While IDEO, the wildly innovative design firm founded by David Kelley in Silicon Valley in 1991, has since grown to 10 offices around the world, there’s one location even the most diehard design nuts are a bit surprised by: Boston.

When it comes to groundbreaking design, Boston might not immediately come to mind, but as with all of IDEO’s locations, there’s a smart reason why it’s not just surviving, but thriving. Given its proximity to Harvard University, MIT’s renowned Media Lab, and Kendall Square—which has made a booming business of incubating startups à la IDEO’s home town in Northern California—it’s a natural breeding ground for inspiration and forward thinking. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a sort of symbiotic relationship has developed and several of IDEO’s designers now teach at Harvard.

IDEO’s Boston office (photo by Nicholas Prakas)
Lindsey Turner at IDEO’s Boston office (photo by Nicholas Prakas)

In part, this is what helped the office’s design lead, Lindsey Turner, whose background is in communications design, make the leap from working at home alone on art, music, and design magazines to collaborating with over 60 employees in a 14,000 square-foot space spanning two floors.

The flexible office—there are private, closed-off areas Turner affectionately refers to as “war rooms,” where groups can fully immerse themselves in projects, and more casual, open spaces with couches and libraries—accommodates a wide range of work styles and projects; even the cafe serves as a valuable work space.

But ultimately, it’s “the incredibly inspiring people who come from different disciplines like business, architecture, and science” that motivates Turner and sets IDEO apart from other firms. Another distinguishing trait is its well-known commitment to design thinking, a human-centered methodology developed by Kelley. Turner explains, “it’s about finding the intersection between what’s desirable for users, what technology is feasible, and what’s viable from a business perspective.” In short, it’s how IDEO helps clients discover solutions that are user-friendly, and technologically and financially sound.

Several years ago when MassMutual Life Insurance Company asked IDEO to help them make life insurance appealing to millennials, the team discovered that younger adults weren’t even considering life insurance because “they had bigger fish to fry,” says Turner. “They were thinking more about buying a house and raising a family, which we decided to call grown-up moments.” That realization led IDEO to refocus and broaden their scope to longterm financial planning, as there were no resources or places for 20- and 30-somethings to get the financial advice they needed in a fun and approachable setting.

The resulting Society of Grownups, which launched 2014, is a favorite project of Turner’s and “a great example of soup-to-nuts venture design.” From the brand identity, to the website, to the brick-and-mortar center in the Brookline neighborhood near Boston, IDEO developed everything from the ground up. For example: before the center was finalized, six large-scale prototypes were created to help test the curriculum (which includes lectures, chats, even supper clubs) in various contexts. This kind of prototyping is something IDEO is renown for. “Prototyping helps us focus on real user interaction,” says Turner.

“We believe in prototyping early and often, since it’s such a valuable way to work. It also helps us build empathy for the people we’re trying to help.”

Equal parts clubhouse and cafe, the center hosts an event every day it’s open (Tuesday—Saturday), so attendees can drop in when it’s convenient and leave feeling confident and informed about their next steps in life, without ever feeling immature or talked down to. In fact, the response has been so positive that last October it secured $100 million from MassMutual to expand its online presence and open 10 more centers over the next three years. (Reportedly, New York and Philadelphia are scheduled to launch by the end of this year.) And it perfectly illustrates a core IDEO value: “We believe in making others successful,” says Turner. “If you’re able to genuinely want success for your clients, that generosity really travels far.”

All photos by Nicholas Prakas.