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Innovation vs. design: part 29.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on December 7, 2005

A lot of thoughtful analysis is emerging from the great debate underway on the subject of innovation versus design (first raised at a NYC conference organized by Patrick Whitney, head of the Illinois Institute of Design (yep, and the guy who just did the China design conference). Of course, it was that maverick Michael Bierut who really kicked it off on DesignObserver.

Now on another great innovation blog, Noise Between Stations, we hear complaints about the innovation crowd repeating itself and using tired old tools (financial analysis and surveys)to explain innovation. Referring to two studies by Booze Allen and BCG, the blog says “Financial analysis tells us what happened quantitatively but not why. Surveys show us perception of the situation, but not necessarily the real situation. Neither used qualitative research that, incidentally, can help address the problems they uncovered.”

Right on. Innovation goes way beyond new products and continuous improvement in process (quality and cost). Doblin’s Larry Keeley points out that there are at least 10 kinds of innovation and working three or four at once gives you a paradigm-shifting bang.

OK. I’m liking the innovation vs. design debate a lot now.

Reader Comments

Niti Bhan

December 7, 2005 2:16 AM

Greetings from Singapore, Bruce. Thank you for your insightful presentations on the china conference and design in china. On the topic of Design Vs. Innovation, I'd like to share with you William Owen's very insightful comment from the original Design Observer post, he's kindly given me permission to post it with credits. He has taken the trouble to give an indepth overview of the global changes taking place in communication design.

Here it is in full, ref:,

Imagine a world in which techniques of design, production and delivery have become so refined that companies use identical methods to produce identical products, a world in which competitive edge is prised from incrementally better management of money or smoother business processes. In this world, brand consultants get fat from painting different signs (and missions, visions, values) on corporations that are otherwise indistinguishable. Management consultants get rich by trimming fat from their client companies - or cutting away bones where there is no fat. This is a world in which businesses are organized in discrete departments dedicated to the accurate repetition of tasks as efficiently as possible; steadfastness is rewarded, imagination is frowned upon and the end customer is held firmly at arms length, just another incidental detail to be served by third party distributors.

And then everything changes. Along comes the multi-megabyte chip, the mobile phone, globalization, the Internet, something called customer relationships. Worried CEOs see Apple, Orange and Google fly by into a new century selling products and services that minutes ago didn’t even have generic names, let alone competition. It may have taken a decade to wake up, but now even 20th Century Corporation realizes that creativity, imagination and innovation mean GOOD BUSINESS (thank you Larry Keeley for permission to use capitals).

Have you seen how many innovation blogs there are! But should we be surprised? The nexus of competition has shifted to service and delivery, to networked services attached to products, to the qualities of the relationship with the end customer and the value and efficiency of information exchange. This is what the innovation fuss is all about and it presents some wicked problems to which designers – and others – can wake up to themselves and contribute solutions.

Firstly, businesses with a culture of repetition, introspection and incremental variation don’t transform easily into customer-friendly service-oriented change-happy innovators.

Secondly, products, services, marketing communications and databases have converged within very complex systems of delivery that require different professional competences to build them. The professions speak different languages; they have different cultures and, usually, the wrong kind leads the project.

Thirdly, the scope, value and profitability of the new services and products that businesses build are often poorly understood inside the organization, or by its agencies, or by its customers.

So it’s no wonder that innovation mostly fails. How can design contribute to a higher rate of success? Designers (and editors) have key skills that management consultants and software engineers lack but are vital in solving the wicked problems of change management and navigating a complex business project in the right direction: conceptual imagination, the ability to organize form and information, prototyping, story-telling, visual communication and customer focus. It appears that some business schools are realizing, at last, that these are essential skills, not arty curiosities.

I agree with Larry Keeley. This is a new field (and because it's new and fashionable will attract its fair share of snake oil sellers). It's an in-between field that has to draw on different disciplines, and it's one that adventurous designers will do well in but it might mean changing aspects of the design culture, sometimes but not always for the better.

Does it mean we have to dress and talk like INSEAD graduates? Sometimes, probably, if only to be heard, but lets not get carried away on that one. Use phrases like ‘diagnostic’, ‘effective levers’, ‘supporting data’ and ‘reliable and repeatable’? Hopefully not but, whoops, these all come from the Doblin website. Rub shoulders with geeks? I’m afraid so, but are they that bad? Work collaboratively with the client instead of privately in our studios? Oh yes. Stand up in boardrooms and take charge when the time is right? Yes. Change the antiquated way we organise our profession into narrow specialisms in which we all know our role and our place and make small variations to common types? Certainly. Be more like Doblin? Definitely – except for the ‘levers’ stuff. Stop having to polish turds (an English expression for calling companies silly names like Innovene and charging huge sums for it)? Yes! Start solving big, complicated problems that transform our clients. Please!

Posted by: William Owen at November 23, 2005 08:15 AM
URL for William Owen

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October 21, 2010 9:17 PM

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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