Tim Brown, chief executive officer of Ideo Inc., speaks during the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York, on Sept. 23, 2012. (Jin Lee/BLOOMBERG)

“I would argue there’s not much point designing if you don’t plan on having an impact,” said Tim Brown, CEO and president of design and innovation firm IDEO during a phone interview Tuesday. “You have to have positive impact on the world ... and it has to be sustainable.”

Shortly after former president Bill Clinton delivered his opening remarks welcoming attendees to The Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting Sunday, Brown took to the stage with Fast Company Editor Linda Tischler. The topic was the conference’s main theme: “Designing for Impact” — the first time a CGI annual meeting has had a theme.

During his conversation with Tischler, Brown addressed the important role design plays in global development. And when it comes to design, there are plenty of places where, as Brown said Tuesday, “one can trip up.”

Brown outlined three key areas where designers go astray. First, they often set themselves up for failure right out of the gate by “asking the wrong question.” Designers, says Brown, must be sure to pin down exactly what it is they are trying to solve for. Second, designers often fail by “not getting out in the world and understanding the people they are trying to serve.”

“In a complex situation ... you’ve really got to get in the middle of it and understand it,” continued Brown.

Third, failed designs usually result from “spending too long speculating and thinking,” rather than getting immediately to the work creating prototypes as soon as possible in order to learn by doing and making — a point Brown made during his remarks at the CGI opening plenary.

Finally, designers often, says Brown, fail to consider the length of the path from idea to market. This involves a failure to “crystalize the idea” of what a design means for people and its ultimate importance.

At this stage, storytelling skills “are absolutely essential in the design and innovation process” in order to avoid this trap.

Linda Tischler (L), senior editor of Fast Company Magazine and Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, speak before the session "Designing for Impact" at the Clinton Global Initiative Sept. 23, 2012 in New York City. (Allison Joyce/GETTY IMAGES)

Where design is most needed

But in a field where urgency is ubiquitous and need is great, is there an issue that stands above the rest when it comes to the need for improved design? Education — “a root issue” — topped Brown’s list, followed by health care, agriculture and energy. And, for those interested in tackling these challenges, an understanding of design implies more than artistic eye. It means having a proficiency in engineering and physics, among other technical disciplines.

“My definition of design is the interface between the man-made world and us as human beings,” Brown said when asked what advice he had for aspiring designers, “I would absolutely encourage any kid who’s interested to stay interested in technology” in addition to art.

“I believe there are huge numbers of kids who are actually excited about doing both.”

On Innovation

“The word gets used rather sloppily in my opinion,” said Brown when asked to define “innovation” in his own words.

“For me, innovation is an absolutely valuable thing. There’s no way innovation is ever going to go out of fashion. It’s a fundamental human act.”

The big takeaway

This was Brown’s first time attending the annual meeting, having been to Davos earlier in the year. Asked to identify his biggest takeaway from the conference, Brown said, “It’s pretty obvious that these big, complicated development challenges ... [are] not going to get tackled by living in the silos we already live in.”

“What we need to look for are the productive opportunities to collaborate,” he continued. “It will take lots of imagination to figure out how to do that.”

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