Why Design Innovation Assumes Greater Importance

Dushyant Vanaik updated on : 20 Jun 2017

Why Design Innovation Assumes Greater Importance

“I dream of the power of individuals, whether alone or in small groups, to unleash their creative spirits, their imagination, and their talents to develop a wide range of innovation.” (Donald Norman in the 'The Design of Everyday Things')

A design is human-centered, in that, it essentially reflects human needs and wants, as well as the central ideas and artistic, cultural perceptions of the time. The designer, with empathy, is expected to accommodate aesthetic, economic, technological, and commercial constraints and arrive at an appropriate synthesis - in a cumulative process of problem-solving, goal orienting, questioning of assumptions, conceptual thinking, planning, decision-making and creation. Design as an activity involves a wide spectrum of professions in which graphics, interiors, architecture, products and services, all take part, with the overarching intention of enhancing the quality of life.

Innovation in design is distinctly aligned to the onward trajectories of improvement and betterment, and it can bring itself to bear across all the stages of the design process, of a) defining, b) researching, c) ideation, d) prototyping, e) selection, f) implementation and g) learning. The design process directs and controls creativity in a manner that channelizes it towards arriving at a pragmatic and viable solution to the design problem - just meeting the requirements or even going beyond the delineated goals of the brief. Since innovation germinates from pushing the current boundaries, it is in the latter instance that it is most fertile in. While creative endeavours within a design are vital, the purpose of any design activity is to serve both creative and economic objectives. The design process aims to seed a number of possible appropriate solutions, at the same time deploying various mechanisms that distinctly encourages designers to go off the beaten path, and ‘think outside the box’ in order to generate solutions that are innovative.

Cognitive scientist Donald Norman elaborates on two fundamental types of design innovation: Incremental and Radical. The former type of innovation unfolds in a relatively slow and evolutionary manner, whereas the latter type creates a significant point of departure that is both radical, revolutionary and new. The common tendency is to consider innovation as being revolutionary, radical, heralding major changes. The truth is that they are more of an exception rather than the rule. A parallel can be drawn with scientific investigation. To quote philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn: “Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition” (from ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ – 1996). In effect, the most potent and common type of innovation is that which is small and incremental and ‘within existing traditions’. Each progressive step of incremental innovation is modest at best but added up, these steady and slow improvements in the continuum can lead to rather remarkable changes over a period. Compare a Ford Model T car (1908) to a Tesla Model 3 car (2018), and it becomes amply clear, that the intentions and purposes being the same, both the motor vehicles are remarkably different in revolutionary ways – differences resulting from small, incremental innovations over time.

Innovations of a radical nature lead to paradigmatic shifts. The Sony Walkman (1979) was a radical innovation that had a change-making impact upon people’s habits of musical experiences, of commuting and music listening. What was largely a social and collective experience, was rapidly turned around to a personalised and private experience. ‘Lost’ or ‘wasted’ time in long intra-city or even inter-country commutes could suddenly be reclaimed. The arrival of motor vehicles radically altered place of work – home ‘distances’, along with also being instrumental in causing massive fatalities every year as road accidents worldwide shot upwards. The introduction of mobile telephony, and then internet-enabled handheld devices along with social networks, created radical impacts on society and even interpersonal behaviour. Design innovation includes both slow, incremental innovation as well as paradigm altering radical innovation. Both are essential as far as design innovation goes.

Incremental innovation through the ‘Hill Climbing’ metaphor: The human-centered design process is deeply rooted in incremental innovation, as a design evolves via continual improvements, refinement and testing – followed by stages of re-modification and retesting for further enhancements. Eventually, this continuous incremental process leads to a stage in design whereby the weaker features are modified into strong ones, and the strong features remain. This entire process is explained by the metaphor of climbing a hill blindfolded. Imagine attempting to climb a hill with no visual abilities to aid you in navigation and pathfinding! You will slowly move your foot in one direction and if you discover that it is downhill, you will try another direction. If the new direction is indicating uphill, then you will take one step up. You will keep doing this continuously till you arrive at a point where all further steps indicate only downhill. This is when you will know that you have reached the top of the hill or peak! The optimal, appropriate design solution.

Unlike incremental innovation, radical innovation begins anew, often triggered by fresh toolsets and technologies that translate to newer, and at times, unprecedented capabilities. The development and deployment of GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites brought forth the radical innovations of location based services of various kinds, amongst which transportation network companies like Ola and Uber revolutionised how millions of people commute daily. The meaning of technology is also constantly getting reconsidered and redefined. Modern data networks and the internet helped radically collapse the earlier separate media of magazines, newspapers, books, radio, television and movies, into ‘one medium’. The collapsing and reconfiguration of industries is still taking place, and design innovation will continue unabated, though not entirely subservient to ideas of ‘built-in obsolescence’. Understandably, radical innovation is far less frequent than incremental innovation, but both are absolutely essential as to how humankind continues to design innovate for a better quality of life.

About the Author:

Mr Milindo Taid, Mentor - School of Design, Whistling Woods International

Mr Taid comes from an academic background and has taught at various Institutes such as NID, Manipal University & MIT, Pune, over his 18-year career. His work includes Professional Education; Design- Communication-Media pedagogy; Communication Design; Visual Communication; History of Design, Design Philosophy, Qualitative Research; Communication and Media Theory; Spatio-Temporal Media; Film design; Film Education; Liberal Arts Education – Theory, Philosophy and History; Applied Arts; Visual and the Photographic Arts; Educational administration.

He has conducted the following courses as well: Fiction and Documentary Video Film Projects / Animation Projects; Media Studies; Research Methodologies; History of Cinema; History of Design; Visual Communication; Introduction to Communication; Graphic Design Projects; New Media Projects; Film Language; New Media; Visual Thinking; Cinema Studies; Elements of Moving Images; Elements of Video; Photography; Scripting for Documentary; Sound and Culture (Audio Design); Interaction Design; Cross-Cultural Studies; Studio Programming.

Apart from conducting his research work while at the Universitat Politècnica de València, València, Spain, he also taught classes comprising of students from Europe, South America and Asia. He has also been a visiting faculty at the Annapurna International School of Film and Media, Hyderabad and the DAIICT, Gandhinagar. 

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