Innovation is design and design is innovation. Or, at least, that’s the way it should be. We often draw thick lines between verticals of expertise. Someone is an analyst or an insights generator, a marketing expert or a brand specialist, a designer or an innovative thinker. It’s useful to have these titles and silos of talent. When a particular job needs to get done, with all of the constraints of time and money, it’s best to go with the experts. However, in this habit of specification, we might be missing the opportunity to blend our practices and re-imagine the potential within them.
Consider innovation and design. These areas have been the 21st century’s ascending stars. In the last decade, innovation has become the businessman’s core motto and it’s still the golden ring of nearly every industry. The tenets of innovation have pushed us to envision a process of regularly producing newness in the world. This has led to experimental approaches in workspaces, novel management styles and an increased focus on collaboration. The creation of innovation as a staple business practice has moved companies in some amazing directions.
Likewise, design has seen an explosion of popularity, both graphically and industrially. Thanks to companies such as Apple and Google, which have applied long-revered design principles to consumer electronics and digital interfaces, our eyes have been opened to the power of design and its ability to drive growth and profitability.
3 Foundational Similarities of Design and Innovation
While both innovation and design attract very different practitioners, it is when we consider the underlying tenets of both disciplines that we realize the need to blend them more thoroughly. There are three foundational similarities between design and innovation.
These foundations can serve to inspire our thinking for what could be a powerful partnership:
1. Generating Real Value
The necessity to provide value is at the core of every business, and the roles of design and innovation are to create value in unique ways. It is not enough to come up with new ideas or make something look better. Whether someone is addressing the needs of a new customer or re-imagining the lines and contours of a product, there’s no benefit unless you can see the economic value or business utility. Uniquely, both design and innovation provide value through combining creativity and strategy. These two fields merge business-oriented thinking and high-performance creativity to produce results with real impact.
This idea of combining strategy and creativity is at the heart of both practices. Innovation, the implementation of new ideas, uses creative processes to conceive of new ideas. Likewise, design must take a strategic approach to make new ideas come to life.
While many firms are beginning to see the value of this overlap of creativity and strategy, the university space is taking a focused approach to getting it right. The Strategic Innovation Lab at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto is a perfect example. Known for its strategic foresight and innovation, sLab brings together business and design professionals to explore the challenges of the 21st century. From health and media futures to “strongly sustainable business models,” sLab is leveraging the strategy of business thinking and the creative mindset of design to approach various challenges.
A scrappier version of this idea is evident in short-form sessions like Design Jam. The goal of these one- or two-day events is to craft new solutions to strategic customer experience problems with a design-oriented approach. Focused on championing open-source thinking and sharing, the approaches used at Design Jam must be strategic enough to have real impact and creative enough to solve problems in a new way. These approaches show us that the foundations of strategy and creativity can be married in the pursuit of valuable outcomes.
In most firms, innovation leans farther in the direction of strategy while design tends more toward creativity. Through further partnership, designers and innovators could more fully adopt one another’s strengths, and produce richer solutions for consumers and clients alike.
2. Seeking Better Solutions
The pursuit of better solutions is inherent to the work of design and innovation. The innovator takes an approach to finding better solutions through fostering new ideas. Once presented with a problem, he or she creates better solutions by developing new ideas and putting them to work. The designer manipulates an existing form, simplifies it, adds to it and recreates it to find better solutions that benefit the consumer. The intensity of this quest to find better, cleaner, faster, stronger and longer-lasting solutions is a defining characteristic of both design and innovation.
One example of this unique mash-up is Square, which allows businesses and individuals the ability to take credit card payments via a smartphone or iPad. The device is simple—very simple—in its design. Square also is extremely innovative. This device, and its app Square Wallet, have enabled babysitters, hot dog vendors and farmer’s market tomato growers to accept credit card payments. Businesses also have benefitted greatly. Using Square Wallet and an iPad, many businesses are now using Square as a cash register solution. Taking the hassle out of credit card transactions, with a flat processing fee of 2.75% of the purchase price, more people are able to make more transactions and even to start new businesses. As Square’s own business grows, it will no doubt continue to seek better ways to solve problems leveraging design and innovation.
This common pursuit for a better way is a unique tether between the two practices. If united in their effort to find the best solution, innovators and designers are empowered to solve problems faster and in more dynamic ways.
3. Defining the Way Forward
As culture and technology advance, the consumer landscape advances with it. Businesses that don’t adjust to this ever-evolving playing field will fail fast. For designers and innovation experts, this is a welcomed reality. It is a primary role of innovation and design experts to define the way forward in this chaotic environment. For innovation, this manifests itself in the process of using new ideas to test the limits of what’s possible now and discover the models of the future. Similarly, designers are constantly crafting products, messages and graphics in response to change. As designers create, their outputs serve as springboards for new ideas, thereby pushing the conversation forward.
The renowned author and philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said that “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Today this couldn’t be more correct. As innovators explore the digital world, putting more screens in front of our eyes and more tools in our hands, we begin to orient our lives around their outputs. It is the design of these tools that communicates their features and functions, and calls us to interact in a particular way.
Take the iPhone: The “slide to unlock” gestures, the orientation of the badges, the weight and thickness of the device all communicate a message. For Apple, perhaps this is a message of accessibility and intuitive interaction. This message calls us to feel that we are in control. It’s the design of these cues and messages that makes the device more than a phone. It becomes a partner and companion in our lives, and who among us is not shaped by the company we keep?
Wilson Miner, a digital product designer based in San Francisco, argues that designers are beginning to have a more powerful impact on culture and society than ever before, an impact “that lasts longer than the next redesign or the latest technology,” as he said in his talk, “When We Build,” delivered at the Build 2011 conference in Belfast. If he’s right, the collaboration between innovators who bring newness into the world and designers who make that newness come alive is rife with opportunity. Whether it’s taking novel approaches to emerging customer segments or crafting interfaces for future digital platforms, design and innovation often define how the landscape changes and how businesses change with it. With increased cooperation, these fields could emerge as the catalysts for future change.
The energy that waits at the intersection of design and innovation is massive. How can businesses and brands combine these practices in more ways? How can we fully leverage the overlapping strengths of these two fields? What can your brand do today that generates value, finds a better solution and defines the way forward?