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Steelcase and IDEO have been collaborating for more than 25 years. The relationship has influenced furniture design across a range of environments, from work spaces to hospitals to schools, and has resulted in numerous design awards for iconic pieces like the Node Chair for classrooms and the innovative modern office chair Leap WorkLounge.
At the heart of the relationship lie trust and a spirit of collaboration, said IDEO founder David Kelley, allowing the space for innovation. “It has to be the collaboration between our inherent innovation capabilities and their extraordinary internal knowledge about the market and what they do best,” Kelley said. The way IDEO began working with Steelcase decades ago has influenced the way they continue to work today, involved in all areas of the business, from design and engineering to strategy and marketing.
The first collaboration in 1989 was for a new Steelcase division called Details, and featured desktop products to go along with its already successful line of office furniture. From the beginning, IDEO founder David Kelley and a group of designers were involved in helping Steelcase with decision-making on every level of the new division, from product strategy to hiring and everything in between. The particular blend of strategy, design, and engineering used to help Details become successful actually became the prototype project for the future IDEO, and is the blueprint for how IDEO works today.
What followed were a series of projects in which Steelcase and IDEO explored moving away from the traditional office cubicle toward furniture that was more architectural and open. More than 10 years ago, Steelcase noticed that the way people worked was changing from static work in offices to more fluid environments that were technology-enabled with laptops and mobile phones. This insight led to two collaborations, Room Wizard and media:scape, design efforts that captured this changing landscape by extending intelligent work to be supported by digital products, not just physical ones.
Jim Hackett, former CEO of Steelcase, said that an early brainstorming exercise in IDEO’s Palo Alto studio made him realize the power of a human-centered design approach. “They asked me to come to Palo Alto for a brainstorming exercise, so I went through the literal exercise that IDEO was having clients do at the time,” Hackett said. “As I was cutting foam core on the floor of one of the studios, I was thinking: I would never work the same way again after doing this. Not just designers should work like this, but anybody who is a knowledge worker should work like this.”
The collaboration’s many successes had a profound impact on Steelcase, and on Hackett personally: “I’m so humbled, I can’t even express it. I can’t tell you how many waves of joy come over me when I’m at IDEO. It’s just an extraordinary part of my life.”
Over the years, the two companies have been in nearly daily communication, a practice that has informed the work of both. While Hackett brought Steelcase’s perspective of corporate boardrooms and running a global company, Kelley and IDEO were working in the most innovative place in the world, saturated in design. Both companies agree that neither would be the same today without the experience gleaned from the other.
Some of the projects include:
Aiming to connect the convenience of digital technology to physical spaces, the teams designed RoomWizard, a web-accessible touch-screen display that provides the real-time status of shared meeting rooms, simplifying the process of reserving and managing those spaces.
Leap WorkLounge and Ottoman
Building on their earlier work on the Leap Chair, the teams created a work chair with the comfort and style of a classic club chair, a luxury Leap Chair that takes work away from the desk.
In researching the needs of a growing number of collaborative settings, Steelcase identified an opportunity to combine task and lounge seating. Named for the collaboration it enables, the i2i chair supports a variety of postures, including sideways, reclining, perching, and leaning. Winner of the Spark Gold Award, 2010, and the IDEA Silver Award, 2009.
Steelcase and IDEO designed a task chair with modern ergonomic capabilities that accommodated a wide range of body types at a lower price point. Winner of the IDEA Bronze Award from IDSA and BusinessWeek, 2009.
Steelcase asked IDEO to help evaluate and design a “walk up and connect” experience that merged furniture and technology to help teams access and share information. Designed to look light, open, and inviting, media:scape used a pedestal table with cleverly embedded hardware and interactive technology to foster group work. Winner of the IDEA Bronze award for Office & Productivity, 2011.
IDEO collaborated with Steelcase to design a platform for improving the classroom experience. The final product, dubbed the Node chair, has received praise for promoting student collaboration, allowing educators to reconfigure classrooms to fit different teaching styles, and enabling institutions to save money by making spaces more flexible and accommodating for varied uses. Winner of five design awards.
Watch: A love letter to Node.