Innovation and Design

Roberto Verganti’s Design-Driven Innovation, a business book on how “firm’s” can participate in larger networks of design discourse in order to achieve radically innovative stuff. Mostly an argument with a three-step “how-to” addressed chiefly to executives. An intriguing argument with a fistful of examples presented over and over to drive these points home. In the “good” column, I would say that it is not bad to have (another) book addressed to (potentially) skeptical executives who are more motivated by features and bottom line bill-of-materials/profit/margin sorts of things. On the “m’eh” column, I would say that the book, like most business books, simplifies the really curious, intriguing and fun challenges of leading an organization that has fiduciary and legal responsibilities to make as much money as it can; that has cultures that are led chiefly by engineering and accounting; that thinks design is putting lovely curves around rectangular circuit boards; &c; &c; It would be a much more interesting read to hear the knotty, thorny challenges of design-led innovation. Rather than the “pat” case studies, I would like to have more of a deep/thick investigation of what happens really when one leads with design. It’s more than partying with the well-known, hipster designers Verganti highlights.

I’m reading two books at once, a dangerous thing to do because one is always interpreted alongside the other, changing what it may have been and my perspective, necessarily. But, in hindsight I would say that I am doing this on purpose. One of the books is Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies) by Bruno Latour, which I am reading for the second time. The other book is Design Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean by Roberto Verganti, which I only bought because of the suggestive, business-y title and because business books are things I can make short work of during a 5 hour airplane flight. You know — they basically tell you everything you discover in the title, and then repeat it for no more than 200 or 250 pages, only with snap-to-grid, spic-and-span examples.

* Skip right on past my rambling to my executives’ summary *

What could be the relationship between a noted sociologist-of-associations and a tailored-suit-with-french-cuffs-wearing business professor / management consultant? Perhaps nothing useful. But, one of the roughly constructed graphics in Verganti’s book resonated with Latour’s notion of the collective — and it was even described as a drawing of “a collective research laboratory” — and being a good Latourian, I had to follow the links in my head. These are just some sticky-notes between these two books and my own interest in the role of design in changing things, as well as the ways that organizations can be led by design sensibilities or design studios, rather than engineering efforts and accounting principles. Both are things that are lurking below the surface of these two books, Verganti more explicitly than Latour.

You’ll recall — or I’ll just tell you — that central to the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) developed by Latour, Michel Callon, John Law and shaped and specified by many others, is this idea of a “collective”, a kind of messy networked assemblage. It’s the word that Latour replaces for “society”, too predisposed is the “s” word to take on the subtle and important shifts in meaning it would need to become a useful idiom for ANT. A collective consists of people and things called actors that circulate meanings, creating themselves as a kind of network, or an assemblage of humans and non-humans that stabilizes when all the material and meanings become consistent and controversy/hair-splitting ceases, or at least quiets down. At that point of stabilization, one has a solidified, established network — sometimes that network reifies a fact, or reality, or the way things are in a particular idiom of material and meanings. Collectives are always performing, always checking themselves, erecting boundaries, describing what is and is not relevant, what is and is not one of itself — who/what is “in” and who/what is “out.”

Roberto Verganti’s intermediary graphic, the collective of a research laboratory that enrolls a variety of participants in the activity of innovation. On the one hand, this is a diffraction of the more typical network of participants who might perform innovation exercises for the ‘firm.’ From another point of view, these are those who participate in one way or another, despite what the ‘firm’ may do. That is, when something new and unusual and peculiar happens — the introduction of, *shrug*, touch to a wide audience, then these participants become involved in some form. It may be speculation about where this innovation “goes”; complaints/suits/allegations about “who did it first”; intellectual property filings; a maelstrom of new products/projects/student theses exercising and evolving the “innovation.” In fact, we might say that innovation is precisely the activation of a wider networks of commitment/interest/involvement in something that produces, as Verganti describes it, “new meanings”, or offers unexpected “proposals” to people.

The network in Verganti’s diagram captures a high-level view of the participants the author is arguing should be involved in “a firm’s” (what’s that, anyway?) trajectory toward greatness — success, achievement, uniqueness, differentiation, creators-of-natty-great-things.

Verganti’s central argument is this: expand the network around and beyond which a business conventionally might do its innovation work. He calls for a more active, engaged participation in the communities of design as a way to innovate beyond design-as-styling. A “firm” (translates roughly to the top-most decision makers and executives) should listen, interpret, integrate design sensibilities within the organization, and actively participate within the design world. For Verganti, a firm should not limit itself/oneself to the engineering-focused R&D labs which, more often than not, make weird things driven by the impulses of engineers who are never quite fluent in understanding people and their practices. He also makes a case against user-centered research as he sees it as something that can only engage users in a limited fashion, or survey a group of focused users to confirm a bit of style or color choice leading to an incremental improvement as opposed to a more radical innovation.

Rather than relying on technology-based research breakthroughs, or the voice of “users” through user-centered research, Verganti emphasizes “radical innovation” brought through this expanded network of design.

In a cynical way I would say that Verganti is saying that CEOs should hang out with fancy-pants designers for inspiration. I might say that CEOs should be closer to designers than they should be to businessmen.


Verganti describes three kinds of innovation that are about as broad as one would expect from a business book: technological push, user-centered and radical.

The Three Kinds of Innovation via Verganti

1. Technology Push (technology-based, instrumental adjustments, Moore’s Law, etc.) Often focused on searching for new markets for a technology without fulling appreciating the meanings of the new stuff.

“The effect is that when looking for potential applications, companies focus on technological substitutions: they use a new technology to supplant an old one, thus reinforcing the existing meaning. And if the technology cannot support the existing meaning, companies simply disregard it. Indeed, Microsoft and Sony did not search for how to apply MEMS because it was useless to passive players who use only thumbs. Nintendo invested in three-dimensional accelerometers because it wanted to overturn meaning.”
[p. 65-66]

2. Market pull User-centered perspectives yield an appreciation of what things mean to “users”. Improvements (“incremental change”) comes about by analysis of users’ needs. You pull the world forward, up a step, by understanding what your customers are doing.

A company looking for radical innovation of meaning does not get too close to users, because the meaning users give to things is bounded by the existing sociocultural regime. Instead, when investing in radical innovation of meaning, companies..take a step back and investigate the evolution of society, economy, culture, art, science, and technology.

This is not to say that they analyze trends: those are visible because they are already happening. These companies instead search for new possibilities that are consistent with the evolution of sociocultural phenomena but that are not there until a company transforms them into products and proposes them to people. They look for the seeds that they can cultivate into blossoms. They have a superior ability to understand, create and influence new product meanings.

This does not mean that they do not care about people’s needs. Rather, they carefully investigate how people give meaning to things. First..the company looks at people, not users. When a company gets very close to a user, it sees him changing a lightbulb and loses the cognitive and sociocultural context — the fact that he has children, a job, and, most of all, aspirations and dreams.
Second, the company looks at people within a changing sociocultural context. To understand possible new meanings, the company steps back and looks at the big picture to see what people could love in a yet-to-exist scenario and how they might receive new proposals.

3. Design driven innovation – creates new meanings. Rather than looking at what a new or improved technology can do, or looking at existing user needs, create new meanings or “proposals” through design. Companies propose to people “break-through visions” — things out of the realm of the ordinary.

We call the radical innovation of meanings design-driven innovation, or design push, because it is propelled by a firm’s vision about possible breakthrough meanings and product languages that people could love (retrospectively, people often seem to have been simply waiting for them). Design-driven innovation resembles the process of technology push more than that of market pull.

“Design driven innovation” is what Verganti is pitching as the route to distinction, differentiation, opportunity, etc. It is quite different from user-centered innovation, in his estimation. Instead of “..closely looking with a magnifying lens at how a person cuts cheese, [ask] ‘What meanings could family members search for when they are home and are going to have dinner?’ ”

Design-driven innovation steps back from users and looks at a different perspective — at the assemblage of possible interconnected meanings, exploring contexts that may be evolving and changing both “socioculturally” and “technically.” It is not about following trends, but exploring alternative scenarios and materializing designed contexts that are proposals to users — points of entry to quite new experiences, with new meanings, perhaps incompletely explored in the context of commercial activities. Design-driven innovation moves beyond the routine and quotidian into a new network of meanings. The meaning of things can be radically innovate just as technologies can.

Incremental versus “radical” change – what does this mean?

“Incremental” is perhaps best defined as a change that stays tightly coupled to the existing, stabilized material-semantic network — meanings, usages, principles of engagement, where things fit in life, what gets done and how it gets done, etc., have not changed to the degree that no one really questions if this “new” service/device/OS/UX/UI “makes sense” — it does because it is consistent and congruent with the already stabilized state of affairs.

“Radical” is a change that lives nearly or completely out of the existing stabilized state of affairs. It may be that a cluster at the periphery of a stabilized assemblage “spins off” because it becomes inconsistent in its objectives and meaning; or that it is peripheral and the circuits of knowledge, semantics and power lose any chance of legibility within an already-stabilized constellation of meaning. It will not make sense and the degree to which it won’t is a measure of its radical potential to be the seed of “newness” that has only the potential to stabilize a new state of affairs, a new network of things-people-devices-experiences.

The Process

Of course, this being a management consultants sort of book, design-driven innovation has a process. This is one of those books that is “actionable” — it gives a recipe for creating your own design-driven innovation.

Design-driven innovation is all about getting close to these interpreters of the networks of design by listening to the interpreters, translating what knowledge is gained by integrating and recombining with the firm’s own internal networks, and actively participating in these interpretation networks so as to prepare the greater world for the new, proposed meanings introduced by the radically innovated something-or-another.

What is notable here is that he suggests expanding the network of participants and agents and actors who can participate in creating new stuff. Whereas once it was sufficient to be “radical” by doing user-centered research, by doing the corporate version of anthropology called user anthropology, by understanding user needs — in Verganti’s estimation, these approaches are no longer sufficient to create business-valued “differentiation” mostly because it is so routine to do these sorts of things. But, Verganti also seems to be implying that “users” are not the same as “people” and, anyway, users when asked about their lightbulb-changing needs will only talk about that — their lightbulb-changing needs. In other words, user-centered research focuses the research on the central needs of users in a specific context. Hoping for a user who can expand the meaning of lightbulbs into broader arrangements of possibilities as pertains the topic may be asking too much. The problem of lightbulb changing has been reified and already given a context. It’s as if Verganti is saying that the user-centered researcher will focus on a lightbulb, a lightbulb socket, maybe a ladder and a human hand, and has not the resources or too much pressure from “the firm” to move beyond this context. Focus the lens on users and their needs and you will not dolly to the left and focus on other networks of influence that may reshape the meaning of illumination, say, and offer bits of material that, with a design approach, could shift the entire game.

According to Verganti, why won’t “user-centered” approaches do this? Because these approaches can only interpret what users already know. Focus groups, insights into user needs — these things do not make proposals about new possible meanings. They provide, in the best of cases, a better understanding of existing meanings. They do not create a set of new possible experiences, which is what Verganti is pushing — the design-driven innovation process creates radical innovations of meanings, which may be unexpected at the same time that they can produce unexpected new business opportunities. (Plus, I would add — “users”? What’s that, anyway? As soon as you start using this dispicable term, can you talk about anything other than something punching little plastic squares? Do “users” get distracted while performing a “task” when the baby starts crying? Do “users” get flustered when they cannot navigate a poorly organized, crappily styled menu tree because it was laid out by someone transferring items in a spreadsheet into a UI template? Users are a reification that never captures the intricacies of people and their practices. But, it’s a reification that makes it simple to make things that ultimately are fairly horrible for people. And, thus..we have what we have today in many instances. Like my coffee maker? That requires cording buttons with two hands on a vertical curved surface? In order to set the delayed brew? And the pressure necessary from two hands makes the machine tip and slide backwards, as if it were recoiling from me. This is what you get when you design for users, rather than normal, human, everyday people.)

Verganti argues that design can drive radical innovation by creating new meanings as “proposals” to people. Rather than giving incremental adjustments to existing contexts, which he says is the best one can expect from a user-centered (user-driven) design, “firms” should use design to create entirely new meanings, new “proposals” to users beyond what they may expect. These will then lead to things people will love. He describes three kinds of innovation, driven in a sense from three different places: technology, users needs, and design-as-meaning-making.

“[Companies like Apple and Nintendo] are instead making proposals, putting forward a vision. This is why I call this strategy design-driven: like radical innovation of technologies, it is a push strategy..They end up being what people were waiting for, once they see them. They often love them much more than products that companies have developed by scrutinizing users’ needs. these proposals are wellsprings for the creation of sustainable profit.” [p. 10]

By itself, creating new meanings is not enough — one also has to socialize those meanings as a way of developing the new semantics. Some would call it more crassly marketing and leveraging relationships with those agents at the fringe of culture-making, such as design and art.

It takes strong actors (human or non-human) to create and to stabilize new networks of meaning, or break-off the seeds of “new/different/” networks by giving them meaning consistent enough to stabilize, enroll, and grow, and thus form a larger network of material-semiotic consistency. It’s not enough to have a clever idea — one must socialize it.

So, how do you do this? As a business book written by a cufflink-wearing management professor, there must be a process. Verganti outlines this process, with the central actor being these interpreters — like shepherds of meaning, they mobilize meaning within the circuits of design.

“Interpreters” — these are actors (humans and non-humans — people, organizations, bits and scraps of material, intellect, processes looking to exercise and activate their potential differently, etc.) who can mobilize and circulate in the peripheral and other networks. With these interpreters, you listening, understand and contribute to the creation and circulation of new ideas.

The first [step of the design-driven innovation process] is listening. It is the action of gaining access to knowledge about possible new product meanings by interacting with interpreters. Firms that listen better are those that develop privileged relationships with a distinguished group of key interpreters. These are not necessarily the most famous in the industry. Rather, successful firms first identify overlooked interpreters, usually in fields where competitors are not searching. Key interpreters are forward-looking researchers who are developing, often for their own purposes, unique visions about how meanings could evolve in the life context we want to investigate. Firms that realize design-driven innovations are better than their competitors at detecting, attracting, and interacting with key interpreters.

The second action is interpreting. Its purpose is to allow a company to develop its unique proposal. It is the internal process through which the firm assesses the knowledge it gains by interacting with interpreters and then recombines and integrates this knowledge with its own proprietary insights, technologies, and assets. This process reflects the profound and precise dynamics of research rather than the speed of brainstorming..It resembles the process of science and engineering (although it targets meanings rather than technologies) more than that of a creative agency. Its outcome is the development of a breakthrough meaning for a product family.

The third action is addressing. Radical innovations of meanings, being unexpected, sometimes initially confuse people. To prepare the ground for groundbreaking proposals, firms leverage the seductive power of interpreters. By discussing and internalizing a firm’s novel vision, these interpreters inevitably change the life context (through the technologies they develop, the products and services they design, the artworks they create) in a way that makes the company’s proposal more meaningful and attractive when people see it.
[p. 13]

The practice of design can happen without a formal set of processes and steps. Although it may be comforting to say — here is our process, here are its steps — instrumentalizing design in this way will lead to nothing more than what one expects, which is oftentimes not a particularly astonishing innovation. It will lead to things congruent with what exists “today” and thus never “radical” and even, arguably, consistent enough with the old stuff to barely count as new. The radical innovation by definition cannot have a formalized process. No post-it design. No PowerPoint decks. The less involvement from process-oriented and goal-oriented actors, the better. If your goal is to create something new, you can’t also expect to make something that profits because that is the same old goals

It would take either a dedicated leader with the ability to become involved not just in the bottom-line, brass-tack aspects of running “a firm” (ugh) at the level of operations. This leader would also need to be deeply appreciative and committed to what it is to design first for people; to take risks with no-fear; to not overemphasize the petty logics of technical functionality or feature-matching with competitors; to refuse to ride wake of other, stronger design leaders; to be a participant in the design discourse with authentic, original, thoughtful contributions and with strong, honest listening skills.

The rest of the book explicates what design-driven innovation is, how it has been performed, and what it can yield — through examples from the normal world. Apple iPod, Tea Pots, Orange Juicers, Lamps.

The Summary

I would say just a few quick things:
* Verganti emphasizes too much the “heroic” designers.
* Verganti makes too much of a clean distinction between “user-centered approaches” and the “radical.” You cannot understand meaning-making without knowing people. But, I tend to agree in the general case that user-centered approaches may be a bit naive as a means of understanding “needs.” I would say that it is productive to get out of the studio and walk amongst people and so forth. I would not every rely to a great degree on formal means of translating what people say into “inputs” that shape what something becomes, and neither would I ignore what people say. It is good to get out. It is good to be lead by intuition, as well. But, justifying a decision against a survey result or a spreadsheet is not designing.
* And, I would not refer to people as “users.” That isn’t helpful at all. “Users” are a particularly objectionable reification of people — I guess its the term for people when they are in spreadsheets and statistical calculations.
* I think he terribly misunderstands that technologies are meanings when he says that the process of science and engineering is what “interpreting” resembles (p. 13) Some might look at this as a simplification — “oh, I know what he means, so it’s okay” — but I think that a deeper explication of the knotty mess of this all is crucial to his argument. If there really is an argument here.

Oh, wait. Here it is. Richard Powers’ description of what a ‘firm’ is written in Gain, via Latour, who wonders the same thing — what is a ‘firm’:

To make a profit. To make a consistent profit. To make a profit in the long run. To make a living. To make things. To make things in the most economical way. To make things for the longest possible time. To make things that people need. To make things that people desire. To make people desire things. To give meaningful employment. To give reliable employment. To give people something to do. To do something. To provide the greatest food to the greatest number. To promote the general welfare. To provide for the common defense. To increase the value of the common stock. To pay a regular dividend. To maximize the net worth of the firm. To advance the lot of all the stakeholders. To grow. To progress. To expand. To increase knowhow. To increase revenues and to decrease costs. To get the job done more cheaply . To compete efficiently. To buy low and sell hight. To improve the hand that humankind has been dealt. To produce the next round of technological innovations. To rationalize nature. To improve the landscape. To shatter space and arrest time. To see what the human race can do. To amass the country’s retirement pension. To amass the capital required to do anything we want to do. To discover what we want to do. To vacate the premises before the sun dies out. To make life a little easier. To make people a little wealthier. To make people a little happier. To build a better tomorrow. To kick something back into the kitty. To facilitate the flow of capital. To preserve the corporation. To do business. To stay in business. To figure out the purpose of business.

Why do I blog this? Just some quick notes-to-self on this material. I am encouraged for the time-being of the capability that design sensibilities or design-led innovation has something to offer in terms of how ideas are generated and how “design” as a process can be a form of materializing these ideas. Rather than steps, steps, steps and processes — more of an iteration and refinement of things, always re-invigorated by engagement and trial and experiences. So, no distinction between design and the execution of a design. Design is not the thing that is done prior to the making of a thing — it is always happening, with the ability to have the making informed in new, intriguing ways, using peculiar tactics, materials and approaches.

cf. Design-Driven Innovation – the powerful advantage that comes from changing the meaning of a product

cf. Shop Talk Podcast: Roberto Verganti on “Design-Driven Innovation”

cf. Design Driven Innovation