What Innovators Can Learn from Design History

What Innovators Can Learn from Design History

Many of us have had a boss tell us that we should be more innovative or “think out of the box”. Let’s assume we want to be more creative and innovative – where do we start? Are there some widely used models that can guide us in the right direction? After all, step-by-step process models are widely used in most professions as they break complex procedures into simpler parts which can be tackled a step at a time – and ideally produce repeatable results (think TQM). Are there models we can follow which will make us more creative and innovative?

To explore this, let’s start with probably the simplest innovation model made up of two steps: the definition and exploration of the problem (analysis) and the solution finding or creation stage (synthesis). In the analysis phase, we start with a discovery of the elements and constraints of the problem space and define requirements for a solution. In the synthesis phase, we attempt to balance all the constraints (whether financial, physical, technical, etc.) and develop the best solution for delivery and implementation. To help us visualize this in a fun way, we can adapt a variation of the ‘squiggle’ design from Damien Newman as representing moving from the unknown to the known and from the problem to the solution.


There are literally hundreds of variations of this simple analysis/synthesis model – represented by additional steps and process granularity (and often more confusion). The originators of these models are typically enchanted with their particular 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or more step process and seemingly unaware of similar models using only slightly different terminology.

Is there a particulary popular model that we should adopt?

An examination of the history of design and research into how designers work may provide insights. That’s relevant because trends in innovation and design research show a convergence in professional practice as well as an expanding scope of application to broader fields.

Let’s start with the latter. In the case of innovation, when statisticians first attempted a formal definition of it for their attempt to measure it (the authoritative source on this being the Oslo Manual), they initially defined it as only being about technical innovation. In successive versions of the Manual, this definition has become broader and broader and now is: “the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations.” That’s a pretty encompassing definition.

Similarly, there has been an evolution in what we consider to be the scope of design. When you ask people ‘what is design?’, they typically will refer to a well-designed consumer item (e.g., an Apple or Samsung product). But the role that design now plays is rapidly growing beyond being a competitive differentiator for consumer products (industrial design) or its historical base in architecture, typography, print, graphics and the fine arts. Design has more recently expanded into the fields of human-computing interfaces (user interface design); services and experiences (service and experience design); business strategy and innovation (strategic design/design thinking), and government policy formulation (policy design).

There’s been a recent strong interest by the business community in identifying a design-based process model for innovation (first popularized in IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s 2009 book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation). While attractive to executives and business scientists who seek a systematization of innovation grounded in repeatable practices, a process model that faithfully replicates innovation results in the strategy and business domain has been elusive. But, in fact, the same problem exists for the design community and for much longer! The history of more than 40 years of design research (starting with Herbert Simon and his seminal 1968 “The Sciences of the Artificial”) and hundreds of subsequent academic studies and books about how designers work has also failed to reduce design to a step process that is independent of the particular skill set of an individual designer (see this review of the distinct and separate ‘design thinking’ discourses in the design and business communities).

In both the innovation and design communities, too much focus on specialized professional fields of activity or the talents of individual designers diverts attention from something that is more significant: design thinking is a new and evolving practice of experimental thinking complementing our historically analytical approach to innovation and problem solving. That’s a welcome change because analytical thinking is not enough when you’re trying to synthesize something that does yet not exist. Put another way, it’s very hard to analyze yourself into the future because the evidence you need to analyze does not yet exist.

The big lesson that innovation practitioners can learn from the design field is that a step-by-step linear process model doesn’t work. That’s because at the heart of any design thinking approach is recognizing that our understanding of problems changes as we attempt to solve them. In other words, problems and solutions co-evolve. This means pursuing failure paths are a necessary part of the process in order to explore alternative solutions. That’s why prototyping remains an important step of the process because it gives you something to analyze. As we like to say: “building an approximation of what you think the solution is helps you understand what you didn’t understand about the problem”. 

The convergence of design and innovation offers endless opportunities for creating and shaping more meaningful and fluid human activities and experiences. The lesson for innovators that we can draw from the design community is to not get too hung up on the perfect process model. It’s more about ensuring that there is a process that facilitates having conversations about alternative futures. A good place to start is getting right the 5 ‘Ps’: involving the right people; facilitating iterative processes that leverage the best methods and tools; constantly reframing the the problem through iterative cycles; using prototyping to test concepts; and providing a supporting physical environment that draws out the best in people.


Founder, International Institute for Innovation


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