 Microsoft Design Expo. From left to right: Sophie Milliotte, Jon Sandler, Prof. Axel Roesler, Minnie Bredouw, Tim Damon and Tanya Test.

What was your individual career path after graduation, and how did that lead to your positions at IDEO?

Nivi: The first job I had after graduating was at Hornall Anderson, a studio in Seattle that designs brand experiences across all mediums. I graduated during the recession in 2008, so looking for a job was not easy. I got lucky, and was given an interview.  It went well— I immediately had great rapport with the team, and they liked my work and seemed interested. But, it wasn’t any employer’s first priority to be making new hires at that time. Since I knew there was hope, I stayed persistent. It took a lot of work on my end to land that job. I sent a hand-written thank-you note after the interview, followed up on a slew of unanswered e-mails, reiterating my enthusiasm for the job and what I thought I could contribute. I finally landed an internship that turned into a full time job.

Minnie: Even during college, I knew I wanted a job at the intersection of design and human behavior. I did a handful of internships and jobs that were more classic graphic design, but I wasn’t quite satisfied because I wanted to be out in the world, doing research as a means to inform what I was creating. So getting a job at Frog was a big stepping stone for me.

I made the connection through a class I took with Prof. Axel Roesler—an interaction design course done in collaboration with Microsoft. When I presented at Microsoft, someone from Frog reached out wanting to see my portfolio. Axel was great—he put me in touch and I hurried like a madwomen to whip together a portfolio in a matter of days. A few weeks later, I was interviewing for the job. It was a wild few months taking four classes, doing an internship, participating in the Microsoft Expo, and applying for a job all at once. But had I not taken that class (which I had actually thought about dropping to simplify my schedule) my career path might have been very different!


What specifically led to your jobs at IDEO?

Minnie: I received an email from an IDEO recruiter on LinkedIn. I was used to seeing recruiter emails, but IDEO stood out. It was a hard choice to leave Frog because I was doing work that I loved focused on social impact. I didn’t move right away, but kept the communication lines open and it happened gradually.  I learned it’s ok to say “Not right now, but let’s keep in touch.” Eventually, I made the switch in 2012. Heading into my 5th year at IDEO, I feel more grounded now.

Nivi: I had moved to San Francisco to work for the new SF office of Artefact. I was excited to start a new adventure with the safety net of a company I had worked with already and knew well. However, shortly after I moved here, Artefact decided to pull back their presence in the Bay, and I unexpectedly had to make a tough decision to either move back to Seattle, or look for work, quickly!  I was introduced to IDEO through my boss at Artefact, who had previously worked there. He was really helpful in connecting me with people he knew in San Francisco and wrote a really kind recommendation to his mentor at IDEO—who has since become my mentor at IDEO.

At consultancies, you get a lot of exposure and variety across domains and mediums.

Both of you have worked at consultancies like Artefact, Hornall Anderson, Frog and IDEO. How do you feel about working in-house at a company or startup as opposed to consultancy?

Minnie: Everyone has different priorities. But for me, I’m less driven by the money you might find at large tech companies. Personally, I enjoy the variety that working at a consultancy brings. Each project is an opportunity to learn as much as it’s an opportunity to create. In addition, my work satisfies my love of having positive impact—I don’t have to go anywhere else for that.

Nivi: At consultancies, you get a lot of exposure and variety, across domains and mediums. My time at Hornall Anderson exposed me to many types of design, and allowed me to see how these touch-points work together in brand and product ecosystems. It helped me to identify what I was good at, while on the job. Working at a place like IDEO has also exposed me to a strong, design-led culture, where there’s a huge community of designers you can draw on and learn from, which has been really meaningful for me.

Part Two

Designing by Collaborating at IDEO

Brainstorming is deeply ingrained in IDEO’s culture. Sessions typically involve many disciplines, and are actively facilitated by project teams seeking new ideas or solutions to a specific design culture.

Can you talk a bit about how IDEO is structured as a company?

Minnie: IDEO has nine offices globally. Each studio is unique in the type of work they do and the people they hire. We also have platforms and businesses which have come out of IDEO, such as, OpenIDEO, and IDEO Futures.

Nivi: In some ways, IDEO is constantly reinventing itself. For example, we often iterate on how the organization itself is structured, and always experiment with new ways to stay inspired.  But because of this, it can also be difficult to crystallize IDEO’s structure in a point in time. At a high level, there a several types of designers, researchers, and engineers, working alongside people who are thinking about business development, client relationships, and studio portfolios, to name a few. is our nonprofit arm, and its mission is to use design to alleviate issues related to poverty.

Minnie: The Bay Area is pretty unique actually. For example, I work out of the San Francisco office which is based on a studio model. This means that everyone sits within a studio that is specific to an industry or domain, such as the education studio, the food studio, the design for change studio, etc.

Nivi: I work out of the Palo Alto office, which is organized around portfolios, similar to San Francisco. Portfolios are different areas of interest, like auto-mobility—the future of cars and driving—retail, health, and product. Designers typically work across different portfolios. is our nonprofit arm, and its mission is to use design to alleviate issues related to poverty, like financial health, youth reproductive health, or sanitation.  The work is also about empowering people to use the human centered design process to create positive social impact. I’m currently in a six -month fellowship at right now. It’s been great to have the opportunity to work take on challenges in a different sector and still stay in the IDEO family.

Minnie was part of the team that developed Diva Centers—vibrant and safe places in Zambia where girls hang out with their friends and do each others nails. They can also receive counseling and learn about birth control from trained professionals.

How would you describe the work and design culture of IDEO?

Minnie: IDEO is dedicated to problem solving through empathy. This means we tend to immerse ourselves in whatever problem we are working on. It might mean doing research in a hospital, an airplane, a school, a luxury hotel, the list goes on. So as you probably would expect, the people we hire are usually very curious, and inclined to experiment and explore.

Our culture is also very collaborative. We work in projects spaces together, which we customize and decorate at the beginning of every project (very much the opposite of cubicle culture.) We do analogous research activities that might range from getting our palms read to going to Disneyland. These type of experiences mean you get really close with your team and, in many cases, become lifelong friends.

The IDEO office in San Francisco has a wide range of meeting spaces, including “phone booths” for private communication and "war rooms" for project teams working together.

Nivi: Yes, IDEO is very social and collaborative. Much of time together as a team is spent synthesizing through discussion, brainstorming ideas, sketching together, and prototyping and building ideas quickly.  We ask for each other’s feedback informally and often.

We are aware that introverts can get a little overwhelmed when they start at IDEO, and we’re doing the best we can to make it a better place for everyone. I’m a person that sits right in the middle between introversion and extroversion, and I definitely sometimes feel that IDEO can be social in an overwhelming way. I do need quiet time to sit at the computer and process my thoughts independently.  Right now, Minnie and I are sitting in a little chat room where you can sit alone and work if you need to— a privacy pod. It’s one way we try to accommodate different working styles.

Minnie: We have a lot of tools in place to make sure everyone on a team gets what they need. Every project has a check in at the beginning, middle, and end. These help set expectations of how the group wants to work together. So I might say, “I need quiet time with my headphones on when I can focus every afternoon.” It’s important to identify each other’s working styles. We try to create space for people to be open, and clearly communicate what they need and how they can support each other.

IDEO is well-known for their quick prototyping methods. Here, designers setup a foamcore "computer monitor" for user testing.

What’s a typical day for you at IDEO?

Nivi: At IDEO there’s not any set hours. Project teams define the time to work together, based on what works for most people. Outside of those hours is when you’re taking care of other things, meeting your mentor or mentees, community activities, e-mails, etc.

Of course, given the nature of consulting work, some days don’t go as planned.  But work-life balance is really valued and encouraged. Project teams are usually flexible about when work or where work gets done to accommodate people’s everyday lives and priorities.

Minnie: It’s hard to describe a typical day because there is so much variety. Some days, you’re somewhere out in the world doing field research, others, you’re furiously hacking together prototypes to test in the shop.

What I can say is as a community, we try to respect and nurture each other’s lives both at work and in our personal lives, because we know we’ll do better work if we have space to reflect and experiment on our own terms.  I once worked with a Project Lead who used to say, “I leave at 5pm everyday so I can pick my kid up from daycare. But you have every right to leave at 5pm as well, even if you don’t have a kid. You don’t need an excuse to leave at a normal time—whether you have a cat, or even just a glass of wine waiting for you at home.”

IDEO Toy Lab

The toy lab is an innovation center that has created award-winning toys for more than 20 years.


How are projects assigned to you?

Minnie: Projects aren’t really “assigned” per say. It’s more of a conversation. There is a group of people that support team building. Among other things, one of their jobs is to know all the designers and contributors— their skills, interests and personalities. So when a project comes in, the first conversation might be, “Minnie, are you interested in working on this? What would you like to contribute and/or get out of this project?” It’s a constant conversation which takes into account the needs of the business, the goals and aspirations of the people on the project team, and best set of skills to bring that project to life.

An oversized piñata guards the entrance to the IDEO office—it also served as a group costume for the office Halloween party.

Have you ever said no to a project—is it okay to say no?

Nivi: Yes, I have. With every project, I’m weighing the opportunities for my personal and professional growth as well as my interest in the content area and client. It’s also in IDEO’s and the client’s interest to craft project teams that include the people with the right set of skills and passion for the topic. But there’s also a balance, everyone needs to be flexible if the company needs them to step up to a role. However, no matter what project I’ve been on, I’ve always found something exciting or inspiring about it regardless. That might be the key to being happy at a consultancy, is finding the potential and excitement on any project.

I’ve always found something exciting or inspiring about it regardless. That might be the key to being happy at a consultancy, is finding the potential and excitement on any project.

Do you have two or three projects at once? Or are typically you just on one big project at a time.

Minnie: It depends on your role at IDEO. If you are an individual contributor such as an Intern, Designer or Sr. Designer, you will likely be full time on one project at a time. When you start leading projects and teams, you might be leading one project and helping steward another, or spend some of your time helping write proposals to bring in new work. As you move more into being a director, you might be playing more of a guide role on multiple projects at once, so your time will be more divided up on a handful of things at the same time.


Can you tell me about one of your favorite projects at IDEO?

Nivi: We were asked to design an educational iPad experience to celebrate the 60th anniversary of DNA being discovered. So, our team designed and prototyped a game concept that was inspired by maximum parsimony in genetics. To further explain the concept, we spun a storyline around mutant cheese taking over San Francisco, of course. It was one of those fun, wild, quintessentially IDEO, projects where we were given the freedom to be bold, and a little bit wacky.

Ralph's Killer Muenster

Nivi's team designed an iPad game for Genentech celebrating the discovery of the double helix.


Minnie: My passion is designing for young people. So I get excited about anything that empowers teens to lead more meaningful lives—from education to emotional well-being. One of the most impactful projects I’ve worked on was redesigning the family planning experience for teens living in Zambia. We designed every touchpoint of the experience, from an outreach program which leveraged nail salons as more accessible way to talk about sex, to creating a comic book that talked about the different birth control options (and inevitably made that information more discrete), to the actual clinic environment which was designed to be energetic and social, focused on both the physical AND emotional health of the young people who visited it.


What kind of career development has IDEO supported?

Nivi: IDEO really encourages you to grow multi-dimensionally. We host lots of classes. You can learn how to use machines in the shop for prototyping. There are classes on what it means to do design research—or what business development looks like, and how designers can help. We’re always knowledge sharing.

IDEO also supports personal projects. I worked with a group of IDEOers to build something for Burning Man—an installation of luminescent flowers. IDEO saw it as a really awesome opportunity to help a group of their designers to work together and build off of each other, so they encouraged us to use the shop and the IDEO community ended up helping a lot too.

Blumen Lumen at Burning Man 2014. The “garden” blooms when people are nearby, and is illuminated as night falls. The installation was created by a group of designers and engineers at IDEO.

Part Three

Finding Opportunities to Learn

It’s not common to see design programs where all of the faculty are actively making things that are so inspired…that was something that really resonated with me as a student.

When you look back at your time at UW, what was the most valuable part of your education?

Minnie: For me, it was that all of the faculty are also design practitioners. Some of the most inspirational parts of class were when our profs shared what they were working on, or folded us into their projects as well.  I remember when Kristine Matthews shared some of her projects, I thought, “I could be like Kristine one day, have my own firm, and do inspiring, impactful work!” It made it easier for me as a student to envision what a career in design might tangibly look like.

Nivi: The UW design education instilled a dedication and resilience to seeking feedback and critique. Critique is a fundamental part of showing your work as a designer. At UW, I learned how to express my opinion and think really critically about the nuances of a piece of design.

Some of my most memorable classes were the foundational classes—like Image Methodology, where we spent an entire quarter cropping images from magazines to explore the multitude of ways different words could be expressed visually.  In another class, we were asked to demonstrate fundamental principles of design with just shapes. I think some curriculums jump too quickly into wire-framing or layout. The simple but tedious exercises we did instilled a very strong design foundation in me.

IDEO Interaction Design (IaD)

In January 2015, the entire IDEO IaD team came together to celebrate each other, welcome new teammates, and set aspirations for the new year.

I think the biggest strength of any designer at IDEO is to actually be vulnerable—be open to feeling like you don’t know, and to ask questions.

What advice do you have for UW Design Students?

Minnie: Find opportunities to learn from people doing this out in the world. Talk to a bunch of different people—consultants, in-house designers, business owners, people that work for themselves, people that teach, etc. Be curious and open. It will help put things in perspective and hopefully inspire a path for you. Find a mentor. Find someone who you feel comfortable asking stupid questions to, but will also push you and help you be better.

Most importantly, just be you. Honor your values, your sense of humor, and what you love about design that got you down this road in the first place. It is always refreshing to meet students who know who they are and what they care about, and aren’t just saying what they think you want to hear. What defines you will be forever changing, but it’s ok to let people in on that process.

Nivi: I’d like to tell students that it’s ok to be vulnerable. When I was first starting out, I struggled to have a confident point of view about things. I wanted to look more confident, so I was nervous about asking too many questions. But now I think the biggest strength of any designer at IDEO is to actually be vulnerable—be open to feeling like you don’t know, and to ask questions. It’s ok; it actually makes you smarter.

I also think it’s important to find something that fuels you outside of design. Becoming a better designer is not just designing more—having an activity or passion that is a different creative outlet is potentially more impactful. Discovering another passion can really center you and put you in a positive place at work.