Designing without a Client

Design firms such as Seattle’s Teague, which works with Boeing, Microsoft, and Nike among other corporations, are increasingly encouraging employees to hatch product ideas without a client. While I’m not out in San Francisco for the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design’s major conference this week (but check out future blog posts by BusinessWeek editors Bruce Nussbaum and Helen Walters who are there), I’ve heard that Teague’s new strategy for encouraging creativity among its staff is gaining a lot of attention among attendees.

Basically, Teague designers are producing goods that they design not for their big-name clients, but instead on their own. One new product that is turning heads at the ICSID event is Teague’s Paperclip Lamp, which was designed by Teague’s associate creative director, David Wykes, and industrial designer, Benoit Collette.

It looks like, well, a giant paperclip, and can be bent in all sorts of configurations -- just like the regular paperclip that inspired it. The iconic shape suggests the enduring appeal of a simple, elegantly practical design. And how such an icon's form factor can influence other industrial design projects.

It's the first Teague-sponsored design to debut as a product, and was shown first at the Seattle Design Within Reach Northwestern Lighting Exhibition and is on view at the Korean Gwangju Design Biennale 2007.

The project reminds me of a story I recently reported, on the conceptual Charmr diabetes device created by designers at San Francisco's Adaptive Path in between jobs for clients. Currently, Adaptive Path says the firm has been fielding inquiries by venture capitalists.

I can't help but think of 3M's classic 15% rule -- that to innovate, companies need to give employees time to work on ideas other than work, while at work, to use corporate resources to venture out into imaginative new directions and come up with cool new products. Why not design firms, too -- without clients?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.