Weeknote#6 : Design Innovation is not quite dead

So far we’ve managed to post weekly. The posts have been primarily about ideas that we’ve been thinking and working towards, inspiration and updates on past projects. Even though there are similar things to report, this week I would like to talk a bit about what I have been reading. Being a new bee entrepreneur there has been a lot of reading related to new business development. But to satiate the designer in me, I am reading a bit about how design can be instrumental in changing businesses. I stopped reading  books on design a couple of years back. At the time I was reading Glimmer by Warren Berger, Change by Design by Tim Brown and Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. Mythical, magical creativity that saves the world was really appetizing when I was stuck working a 9 to 5 job. Right now I need inspiration and ideas that I can apply to the work that we create. We are a creative studio and the core of our business is creating immersive connected experiences. I would like to know how to make something that can differentiate us from the competition.

Robert Verganti’s book on design innovation has been a pretty good read in that respect. It does have its conventional buzzwords like ‘radical innovation’ but they are bearable because the book  takes a very different approach to design. The premise of the book is design driven innovations don’t push new technologies ; they push radically new meanings’. The approach is not at all user centered which is interesting but focused fully on the user. Given the time I spent in architecture school, this seems like a valid approach. An architectural example of this is the Indian Institute of Management Building in Ahmedabad designed by Louis Kahn. While visiting the building during my early years in undergrad, I was always overwhelmed with the size of everything structural. Everything was gigantic, the doors, the stairs, the arches. Everyone felt small in that space. Rumor has it that Kahn made the building so powerful so as to not let the egos of top management students get too big. If that bit of information is true, then Kahn created a design that included the user information to create a distinctive meaning. I think its important for designers to have that sense of play. Design, especially user centered design can get stifling otherwise.

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Verganti’s book talks about ‘interpreters’ people in other industries who are connected/ related to the design problem because of their line of work, past projects or affiliations. These people could be designer, artists, journalists, anyone with a creative or alternate perspective. Verganti thinks that these people can help think about a design problem in a more meaningful way because their perspective is not biased. These so called interpreters could also be organizations or other firms in the industry.

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He also brings up the point of incremental change versus radical improvement and charts it against technology and meaning. Apparently the sweet spot where ‘technological radical improvement’ meets the ‘meaning driven radical improvement’ is real innovation that disrupts industries. He gives the example of the Nintendo Wii and how it changed the game console industry because of the MEMS technology.


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Most of the examples are from innovative Italian manufactures like Alessi, Artemide, Kartell and others. Given the poor state of Italian manufacturing, I wonder if these examples are relevant but Italians have had years of success with design innovation. Michael Graves whistling bird tea kettle for Alessi comes up multiple times as the project that encompassed not functional gratification but an emotional one. So does the Metamorfosie lamp by Artemide which changes light based on external light conditions and makes you feel better. The Bookworm shelf by Kartell established the fact that you might not read as much but might want to put up other knick knacks that defines your urban eclectic life style. It also doubles as an art installation. All these products have made millions for their respective companies. People value function but they value the attached meaning as to how a product fits into their life and taste to a big extent as well.

There is a lot going on in these products that is user friendly and adds value and meaning to lives but Verganti can attest that no users were interviewed and grilled about their preferences in tea kettles, lamps and bookshelves. The book definitely helped me feel better about our approach to design which is a good balance of both instinctual and research driven design. We hope to lead with both technology and design to create something that can provide value and meaning.