Autodesk: A Design-Driven Company

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Design thinking's pledge is that everyone is able to learn certain creative skills and that companies can train to be innovative. Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, disagrees: “Not everybody can be a Michael Jordan."

  • Autodesk - Gallery 00
    Autodesk gallery SF: model of a car


Many design thinking advocates like David Kelley argue that it is a tool that enables people to experience creative confidence . Creativity is not a domain of only a chosen few. Do creative companies actually teach their employees to be creative? To answer this question, we went to a firm that became famous for its creative software. Autodesk is the leading software developer for computer-aided-design (CAD) and computer animation. It has a noteworthy association with design thinking: its shows at the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco are said to be a must see for design thinkers. We talked to CEO Carl Bass, who is known as being a “maker king”, and Maurice Conti, the Director of Strategic Innovation at Autodesk.


When I see a company with an innovation lab I cringe, because the only thing I really know is that there will be no innovation in it.

Carl Bass

We were eager to learn if companies such as Autodesk use something like the design thinking process or specific methods. But while talking to Carl Bass we soon realized that we were barking up the wrong tree. Bass is convinced that “innovation initiatives” generally don’t produce innovative results. In his view, a basketball player without talent will never be a Michael Jordan, “you can’t train everybody to be good at everything. Sometimes we make the mistake of trying to take people who don’t have the necessary talent. They can improve marginally, but our ability to change people’s potential is relatively small.” Educating each person in an organization to be a creative Design Thinker? Carl prefers hiring talented people rather than training the masses.


I can try to hire the best talents, or I can try to build them. But almost always you will do better with hiring the best people.

Carl Bass


But how can companies hire the “best people?” Basically, Carl gives two pieces of advice. First, provide a climate of great people and encourage risk taking—which sometimes results in failure. He explains: “Look at the people who are solving your problems, and then look at the culture you provide. We encourage our employees to take risks. We give people the freedom to experiment. The freedom to question. And we allow them to fail. We treat them with respect and dignity. And then we encourage them to solve the problem in their own way. We have failures all the time.”

The willingness to take risks and accept failures is an important point. Most companies work to minimize deviation from the norm. They tell their staff to always do the same thing and not to take risks.


Carl Bass’ Take on Risk

Video from McKinsey Insights article “How big companies can innovate”

Freedom and failure

Maurice Conti, the director of strategic innovation, gave us some examples of how the design mentality at Autodesk is formed. Above all he suggests not to “home-grow” everything. Half of the work is done in collaboration with outsiders. But in order to do this, employees need to be allowed to go outside of the norm. At Autodesk, a small group of employees attends
 the Burning Man  Festival every year. “We actually go there for work”, Maurice points out. At the desert festival Autodesk designers find what they are searching for. It is an extremely constrained context, the environment is pretty harsh. And there are volunteers everywhere. Here they can figure out what their users really need.

Last year an Autodesk team created an art piece that they brought to Burning Man. The piece could be modified and generated by the crowd. It was an experiment to see what would happen if you integrate the user more in the design process. “In order to innovate, by definition you have to go outside the box”, Maurice Conti sums up.

The notion that everybody can be trained to be a Design Thinker like Kelley supports it – at Autodesk we find the counter-model. The creativity is already there. But where is it found? According to CEO Carl Bass the creativity is originates in the hiring, and providing a context where people can gain insights from the outside and are allowed to fail.

Hiring talent w/ the right attitude is better than retraining people in #designthinking. Click To Tweet


Carl Bass: Reflections on Design thinking

The emphasis on “doing things” and the strong user focus of Autodesk might be the reason why the company is so strongly associated with the concept of design thinking. Still, Carl Bass is not too excited when he hears that people connect Autodesk with design thinking. „Oh no“, he sighs, „I hope not!“ He is a self declared design-thinking-denier, convinced that the world does not need another buzzword that will be forgotten in 10 years. „Design thinking is just a slogan. It doesn’t have a fundamental thing to it.” But: “I’m a huge believer in design.“

The overall problem that Carl has with design thinking is that there is no final definition, no common meaning to it. Instead of design thinking he prefers another term: the verb “design” that refers to ways of solving problems. The use of design as a verb (putting things together in order to solve a problem) is more beneficial than using “design” as an adjective like in “design thinking”. The use of design as an adjective for Carl sounds as if there would be one specific style of thinking, but in his view, there is no such thing as one style of thinking.

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The Author: Eva Köppen

Eva is co-founder of Politics for Tomorrow and partner at module7. She is a social scientist, design strategist, organization developer and lecturer.

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