David Kelley's 2014 Investiture Address

Founder and Chairman of IDEO, Founder of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, Donald W. Whittier Professor at Stanford University

June 7, 2014

Hello Thayer!

Today you become one of those extraordinary individuals that we in the West Coast and Silicon Valley call “A Dartmouth Engineer.” And that’s a very good thing! Congratulations!

I’m honored to be here today and have the privilege to talk to you about a few of my thoughts.

Sometimes you know we as engineers get a bad rap. They say we don’t have social skills, they say we’re nerds. They say we like machines better than we like humans.

Anyways, all I have to say about that is I don’t think that’s true. It’s not been my experience that that’s the case.

David Kelley But it does remind me of a little story about the difference between an introverted engineer and an extroverted engineer.

An introverted engineer, when they stand and talk to you, look down at their feet. An extroverted engineer, when he’s talking to you, looks at your feet.

And there was an article recently in the EE Times — Electronic Engineering Times — titled: “Engineers may need more social skills, but...” This is a guy named Dave Typinski, and he offers a convincing defense against engineering nerdiness. He says:

“Ah, social skills. So, engineers must not only be able to perform differential calculus and build a tricoder from bear skins and stone knives, but must also author the Great American Novel, attain a James Bond level of self-assuredness at dinner parties, and negotiate peace between the Arabs and Israelis should the opportunity arise.”

He continues: “With rare exceptions, engineers and scientists know as much about social skills as the rest of the world knows about everything else. In other words, everyone on the planet could stand to learn more and broaden their horizons.”

I think it’s true. In order to be successful today — to be successful in the world — I think your really need to choose to learn and have a wider perspective.

In preparing this speech today I was thinking: what are the important things I could talk about, you know, my personal insights that I could tell you about.

And so, like a good design thinker, I made a mindmap — you know what that is — but there was just too much on it. There was all these different things it could be, and so what I did was I made copies of my mindmap, and I signed them, and they’re here for you. I’ll give this to you when we go back into the studio. By doing this it gets me off the hook. In that I said things like: if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it, or enjoy every sandwich — you know, things you’d expect to hear in a Commencement speech. But this allowed me to focus on one thing, one thing that I’m really passionate about, and that’s an important skill for engineers, and that skill is called empathy.

David Kelley's Mindmap
David Kelley gave copies of this "mindmap" he created as part of his speech-writing process to the graduating Thayer class.

To build great stuff today, we really have to collaborate with people, especially people we want to use the things that we come up with. But it’s a team sport. I believe engineering is a team sport now, and so having empathy for your colleagues as well is important, especially for non-techies. And we do have to figure out how to be able to work and create with everybody around us.

My experience has been that once you take an engineer and you turn them on, they use their big brains naturally and their know-how to come up and solve problems. They become totally engaged and totally energized. This is one of the reasons I really like engineers. They have that way of naturally getting excited about things.

When an engineer sees a problem, like when our warriors return home from war and they have certain problems or they see a doctor who doesn’t have the right tools or even just kids who have trouble figuring out how to learn math in a new way, they immediately become energized and they use their big brains to solve the problem. They’re just motivated to action, and I really think that’s important in an engineer.

David Kelley Though you may not know it, I think empathy is the engineer’s greatest strength.

And history provides lots of examples of that.

Take for instance Dr. Edwin Land. Dr. Land invented basically one-step photography and the Polaroid company. While he was with one of his children in Europe — the kid was about three years old — he said, “Honey, I’m going to take a picture of you,” and she became irritated because she didn’t get a picture. You know, she said, “Where’s the picture, daddy?” And he, like as all fathers want to please their children, this motivated Land, and he went back into the lab and he was to create one-step photography because of this experience he had with his daughter. He developed a principle called diffusion transfer, where the film and the photo are on the same plane and this led to a big success. So during Land’s lifetime it was a big success and for many years they sold billions of dollars worth of film. You don’t know about Polaroid so much now, but it had a huge impact on the world. I think this is a great example of how an innovation came about by an engineer being motivated by a human need.

All the best innovations I know about coming out of Stanford and out of the d-school and IDEO are really based on some understanding of who it is that we’re designing for. Take, for instance, Heartstream portable defibrillators. You know, these are the things that are in the airport, the red boxes that are on the wall. They’re intended for someone who has never used one before to be able to save someone’s life. You really only have about six minutes from the time someone has a heart attack till damage is really done, and so time is of the essence. So you’re supposed to pull this box down off the wall and help the person. So there’s fantastic technology inside of them, but one of the real breakthroughs came from the engineers spending lots and lots of time testing them and being with the people, who are — not just the patients — but the people who are actually kind of walking by in the mall and what could they do, being empathetic to what they were capable of and what their mental model was of how you could use this device. And so what happened is — I’ll tell a quick story — that the pad, the electrodes, because the technology is so robust, the pads can be placed in lots of different places, and so we thought that would give the person lots of flexibility. But it turns out if you really hang with them and watch them use the device that caused trouble, that slowed them down. So the innovation was that we limited the technology. We said: put this pad, this left pad, right here and put this right pad right here, and although it seemed against the engineering mindset, it resulted in a much faster throughput. So it’s a great example of by hanging out we got there.

Or take the Embrace infant warmer. A bunch of Stanford students went to India and found that a million-plus babies were dying because they couldn’t maintain their birth weight, and so we got into designing incubators. The problem was the incubators were in the hospital, and that’s not where the babies were. The babies were out in the villages. And so they ended up inventing something that looks more like a sleeping bag with a paraffin liner that you can heat up. But the story there is that they would go out in the field and they just weren’t working. They couldn’t understand why they weren’t working. And so they had to get into the homes and really try to understand the people, the mothers, who were using them. And what they found is that the mothers in their culture had learned that western medicine was so powerful that even though the instructions said that warm this up to 98.6, they were warming it up to 70 because of the power of western medicine. So they had to change the thermometer from saying in degrees to “not OK” to “OK,” so you heated it up to the point that you get to OK, and this would be 98.6. It solved the problem, but they never would have gotten that if they hadn’t built empathy for the people they were trying to help.

So empathy allows us to walk in each other’s shoes. It’s super important when you’re really trying to satisfy the people you’re working on.

So many schools have been slow to get started in teaching this point of view, and I think that makes a lot of people’s education incomplete.

Dartmouth and Thayer are ahead of the game because of classes like Peter Robbie’s design thinking class and just the general attitude that design has value. But it’s really important we get to the point where we are designing with and for people and not just with technology alone, like we have been in the engineering field for a long time.

I wanted to encourage you to go out there and learn to look and listen harder and better.

As Joe said, my brother and I wrote a book called Creative Confidence recently, and it talks about the natural creative ability that people have and their confidence to act on their ideas. And we find, with more empathy, more of a human-centered approach, people are able to do that more easily. They’re more motivated. They become more effective in their lives, not only on the project they’re working on. So we believe that more than any technical skill you can get as an engineer, empathy for others will allow you to gain that creative confidence and be able to innovate more routinely to accomplish what you set out to do.

Dean Joseph Helble and David Kelley
Dean Joseph Helble presents the 2014 Robert Fletcher Award to David Kelley

So I’ll tell one more story, which is about a man named Doug Dietz. So Doug Dietz is a R&D professional at GE, which makes big MRI and CT scanners. And Doug was very proud of what he did because his machines were saving lives. And then he came to the d-school and took a couple of courses and we kind of turned him on to this empathy work, and so he decided he really wanted to go out and understand people using his machines. So he went to a hospital, and there was a family with a young child who was crying. And he asked what was going on, and he was told that the child was scared of the machine. And it turned out that for 80 percent of the children who had to go through CT scans, they had to call the anesthesiologist to sedate them to get through the machine. This crushed Doug. He didn’t have any idea this was going on. And so he started to solve the problem. He used his design-thinking techniques, he got everyone involved, he hired people to train the staff, and in the end he built a new kind of scanner called the Adventure Series, which is the old kind of scanner with stickers on it. And those stickers make the scanner into a pirate ship or a space ship, and then when the kids come in, they say to them: “You’re going to go into the pirate ship. Can you be really quiet? You don’t want to scare the pirates.” And it changed: It used to be that in this hospital 80 percent of the kids needed to be anesthetized, and it went to 5 percent, all with changing the attitude, understanding what was important to the kids, he was able to change that. The ending of that story is really great, where he tells — every time he tells the story he cries — but he tells the story of he’s there later, much later after the Adventure Series is in place and a little girl runs up to her mother and says, “Mommy, can we come back tomorrow?”

So when you leave campus and strike out on the world with your awesome, magical abilities to analyze, design, and build — and I really do think your engineering skills are magical — don’t just have the ambition to be a great engineer. Have the ambition to be a great human. Wear your empathy as a badge of honor. It will allow you to do your best work, as a caring engineer known today and forever for developing meaningful solutions to today’s most important challenges, as someone who has the confidence and know-how to look someone in the eye and say: “I understand what you need, and I think I can help.”

Thank you.