What is the Relationship between Innovation and Design?

By Aditya Dev Sood

El Lissitzky, 'The Constructor'

The classic theory of innovation is provided in economic terms by Joseph Schumpeter, who listed several different kinds of changes that could be brought about through entrepreneurial activity. These include the discovery and creation of new markets, the development of new methods of production and transportation, as well as new forms of industrial organization, and new kinds of consumer goods. All these different kinds of entrepreneurial activity require creative thinking, resourcefulness, planning, forethought and continuous compensatory action. In other words, they require that specifically human ability for intentional social or material change, which we may call design.

However, of all the different dimensions of entrepreneurship identified by Schumpeter, there is one, which seems to have a greater impact on our collective consciousness, which seems to shape culture, and which may in fact create greater value than all the others. This is the last area of innovation listed above, the creation of new kinds of consumer good. For in creating a consumer good, one is also already creating new kinds of experiences, new propositions about how to experience and live in the world, one may be instantiating and imbuing into a product or service new ideologies about what is good and valuable. There is therefore, a larger role for design in this particular area of innovation, which necessarily encompasses the different ways in which a product or service is experienced, including its very brand, identity, packaging, color, finish and materiality, form, user experience, all of which come to bear cumulatively on the underlying technology and platforms through which it may be delivered.

If, as Schumpeter more or less says, innovation describes the business or economic dimension of the forward movement of society under capitalism, then the immanent, cognitive or mental aspect of this forward movement can be captured by the term design. It is the multivariate, parallel, sometimes collaborative process of finding solutions to problems that have no obvious and available answer.

Whereas the language of design gained prominence in the Industrial Age as a means for the rendering of surfaces and finishes for the more effective marketing of consumer products (‘posters and toasters’), the concept has far wider application in the present. The most effective practitioners and users of design in contemporary times have proved, time and again, that a multidimensional approach to design that encompasses all levels and aspects of the user experience, including the making and reinforcement of meaning and value for the user, also yields the greatest success in the market.

How can techniques developed for the creation and distribution of consumer goods be relevant for the solving of large social and public challenges? While no close relation between these two areas of human activity may immediately suggest itself, a moment’s reflection will reveal that the large and intractable challenges that we encounter in the public sphere are also multivariate, complex, with multiple stakeholders and competing definitions of the problem and therefore of its possible solution. It is precisely for these reasons that they are likely to be amenable to the application of design-based approaches for the creation of solutions, which go beyond the obvious and readily visible options available to decision-makers.

Innovation in the public sphere, therefore, will necessarily involve design as a means of thinking, creative rearticulation, continuous reiteration and refinement of the grand challenges facing society.