Design versus Innovation

In case you haven’t noticed, we are plum in the middle of the age of innovation. This term organizes everything the business press enjoys writing about, it is the theme of every business book, it is the lodestar of government policy, it is the subtext of every job interview: can you do it? do you know how? is it what you are about?

And then there is this silver-grey shadow of a word, design. Those who get it, get it. For the rest it just gets in the way. Everyone seems to know what to do with innovation as a category, but they just can’t shake it free of this ball and chain that seems to swing with it, design. The two terms are artifacts from different dimensions of our human history, but they have collided with force, and it remains to be seen how they will move forward, separately or together.

Last December I was invited to a CII summit on ‘Design-Innovation.’ I learnt recently that the National Innovation Council is seeking to build twenty Centres of Excellence in Design Innovation. I’ve been told by consultants that what we do at CKS represents Design Innovation, not to be confused with the other kinds of innovation that exist. What other kinds?

See, Venn diagrams don’t always arrange themselves in a bilaterally symmetrical way. As I see it, there can be design without innovation, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine innovation without design.

Let me explain the first part of this claim: the design of things that already exist, like suits, dresses, automotive bodies, bowls, pianos, home accessories, consumer electronics facia and other surfaces of desire, consumption and social signaling represent design without innovation.

The design of things that do not yet exist represents innovation. This is, I must admit, what we principally do at CKS, and there is a particular methodology and approach that we use to do this, which we call the Innovation Cycle. Others may use other approaches, but I cannot admit that they do not use design. This is because design is an immanent, internal and intrinsic aspect of innovation.

It would appear that many policy makers and other leading luminaries disagree. I look forward to hearing from them on how they carve up the distinction between design and innovation.

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