What is the Relationship between Innovation and Design?

By Aditya Dev Sood

El Lissitzky, 'The Constructor'

The classic theory of innovation is provided in economic terms by Joseph Schumpeter, who listed several different kinds of changes that could be brought about through entrepreneurial activity. These include the discovery and creation of new markets, the development of new methods of production and transportation, as well as new forms of industrial organization, and new kinds of consumer goods. All these different kinds of entrepreneurial activity require creative thinking, resourcefulness, planning, forethought and continuous compensatory action. In other words, they require that specifically human ability for intentional social or material change, which we may call design.

However, of all the different dimensions of entrepreneurship identified by Schumpeter, there is one, which seems to have a greater impact on our collective consciousness, which seems to shape culture, and which may in fact create greater value than all the others. This is the last area of innovation listed above, the creation of new kinds of consumer good. For in creating a consumer good, one is also already creating new kinds of experiences, new propositions about how to experience and live in the world, one may be instantiating and imbuing into a product or service new ideologies about what is good and valuable. There is therefore, a larger role for design in this particular area of innovation, which necessarily encompasses the different ways in which a product or service is experienced, including its very brand, identity, packaging, color, finish and materiality, form, user experience, all of which come to bear cumulatively on the underlying technology and platforms through which it may be delivered.

If, as Schumpeter more or less says, innovation describes the business or economic dimension of the forward movement of society under capitalism, then the immanent, cognitive or mental aspect of this forward movement can be captured by the term design. It is the multivariate, parallel, sometimes collaborative process of finding solutions to problems that have no obvious and available answer.

Whereas the language of design gained prominence in the Industrial Age as a means for the rendering of surfaces and finishes for the more effective marketing of consumer products (‘posters and toasters’), the concept has far wider application in the present. The most effective practitioners and users of design in contemporary times have proved, time and again, that a multidimensional approach to design that encompasses all levels and aspects of the user experience, including the making and reinforcement of meaning and value for the user, also yields the greatest success in the market.

How can techniques developed for the creation and distribution of consumer goods be relevant for the solving of large social and public challenges? While no close relation between these two areas of human activity may immediately suggest itself, a moment’s reflection will reveal that the large and intractable challenges that we encounter in the public sphere are also multivariate, complex, with multiple stakeholders and competing definitions of the problem and therefore of its possible solution. It is precisely for these reasons that they are likely to be amenable to the application of design-based approaches for the creation of solutions, which go beyond the obvious and readily visible options available to decision-makers.

Innovation in the public sphere, therefore, will necessarily involve design as a means of thinking, creative rearticulation, continuous reiteration and refinement of the grand challenges facing society.

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5 Responses to What is the Relationship between Innovation and Design?

  1. ayesha says:

    thanks for the interesting thoughts, aditya. i was wondering, how does your definition of design differ from ‘design thinking’? is there a place for design thinking within your framework of innovation?

  2. Paul Pangaro says:

    Innovation is too broad a term to describe the different classes of change that can come from insight, design, prototyping, productizing, and/or improving something already in play. In part, that is what leads to divergent discussions about it. The drawback of Schumpeter is acceptance of “destruction”, to the cost of the human capital. Michael Geoghegan has proposed a definition of 3 phases of change and “creative conservation” as alternative views, see http://www.dubberly.com/articles/notes-on-the-role-of-leadership-and-language.html.

    The process of innovation is also in dispute: what is it, how it works, how can we specifically do it better (not just spend money, follow “design thinking”, etc). A proposal seeking response can be found at http://www.dubberly.com/concept-maps/innovation.html.

  3. Aditya says:

    Much has been made of ‘design thinking’ over the past few years, and I think it’s been best treated by Tim Brown in an HBR piece. Elsewhere he defines design thinking as a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit.

    The problem really is how to distinguish design thinking from design!

    We must necessarily consider design an intellectual act, albeit with diverse physical, social and interactional manifestations, for example, drawing, making post-its, writing things down, maybe even measuring and calibrating, talking to people and frequently scratching one’s chin. Where does that leave design thinking? Well, it is all of these actions, only done by someone who doesn’t think of himself as a designer. As Socrates would point out, if someone draws from a designer’s toolkit to act as a designer then he is indeed acting in virtue of his power to design, and is indeed the designer!

    I think this term has come about on account of a wide-spread misunderstanding of what design is — that it is something concerned with the surfaces of things rather than their total meaning and every layer and dimension which contributes towards it. The confusion also arises out of the need to mark territory and to distinguish between ‘professional designers,’ who putatively design, and others who may be capable of thinking like designers. I think the distinction is untenable.

    All managers, engineers, entrepreneurs, decision-makers who think synthetically about the data available to them in order to solve problems are designing. The question really is how well are they doing so. Are they capable of handling complex, multivariate and recursive problems and arrive and something new and hitherto unimagined? Or do they keep reaching for the shelf for tried and testing and modular solutions?

    As discussed above, one definition of design is that it is the means through which difficult, intractable and wicked or recursive problems are solved. The verb form of that process is designing, and it applies to anyone, professionally accredited to draw on a white board or not.

    Design thinking, I should point out, is what we have been doing on this blog!

  4. Carmel Rose says:

    It is very challenging to implement techniques which is developed for the creation and distribution of consumer goods for solving large social and public challenges, but it can drastically reduce the challenges faced by the society at large and can bring out a change in the society. It is an interesting thought which led to a better understanding between design and design thinking.

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