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An ID alum and former ID board member, Ilya Prokopoff has been an IDEO Partner since 2007 and is managing director of IDEO San Francisco.

Ilya knew from a young age that he wanted to be a designer. He studied design at both University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and the Institute of Design. He was drawn to ID’s rigorous approach to design as a way of solving problems. He launched his design career at Doblin, where he worked for six years, blending management consulting and design. From there, he went to IDEO, where he has worked on various teams for more than 20 years.

Ilya talks to Katie Petersen (MDM 2020) about harnessing the power of design and the important role ID talent plays in the field of design today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your superpower?

People tell me that I have the ability to make impossible conversations possible, bringing together really different voices and perspectives into a shared, co-constructive space.

People also tell me I’m an incredibly good listener, which I think is at the core of it. The ability to listen, the ability to synthesize and create space for conversation that would be hard to have otherwise. 

What are some guiding principles that you consider when making strategic decisions?

When I am thinking about the choices that we need to make I ask, “what’s evidence and what’s known,” versus “what’s aspiration and speculative?” I don’t think that aspiration and speculation are to be discounted but they need to be put in context of what’s known and evident. At the end of the day, if you decide on things that are known, or evidence, you’d end up with what you already have, right? If you were to skew too far to the speculation, the likelihood of being wrong is just as high as the likelihood of being right. You must find the margin between risk of right and wrongness, and have clarity of what we need to do in order to keep moving forward with the things that we know.

I ask myself, “what do we know?” And then I ask myself, “what are the risks?” You have to have conversations about both of those things. Maybe this is where the sort of conversations that are not always possible to have can be made possible. We’d like to start to pull those things together into a frame of choice. 

There’s also something about clarity of purpose.

If you ask, “Why are we doing this?” you want the general consensus in the room to be the same about where you’re aiming. If not, it ends up becoming political. It becomes more about who’s a better influencer. 

What are some building blocks from ID that you still think about today?

I feel quite fortunate for having the view of design that ID brings. There are aspects of what it stands for that are core to my identity as a designer and design leader: systemic, human-centered, organizational design. The fundamental priorities of what ID holds dear heavily overlapped with my priorities. So did those things just happen to come together? Or am I indelibly changed by ID? I bet it’s the latter.

There is a kind of belief that anything can be solved through design that I definitely learned at ID.

Grossly generalizing, I think more traditional design applications focus a bit more on the act of design rather than the power of design. ID was, and continues to be, very focused on the power of design.

What is ID well positioned to do within the world of design?

ID is very much viewed as a professional school and as a source for organizations of various types to find talent that is ready-made to bring new approaches to them. More traditional design programs produce talent that fits a bit more directly into existing structures within organizations. ID’s profile is relatively under the radar but the scale of impact is quite high for people who come from ID. 

What are some skill sets we should be building right now to embrace that future of where we are going?

There’s something around this creation of conditions for a multitude of stakeholders to come together. It isn’t just about inviting a bunch of people to a meeting. It’s about actually thinking about the collection of experiences that you want to create that make a new level of sensitivity for certain kinds of conversations to be had and for action at scale. It’s going to be a part of our practice in the future. (Editor’s note: this is what ID calls distributed agency). 

Basic stuff like showing up with curiosity and holding the space for not knowing is an important skill set. So many people who have been in a career for some time have been paid for being right or having the answers. We need to not be right and not have the answers. We need to let things emerge as they need to.