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The Innovation Complex

Monday, September 26th, 2011

This five-part Design Culture series is presented by Swinburne Design. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Swinburne Design has a history of cutting-edge teaching and revolutionary programs from Degrees to PhDs.

Innovation is in a designer’s blood, but what does it mean to be innovative—and can it be learnt, or must it be discovered?

Design is a process that needs careful thought and planning; a designer is a thinker, whose job it is to move thought to action. When it comes to successful designs, the word “innovative” is often bandied as a superlative—but what exactly does it mean?

“Design and innovation are ultimately about making people’s lives better,” Pontus Wahlgren, European Design Director of IDEO London tells TAXI. “It’s moving humanity forward to improve our current condition”.

This means that innovation should not only be carried out by cutting-edge, design-savvy companies, but also by other industries. Anything from products, services, social activities, and business concepts and managements can be considered innovative.

Get to solutions faster by bringing together multi-disciplinary teams to think, build and collaborate.

In general, there is no single definition of “innovation”, but there are two kinds of innovation: radical and incremental. Incremental innovation is when small changes or improvements are made to something, while radical innovation is when something big is created.

“When someone creates a computer, it’s radical,” Ken Friedman, Distinguished Professor and Dean of Swinburne University of Technology’s Faculty of Design says. “When someone improves a computer software, that’s incremental.”

Radical innovations are breakthroughs in technology. To create breakthroughs, exploring new technology and having a high degree of knowledge are required. Take the story of the first computer mouse, for example. Designed by IDEO for Apple in 1980, the ubiquitous device started with the unlikeliest of things: underarm deodorants.

Designer turned educator Kiran Bir Sethi started Riverside, a K-8 school in Ahmedabad, India, to help children understand that they can make a difference in the world. Sethi spread her can-do message to millions of 10- to 13-year-olds across India through a contest called Design for Change, a recent winner of an INDEX Award.

“I went to Walgreens…wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them,” Dean Hovey IDEO co-founder and the man credited for the mouse told The New Yorker.

In the process of designing the mouse, Hovey experimented with various arrangements and ball bearings, gaining wider amounts of knowledge about the parts he proposes to integrate into the product.

Like all radical innovations, there was much uncertainty of its success when it was first introduced in the market—which is why before Apple released their first mouse, Xerox PARC scrapped their mouse idea. But eventually the success of the mouse helped Apple to stay competitive in the long run, and many other companies adapted the product.


To achieve either types of innovation, many forget the fundamentals: understanding people’s latent needs and designing solutions for them. Wahlgren says this should take precedence over all other ideas. “It’s important to avoid imposing a solution on people,” he explains. “Simply strive to understand what your end consumer truly needs and create solutions for them.”

Pontus Wahlgren is a Design Director based in IDEO’s UK office.

Designers shouldn’t hazard solutions but rather design into the context. And when designing for humans, the product or service should always be human-centered. Apple’s first mouse only had one button, to avoid bombarding users.

“We came around to the fact that learning to mouse is a feat in and of itself, and to make it as simple as possible, with just one button, was pretty important,” Hovey added.

At IDEO, user desirability is one of the few elements that make up “good design”—the others being technical feasibility and commercial viability. For user-desirable products and experiences, both form and function are of equal significance and have to work hand-in-hand.

“If the solution shows the user how to intuitively use something, then the aesthetics should take care of themselves, and even help in doing so,” Wahlgren adds.

And when working towards favorable outcomes, mindsets and characteristics are also important. Wahlgren feels that to be innovative, one has to stay curious and interested, be willing, have an open mind, and not be afraid of making mistakes.

“An open mind to see possibilities beyond obstacles…be willing to approach problems, learn and share ideas…and be open to criticism,” he notes.


Having those traits may go a long way, but it is hardly enough. An innovative streak, like artistic creativity, must be harnessed—it can’t be called up at will and it requires plenty of practice. But can it be taught?

Friedman argues that innovation as a quality can’t be taught—“You can’t teach ‘good design’ either,” he says—but instead, can be nurtured. “What you can do is help develop and teach good ways of working and habits that could help create something innovative,” he explains.

On the other hand, the IDEO designer thinks it can be taught—“but not in the abstract”, he qualifies. To illustrate his point, Wahlgren cites Kiran Bir Sethi’s Design For Change program for schools as an example.

“[Bir Sethi] shows the power of teaching kids that they can, and not that they can’t,” he spells out. Compared to this, adults tend to box themselves up in a particular mode of thinking, a bad habit cultivated from fear of having their ideas rejected by others.

What Bir Sethi does is encourage children to explore their creative freedom, encouraging them to imagine out of the ordinary and not shut down anything that has a flicker of promise.

Prototyping or building to think accelerates learning during the design process. Here are early mock-ups leading to the design of the Steelcase i2i Chair.

It’s not a hard and fast way of teaching how to be innovative, but perhaps what Wahlgren is getting at is that innovation has to be practiced and experienced—you might not be able to teach it as you would math, but you can choose not to stifle it.

Friedman agrees: “It’s just that with good habits and processes, they generate good outcomes.”

“It’s not as though designers are more innovative than ordinary people.”


In 2000, Professor Friedman wrote a paper, “Creating Design Knowledge: From Research into Practice”, arguing that “because knowledge is human, developing knowledge requires thinking and practice, mind and body both. Mindless recording will not transform experience into knowledge”.

The university he works at, Swinburne, recently opened a “Learning Labs” design program, in which students could hone good working habits and processes. The lab is modeled after the Design Factory in Aalto University, a Finnish institution.

For students at the Learning Labs, “testing, model making, prototyping and user-interaction” would be part of the design outcomes, says Professor Kalevi Ekman, director of the Aalto Design Factory says.

In different schools or faculties, there are different ways of ‘teaching’ innovation. But at a design school on a university level, Professor Ekman says that Aalto or Swinburne “focuses more on the user, creativity, searching for problems and methods for communicating the solution concepts, and seeing the big picture on a holistic”.

In this working environment, students from various backgrounds try their hands at real work. Although the atmosphere would be lenient with “no office hours, low bureaucracy, no hierarchy” and students are allowed to work independently, they would be entrusted with real life clients and projects, Ekman adds.

“[The program is] an operational environment for courses, research and activities with business partners,” Ekman describes. Students from various backgrounds are assembled into teams to generate and execute ideas—as most successful design solutions require a several kinds of expertise—and they’ve a wealth of tools at their disposal.

Machine shops, electro shops, knitting machine shops along with carefully tailored spaces for collaboration and prototyping are set up in the Design Factory, according to Ekman.


“90% of every design business is execution,” Friedman states. “What makes an organization innovative and successful is when people work together to achieve a common goal.”

Take Apple for example. It designs operating systems, apps, and the hardware they run on, a gargantuan task that brings together industrial designers, software engineers and marketers. The attention to detail on Apple’s computers mirrors the sleek user experience on its operating system, and they’re all tied together by a brand that’s second to none.

Although thinking up new practices can be catalyzed by poor performances, it doesn’t mean innovative organizations with the best designers should force failure upon themselves in the early stages of a project. In fact, failure should come naturally—not that that’s a bad thing.

“To win the game, lots of practice in execution is needed to find new ways and strategies,” Friedman continues, “even with a soccer team of the best players.”

Organizations need to prototype and try new execution strategies for various sectors, which could range from manufacturing to services.


To arrive at Apple’s level of finesse, prototyping needs to be a quick and constant effort—if anything to smoothen out the creases. “By prototyping many options early on, sharing with others and learning from each attempt, you are mitigating risk and accelerating learning,” Wahlgren explains.

IDEO’s mantra to the entire exercise? “Fail faster, succeed sooner.”

But too often, designers fall into the pitfall of believing they are finished with the design at the prototyping stage.

“Prototyping is a way to learn through the creative process,” Wahlgren says. “But you need to allow time to explore the softer sides of the design by iteratively crafting and refining your work, even all the way to the production line.”

Another risk designers tend to underestimate is “relying too much on technicalities of the process”, Wahlgren observes.

There is no formula that can be followed to succeed and innovate, as by doing so, “you are not allowing the space to trust your gut,” he says.

When designers simply follow formulas, they preconceive notions of the solutions; they don’t fully experience and pay attention to what they have to solve, which could be deemed hazardous. Many designers miss out on valuable insights that could’ve been gained through their own experiences.

To design innovative solutions, purpose and planning play crucial roles. As Silicon Valley legend Steve Jobs says, it’s not just about what it eventually looks like or feels like—“design is how it works”.

All images Courtesy of IDEO

This series is proudly presented by Swinburne University of Technology, Faculty of Design.

Swinburne Design has a history of cutting-edge teaching and revolutionary programs. They teach Design Anthropology, Product Design Engineering, and double-degrees in Design/Business, as well as Communication Design, Film and Television, Industrial Design, and Interior Design.

Swinburne Design launched an Industry Placement program in the 1970s, and in 2011 opened the Swinburne Design Factory in collaboration with Aalto University.

Their design research unit is one of the best in Australia, and their PhD program is internationally recognized. Swinburne Design is immensely proud of each of their thousands of graduates and their many achievements around the world.

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This five-part Design Culture series is presented by Swinburne Design. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Swinburne Design has a history of cutting-edge teaching and revolutionary programs from Degrees to PhDs.

Innovation is in a designer’s blood, but wh…