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Case Study By

Launched August 2010


IDEO, in association with Jamie Oliver, Enterprising Schools, Institute for Large Scale Innovation, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor, Unilever, Oxfam, Nokia, Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University, Queensland Government, ideas 2011, The Grameen Creative Lab, Amnesty International, X PRIZE, The Rockefeller Foundation

Project Title



IDEO Design Team including Nathan Waterhouse, Tom Hulme, Haiyan Zhang and LargeBlue (developer)

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2011 “Making the Case” competition, in which an esteemed jury identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on specific metrics.

Brief is a web-based platform for innovation where creative thinkers worldwide can design better, together. Anyone who wants to participate can.

The platform, created by IDEO, seeks only solutions for social good. It works like this: Designers post a problem, typically sponsored by a nonprofit group, which moves through three phrases of development—inspiration, conception and evaluation—toward a solution. Site users provide feedback every step of the way, receiving points for their contributions. (Like in any good brainstorming session, both quality and quantity are valued.) At the end of the process, a final design is chosen. This design may be produced by whoever chooses to do so: all concepts are generated under a Creative Commons license and are thus shareable, remix-able and reusable. Everybody wins.

Slideshow Image is a web-based platform for innovation where creative thinkers worldwide can design better, together.  

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Screenshot of a challenge on OpenIDEO presented by Jamie Oliver.


A London-based IDEO design team observed that online collaboration and consumer activism were trending up—more than 2 billion people worldwide now engage in web-based interactions—and sought a means to harness that tremendous human resource to do social good.

The team knew from experience that quantitative research can complement human-centered design when employed at the right times in the process. The ideation and evaluation phases of a project can benefit from feedback from the community at large, particularly when designers are tackling big problems with small budgets, as is often the case with social innovation projects.

One big challenge for the team was figuring out how to get the public to participate without offering monetary incentives. Designers would address this by communicating the nonprofit nature of the site and conveying to participants that instead of cash they would gain inspiration, knowledge, and recognition as part of a larger collaborative effort to solve some of the toughest problems faced by modern society.

The team considered more than 100 different ways of engaging people in design projects, but no single platform met all of their fundamental needs. In order to be successful, the platform needed to:

  • allow a broader range of people to participate in the design process through inspiration, conception and evaluation;
  • enable and encourage collaboration;
  • attract talent worldwide;
  • be engaging, fun and rewarding for the user;
  • offer challenges around a range of issues to keep the community engaged;
  • cater to the nonprofit world by being a low-cost solution; and
  • provide clear feedback in order to solve diverse global problems. was developed to achieve all of this in one website.


Network innovation software companies had started to threaten the design and innovation consulting industry, and the design team began looking at what might disrupt the status quo. The team did intensive research and competitive analyses to explore market opportunities and experiment with social media and collaborative problem solving.

For example, the team set up a Facebook page called Big Conversations & Small Talk, on which it asked a wide audience of social media users questions about pressing global issues. This simple problem-solving forum presented fans with questions like “How can we help Iceland get out of its economic meltdown?” and “What are you loyal to and why?” The page was extremely well received (over 11,000 fans and counting) and provided insight into what types of issues engaged the community in a positive way.

The research and experiments helped the design team imagine what an open platform might look like. They developed a vision for how the design-thinking process might work online with a networked community of contributors. They saw two key points of differentiation: creating an inclusive process in which people from different backgrounds (not just designers) would take part, and enabling collaboration among people through building on one another’s ideas.

Rapid prototyping revealed that some parts of the in-person design process did not translate to an online environment. For example, the team tried a Synthesis module, but it proved too complex to be done in a distributed manner. More prototyping and gathering feedback (from varied stakeholders, from designers to the companies that hire them) led to a search for the right software-development partner. The team chose LargeBlue of London, which had helped with the plug-in for the previously mentioned Facebook project. LargeBlue’s collaborative nature and design process fit with the team’s style, and their expertise in social media would prove invaluable.

After the platform was built, the design team launched an alpha program internally to design a logo. The insights gained during this internal launch were instrumental to the final product: The team learned about how to galvanize the network; iterated the platform with new features, design and usability tweaks; and enlisted a writer help with the written communications. launched in August 2010. The site continues to evolve. The team maintains an open dialogue with users and responds to their needs and those of the design challenges’ sponsors by adding new features regularly.


In its first six months online, far exceeded the team’s expectations in every way.

A Diverse, Passionate Community

With 21,000+ members in more than 170 countries around the world, has established a diverse community of creative thinkers who are both dedicated to effecting social change and willing to devote their time, energy and ideas to a good cause.

Meaningful Challenges

To date, has hosted eleven public challenges and powered one dedicated channel. In several cases, the design team matched nonprofit organizations with corporate sponsors to help make the challenge a reality.

Each challenge addressed a very different social issue that tested the platform’s agility and robustness:

  1. How can we raise kids’ awareness of the benefits of fresh food so they can make better choices? (A challenge for Jamie Oliver and the Food Revolution, helping him to fulfill his 2010 TED Prize wish list.)
  2. How might we increase the availability of affordable learning tools and services for students in the developing world? (A challenge for Enterprising Schools and Grey Matters Capital)
  3. What global challenge do you think innovation leaders should work to solve right now? (A challenge for John Kao and the i20 Summit)
  4. How can we improve sanitation and better manage human waste in low-income urban communities? (A challenge for Unilever and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor, or WSUP. Unlike the other challenges, this supplemented a private design project. The project team used insights from to supplement field research being conducted in Ghana; the inspirations and concepts generated online directly influenced the team’s final deliverable.)
  5. How might we improve maternal health with mobile technologies for low-income communities? (A challenge for Oxfam and Nokia)
  6., addressing the question, “How can today’s technology address the environmental challenges we’re all facing?” (This dedicated channel for Sony and World Wildlife Fund uses the same technical platform and shares the OpenIDEO community. marks the first time that Sony has opened up some of its technologies for environmental causes, the nature of which will be decided by users.)

Next Steps

The software will serve as an engine for innovation in multiple contexts in the coming months, including: providing a tool to supplement design research on designers’ client projects; powering internal innovation channels at large corporations looking to transform their organizational structure, and serving as a platform to inform and support users of the Human-Centered Design Toolkit (a free resource for NGOs).

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