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When the people at global design firm IDEO want to impress new clients, they can point to four decades of disruptive innovations, like the original mouse for Apple’s Macintosh computers, or the first “clamshell” laptop, with a hinged cover that doubled as a video screen. Or more recently, the minimalist elegance of SimpliSafe home security products.

Or the IDEOites can just give their clients a tour of the company’s offices, scattered in high-tech hot spots around the globe — Silicon Valley, Shanghai, and IDEO’s colorful cube-shaped building on Prospect Street in Cambridge. Inside and out, it’s a three-dimensional demo of IDEO’s brightest ideas, as well as an incubator of the firm’s creative culture.

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During a recent visit, IDEO partner and global design director Michael Hendrix and managing directors Nick DuPey and Ari Adler took turns pointing out their favorite features.

French muralist Eltono decorated the exterior of IDEO’s Cambridge office in cool, vibrant colors and patterns.
French muralist Eltono decorated the exterior of IDEO’s Cambridge office in cool, vibrant colors and patterns.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

On the way in

IDEO’s previous site looked like just another office building. When the company began planning its move to its Prospect Street address — a one-time parking garage — Hendrix insisted on something more.

“Before we got it, it was just a wonderful gray block,” he said. But soon, the walls became a canvas for French muralist Eltono, who decorated the exterior in cool, vibrant colors and patterns. “He literally rolled the dice to pick the shapes and the colors,” said Hendrix. IDEO workers and even some of their children helped to apply the paint.

“We wanted to have the creativity expressed on the outside of the building,” said Hendrix. “So there was no question, as you were driving by in Cambridge, that there was something creative happening in that space.”

The improvisational vibe resounds in the building’s lobby as well. The exterior colors and shapes are on display here, on a smaller scale. “But there’s a shift in perspective,” said managing director Nick DuPey. He described a convergence of light, colors, and even ideas, as represented by a pegboard where visitors and workers can spell out messages. On display during a recent visit: “Embrace ambiguity.”

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In the cafe are examples of the “lunchtime design fiction exercise” for SASU, a weekly occurrence in IDEO’s Cambridge office.
In the cafe are examples of the “lunchtime design fiction exercise” for SASU, a weekly occurrence in IDEO’s Cambridge office.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

‘Design fiction’

It’s hard to be creative on demand, but practice helps. That’s the point of SASU, a weekly “design fiction” exercise set up in the cafeteria. There, IDEOites begin with lunch, and then create quirky art objects built around unusual themes. “We just have kind of random prompts, and everybody in the studio comes down and designs to that prompt,” said Hendrix. The resulting flights of fancy are retained as oddball ornaments.

During a recent visit a gray heap of glued-together plastic parts took on the shape of a futuristic spacecraft. “We got just a bunch of junk in the studio, put it all together and made this ship,” said Hendrix. “Then a few weeks later, we’re like, what if this ship got invaded by aliens?” That explains the tufts of green foam rubber protruding from portions of the ship. Hendrix refers to the spectacle as “the Slime Wars.”

“The whole point of this is around the idea of fluency and flow,” said DuPey. “The flow-like state is sort of like when you’re in the middle of designing something and you kind of lose sense of time . . . but the fluency part is the thing you have to work at. You have to practice. . . it’s like the art of letting go.”

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Workers in the CoLab, with the garage door rolled up.
Workers in the CoLab, with the garage door rolled up.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The garage door

It’s the sort of door you’d find at a quick oil-change place, gleaming black with large windows, a reminder of the building’s original purpose. In warm months, it’s rolled up to let in the summer air, and provide access to IDEO’s CoLab, where workers and clients cobble together new designs.

“It’s great to have this amazing space indoors, but there’s times in the year when it’s really wonderful to be outside,” said Adler. “The garage doors are designed as a way to bring the outside in and the inside out.”

A curved workload visualizer in a common work area.
A curved workload visualizer in a common work area. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The visualizer

This hangs above some cushy sofas in a common area on the third floor. It’s a semi-circular video display adorned with oddly-shaped sigils and logos that cruise slowly across the screen from right to left. The effect is entrancing, but meaningless — unless you know the code. The visualizer is, in fact, as exacting as a stock market ticker. Each image symbolizes an ongoing IDEO project, and its movement provides workers with information about its current status. “It’s like a secret code,” said DuPey. “Anybody in our studio should know what they mean.” But nobody else.

A rope sculpture encases the stairway.
A rope sculpture encases the stairway.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The net

Actually, they’re ropes, a couple hundred of them woven with geometric precision through the main staircase. The result is an angular visual trellis that seems to invite the visitor to keep climbing.

“The idea was in a beautiful way to connect the ground floor all the way up to the top floor,” said Adler. “To create a physical connection across all of the spaces.”

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IDEO people applied a lot of math and engineering expertise to get the look just right. After all, it’s supposed to reassure clients in need of memorable and innovative designs that they’ve come to the right place. “It sort of serves as some sort of primer of what you’re going to get,” said DuPey. “You see the creativity growing out of the walls . . . we kind of can’t help ourselves. It’s in our nature.”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.