Many things make the world go round, but innovation is what drives the world forward. Innovation is technological and cultural evolution; the never-ending struggle to solve simple and complex problems for the benefit of the individual. This individual can be a consumer looking for a quicker and more efficient product. It can be a patient lying in a hospital bed. Or it can be the manager of an engineering company trying to find an edge over his competitors.


What is design innovation?

Innovation never happens inside a vacuum. In some cases, innovation is a response to a specific problem. In others, it's driven by a creative’s imagination, someone who looks at a product or a process and thinks, "We could be doing this better." To put it another way, innovation requires a catalyst, and one of the most robust catalysts is design.

Phil McKinney is an award-winning designer and author of Beyond the Obvious, a book on how to use innovation and creativity to achieve personal and professional success. He writes, “Innovation by design is the utilization of a designer’s methods and sensibility to address the needs of the consumer. [...] Basically, the goal is to solve more complex problems with the methodology of a designer.”

So while design innovation will always focus on what a product or service looks, the real benefit comes from what it does and how it functions in the real world. Design determines how the end-user will experience, interact with, and generally respond to what it is that’s on offer.

Innovation design is about making things that are both beautiful and useful. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you study design and innovation.

Design innovation supports creativity

Having a few dreamers on your team can have many practical purposes, especially in highly competitive industries like manufacturing or tech. Innovation design is about finding solutions, and the companies that offer the best solutions to consumer problems are much more likely to succeed.

Design innovation often works backward. Instead of creating a new product and then "selling" it the public, innovative design is a process of identifying, pinpointing, and understanding the needs of the user or audience. Once the need has been identified, a solution can then be designed. This is where the brainstorming starts, and this when you need your creatives.

One person who knew a few things about being creative was Pablo Picasso. The famous painter once said, "If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes." And while it's always essential for a design creative to see things anew, Picasso's quote highlights a fundamental difference between artistic creativity and design creativity.

Creative design needs to be innovative and imaginative, but it must always be rooted in practicality. It doesn't matter how beautiful or smart your ideas are. If they don't offer a solution to a problem, or if they don't have a practical use, then they are virtually worthless. A new design will only be successful if it ensures usefulness and market acceptance. Smartphones are a perfect example. The technology is impressive, but the fact we can carry it inside our pockets is what makes a smartphone such an amazing product.

Innovative design is important to development

Design thinking is at the heart of some of the world's most successful and influential companies, including Apple and Google. Leading universities are now teaching design innovation and many different organizations, big and small, are implementing new corporate cultures based around continuous improvement at every level.

Innovation powers economies and economies power the development of entire nations and their peoples. In a highly competitive global economy, businesses can no longer afford to stand still. Instead, they must always be looking forward and developing sustainable long-term solutions. This approach ensures company growth, while also contributing to the broader development of the industry and even to the lives of their customers.

Design innovation is essentially about inclusion. It wants to find as many practical solutions to as many different problems as possible.  Therefore, by its very nature, it cannot be exclusive or discriminatory. Kat Holmes is the Director of UX design at Google. She believes design can encourage political participation, improve economic policy, and make life fairer for everyone:

“We all experience exclusion in more ways than one. [...] How we practice inclusive design shapes us as leaders, designers, and engineers in the world.”

There are many examples of how design encourages and develops inclusivity. Kat Holmes focuses on the gaming industry, citing game controllers as a product that can potentially exclude specific uses. For decades, video game controllers required gamers to use their hands because they were designed by people who Holmes describes as having an “ability bias.” This led one designer to create a voice-activated game controller, and such technology is now widely available.

Holmes urges designers to work from a “circle of inclusion" model, which involves five considerations: what we make, why we make, who makes it, how it’s made, and who uses it. She says, “Inclusion doesn’t mean you are designing one thing for all people. It means you are designing in a variety of ways so more people can participate.”

Innovative designers are in high demand

More than ever, businesses understand the importance of innovation and design. In some industries, like big tech, these skills are crucial to a company’s short-term stability and long-term survival. As a result, graduates from design programmes with a focus on innovation are in high demand, and the most creative of them all can earn big salaries and make significant contributions to the world around them.

In the UK, the average salary for an entry-level design engineer is £28,000. In the United States,  an innovation engineer earns an average of $76,014. Senior Designers at Google and Amazon command salaries well into the six figures.

And companies are getting plenty for their money. A top designer adds value to a company’s products and services, stimulate sales growth, and exploit new markets. Research by the UK Design Council claims that every £1 invested in design leads to £20 in net turnover. A culture that values design innovation can also benefit in less tangible ways. These include increased brand recognition, staff morale, and overall productivity.

Many companies are now taking a systematic approach to creative thinking, incorporating free thinkers within more traditional business models. It might seem paradoxical, but this model has been very successful for Virgin and Barclays Bank. In a report from Warwick Business School, Pietro Micheli stated, "Design is most powerful when culturally embedded. [...] The stereotypical view is that design and innovation require endless freedom and that creative results are the product of random activities. Our case study companies demonstrate exactly the opposite: design processes are clearly structured and often codified."

Design innovation is no longer a luxury for many companies. Instead, it has become a necessity as innovative designers are being pointed out as the new CEOs

Innovative design solves problems

A good design project should always start with the same question: what’s the problem? Once that’s been answered, it’s time to start looking for a solution. This can be as simple as designing a stronger but lighter protective case for a smartphone. Alternatively, it can be as profound as finding better ways for people to interact on social media. For example, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently spoke about the platforms “echo-chamber" effect and how it's creating deeply divided societies defined by internal conflict rather than cohesive narratives.  One of Twitter's future design aims is to encourage users to engage with all sides of the political or cultural debate.

Despite its many benefits, social media has created problems that very few people could have predicted. And these new problems require a new way of thinking about innovation and design. The world is becoming ever more connected through digital technologies, with information being increasingly exchanged horizontally rather than vertically. This switch from hierarchical structures to more open source models demands a different type of thinking that is flexible and non-linear. Tim Brown is the CEO of the international design consultancy firm IDEO. He believes the challenges we now face require a radical overhaul of the way we think about innovation, problem-solving, and design.

He concludes, "What we need are new choices -- new products that balance the needs of individuals and of society as a whole; new ideas that tackle the global challenges of health, poverty, and education; new strategies that result in differences that matter and a sense of purpose that engages everyone affected by them. It is hard to imagine a time when the challenges we faced so vastly exceeded the creative resources we have brought to bear on them."

Design innovators have always found practical solutions to contemporary problems, but the next few generations of creatives will need to find answers to questions that we never knew existed.