Design-Driven Innovation

When I was in design school, learning about product design, I was always told to innovate. Innovation is when a new idea, method or product is applied to an existing idea, method or product. It's how things like tools, technologies and fashions evolve over time. When I first started design school, I didn't understand this because my first industrial design studio was embarrassing. I had no clue what I was (supposed to be) doing.


Off To A Bad Start

Attending CCS, in Detroit, Michigan, one has no choice but to steep in the culture of the automotive industry. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are all headquartered either in or near Detroit, Michigan. Because of this, these three American auto manufacturers have hired a majority of their designers directly from CCS. The College for Creative Studies ends up being a magnet for anyone who's ever dreamed of designing cars. For people like me, who saw cars as nothing more than a costly means of transportation, it was obnoxious at first. I had to endure hours of conversation about cars to which I had nothing to add because I knew nothing of cars. 

As an industrial design major at CCS, your studio classes for the first year include students who wish to specialize in product design, automotive design and transportation design. Later on, each area of study is separated and classes are catered to your specific area of interest. My first industrial design studio happened to be taught by a GM automotive designer. Our first assignment was to design a vehicle.

This was bad. At that time, my knowledge and interest in cars was about nonexistent. How the hell was I supposed to design a car? Everyone else was excited to put their ideas into motion, so i did my best to get excited. I wasn't, but I thought I'd try my best. While many of my classmates had been primed on the expectations of the prestigious design school and its faculty, I had not. Many of my classmates seemed to know what they were doing. I felt as if I'd stumbled into a second year class. 

Despite feeling so ungrounded and lost, I decided to design my car the same way I would 'design' a house while playing the Sims. I'm referring to the video game that allows you to customize a virtual life, the best part of which was creating a house. I wanted my design to be the 'best' it could. At the time, I saw design as a black and white problem. If something wasn't designed, you could design it, and that was the correct application of design. I was used to solving problems in high school which meant giving the teacher what she wanted or expected as the correct answer. Yes, this car was supposed to by my design, but that just seemed so subjective, I didn't know what direction to take. 

The result was something that looked like a bad rip-off of a Pontiac Vibe. When my professor asked me about my design, I highlighted the features:

  1. Folding seats for storage
  2. Large windows to improve visibility
  3. Fold-down monitor for those in the rear seats
  4. Extra storage near the back seats
  5. Some ugly space-age rims

He looked as confused as I felt during the entire project. His thick French accent grumbled, "But what have you designed? I see nothing that is new." He had wanted to see innovation, and I had given him a combination of attributes that currently existed on various vehicles. 



When something is interesting, new or exciting, it's usually innovative. Before going to CCS, I had not been taught how to think like a designer. It's no surprise that I felt like a fish out of water near the beginning of my college career. Luckily, I had a few good professors along the way who taught me how to think and design. Unfortunately, the world is filled with organizations, people and processes that are so dated, they struggle to innovate. 

Innovating is uncomfortable for many. Many people prefer to stick with what they are comfortable with. (Think about those boring meetings when the grand decision is finally made to 'do things the way they've always been done', or some other BS excuse to avoid taking chances.) Others are okay with being wrong many times in order to find an incredibly appropriate solution. Innovation doesn't come without curiosity or the courage to ask and try to answer questions in ways that seem unconventional. 


Design-Driven Innovation

IDEO, arguably the most famous industrial design firm in America uses an ever-changing adaptive process to solve problems for some of the largest and most successful companies in the world. Chris Flink broke this process into 4 steps in Creative Confidence, a book written by Tom and David Kelly of IDEO.

  1. Inspiration
  2. Synthesis
  3. Ideation & Experimentation
  4. Implementation



Waiting for inspiration is like waiting to win the lottery. Put yourself in situations in which inspiration is likely to strike. Speaking with people from an empathetic approach will help you gain insights on human behavior, desires and struggles. Take these insights and design solutions for what inspires you. A designer's research often entails seeing things through the lens of an end user or target demographic, not the designer's client.



This is where you make sense of what you've seen. Try to organize your thoughts and observations and seek patterns. Identify the causes of certain situations and effects of context. Make notes and stories out of the insights you've gained when doing your inspiration research.


Ideation & Experimentation

At this phase, the goal is to get all ideas and thoughts surrounding the scenario you're designing for out of your head and into view. Whether it's drawing, sculpting, making, photographing or writing, get it down. Then see what happens when these ideas are combined and interchanged and begin asking if then statements. There are no 'wrong' answers at this point, so more is better and allowing for deviation is appropriate. This process is supposed to be quick so as to not get hung up on details. No editing should happen in this stage.



Prototyping is a way to test an idea. Creating a crude, yet functional prototype allows you to implement an idea or solution without spending excessive resources. Prototyping is very important, because often when a prototype is used by the target user, the designer is able to learn and discover new problems or opportunities. It's important that the person who is being designed for actually interacts with a prototype so the designers can observe, synthesize, ideate and implement once again. 


Your Turn

The 4 step process above is to be used in a cyclical manner, repeating steps when necessary until a viable idea is reached. I encourage you to try using design-driven innovation the next time you're faced with a problem. You'll probably find that you'll need to fight the urge to jump to conclusions and make assumptions. This is what most people learn when they try this method. The more you can trust a process rather than your gut or biases, the better of a designer and innovator you will be.