Clive Grinyer: Challenge convention

Design Council director of design and innovation Clive Grinyer looks at barriers to innovation and how design must overcome them to speed progression

Design and Innovation are two words with much in common. Dictionary definitions can’t fully describe the breadth of meanings we associate with each. From a James Dyson to Sir Richard Branson or Sony to Philippe Starck, we associate both objects and people with both words. They also speak of behaviour and cultures different to an established norm, and have the perception of risk and chance. Innovation and design take more effort and their impact is hard to predict. But in a world clamouring for the next big idea, innovation and design are no longer options, but an everyday reality that businesses need to urgently embrace.

If invention is the transistor, then the transistor radio is the innovation. I say this because invention and innovation are often confused, especially in the UK, where having lots of Nobel prize winners hasn’t always been matched by success in exploiting ideas. This statement also exposes the human value of innovation, that the innovation is the connection between invention and the value to the user. Design, consciously or unconsciously, must therefore be an important part of the relationship.

But for many the link between design and innovation is a mystery. Business can understand the concept of innovation, and we live in times where it is acknowledged by businesses and Government that we have to embrace constant cultural revolution to liberate ourselves from practices and attitudes that reduce our ability to have new ideas. Making stuff is not important, it’s what you make and its value that is the key to global competitiveness.

Real innovation is not just a product or a service. It’s about the way people sense and discover opportunities. Innovation is about people who care more about what should be, rather than what is, and cultures that can overcome their inertia to connect their abilities with our current and future needs.

Successful businesses understand the importance of innovation as a faster route to competitive advantage. But it is more difficult to explain that design is a crucial part of innovation. The problem is that innovation without design is possible. Although there are many industries in the UK that have created innovative and successful products, there are many which have not used design to enhance their advantage. However, the most easily understood role of design is to make the connection to customers and present the innovation in a more tangible, useable and purposeful way.

There are obvious examples. Dyson products look different, reflecting their radical nature. On the other hand, the Titan Monotub washing machine looks pretty much like a washing machine until you use it (the drum comes out and acts as a laundry basket). Brands like Black and Decker or Egg use design powerfully to create engaging and delightful user experience of their products.

However, this view of design is only half the story. The real value of design thinking is at the front end of the relationship, as the instigator of innovation.

The basis for design thinking is a cluster of thought processes that in parallel look at what people wish to do, how they spot opportunities for what can be achieved and visualise and communicate these ideas. To turn these opportunities into reality, designers have to challenge the history and cultures that have constructed the current world, and the commercial and cultural forces that, in most businesses, are set against change. The design process is fundamentally about innovation; design without deeper innovation is merely styling, on the surface and ineffective.

We say things are innovative because they break rules. Why is that surprising? Technology might be accessible, but so few products are designed well that when something comes along that challenges current thinking we think it is novel. We assume that there are reasons why we can’t have things as we would wish, that economics or engineering or technology do not allow us what we would like. But it is more likely the inertia of industrial and commercial cultures, preoccupied with systems that shore up mediocrity through marketing and advertising, that are the enemies of innovation and design.

Innovation is the surprising effort to deliver ideas of value to real users. Design is the tool that turns these ideas into reality. Innovation and design are vital balancing components that need each other and we should never be allowed to imagine that one can exist without the other.

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