July 11, 2006

Innovation & Design


1. The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.

2. A change made in the nature or fashion of anything; something newly introduced; a novel practice, method, etc.


5. Comm. The action of introducing a new product into the market; a product newly brought on to the market.

Just when did design start turning into innovation?

I had been waiting for Business Week's new design "magazine within a magazine", Inside Innovation, with considerable interest. My own tastes in business weeklies runs more towards Barron's and The Economist than to BW itself, so it's not that I excited about the prospective content and writing. But the very fact that BW was launching a design focused magazine is news itself and I was quite interested in just what their take would be. Peter Merholz reactions to the content itself are pretty spot on, but what really struck was the branding. I was expecting a design magazine, and indeed there are occasional indications that was what it is or was supposed to be at some point. But for the most part what came out from the title on down was not a magazine about design at all but one about "innovation". And design is quite explicitly not equal to innovation.

No one is explicitly claiming design and innovation are the same thing, but in Business Week you can see the story of innovation implicitly being used to substitute for design. Their recent extensive design coverage is mainly driven by one man, Bruce Nussbaum, who is both the editor of Inside Information and the person who has been getting all sorts of design focused articles into the plain old Business Week. His blog, dating back to September 2005, is NussbaumOnDesign. Clearly design is the focus, although it is subtitled "inside the business of innovation and design". Innovation is there, yes, but it is clearly distinguished as being distinct from design. The distinction is echoed by some of the more interesting and larger design firms. live|work for instance is in the business of "service innovation & design", while Frog splits it's site navigation into "Design Services" and "Business Innovation" at the very top level*. Meanwhile "IDEO helps companies innovate. We design products, services, environments and experiences."

The distinction remains on the Business Week cover as it introduces Inside Innovation, but the weight has shifted. Innovation occurs three times, once as the first word in the headline, once as part of the sub-magazine title and once in the blurb, where design makes it's one small appearance. Flip inside to the actual "magazine" Inside Innovation, and you'll find no mention of design at all on the cover, perhaps because the cover is nearly completely devoid of content. Meanwhile what started out as Business Week's design magazine is teetering on the edge of not being about design at all.

Innovation has always been an important aspect of the design process, but innovation alone can never be a substitute for design as a whole. Design, at least when it is good, is about solving problems. Innovation always possesses the potential to produce a solution, but the only thing it can guarantee generating is novelty. A designer must always be open to the possibility that the best solution is one that already exists. There is probably room for innovation in the realm of the book for instance, but most writers are going to be far better served by the book designs already in existence. One of the higher profile attempts to produce innovative book designs is MIT Press' Mediawork Pamphlets [sic] series, and the results are often atrocious.

This past winter I walked into St. Marks Books three times with the explicit intention of buying Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things. It's a well written and thought provoking book, and one that is relevant enough to my work that it really needs to be in my personal library. Yet the design itself is so innovatively bad that I could not bring myself to buy it the first two trips. Worse yet though is the fact that it actively distracts from the legibility of the text, although some of the other Mediawork Pamphlets, Katherine Hayle's for example, manage to be even worse. It might be an innovative series, but it sure is not a well designed one.

So design and innovation are not the same thing, but what exactly are the implications of the two increasingly entering into a slippery confusion? Innovation it seems is becoming the catch phrase under which the design world and big business are conducting their increasingly hot flirtation. Design of course has always been about business, but the relationship has tended to be small and discreet, something to be conducted on the edge of the business world.

It was of all people Tom Peters who really took the relationship public, shouting in his trademarked manner that "design matters!" But at the same time some of the larger design firms, particularly of the product design type began to see themselves as consultants. Their situation was similar to that of many of the accounting firms that birthed management consulting offshoots years ago. As outsiders working extensively inside of companies, both the designers and accountants found themselves in positions uniquely suited for seeing ways to improve a company that the insiders might never see. Suddenly design firms started to see themselves as consulting firms, with "design thinking" and then "innovation" being the pitch. In this regard the innovation movement is good for design, a trojan horse or perhaps mutual cover story under which design thinking can be applied to business.

If good design is about solving problems, well then good business is often about selling solutions. Add the two and two together and it seems like a good, perhaps even ideal mix. Design might just might be the skill set needed to seriously improve business' ability to discover the solutions that are so necessary to good business. But things are not always good in both the world of design and business. Bad design would rather cover over problems than solve them while bad business is about just plain selling, not selling solutions. Innovation might just be the buzzword under which the two worlds meet, or it just might be the way in which design thinking is dumbed down into just another consulting buzzword.

Business Week is obviously not a design magazine, so it's no surprise its design quarterly is written in a language somewhat different than what designers choose for themselves. But it's not exactly written in the no nonsense, cut to the chase, language of hardcore business either, but rather in more nonsensical cheer of management speak. Language constructed for the explicit purpose of asslicking all the way to the top, or if that fails, at least fluttering all the way out of trouble. In the case of outside consultants it also means keeping the clients both confused and scared enough to keep paying, while flattered and massaged enough to keep paying. It's a language that has no direct ways to address problems, only ways to avoid the messy truth they contain. Problems after all are bad your career if you are on the inside. Outside consultants are of course supposed to identify and help solve problems, but there is a big problem with that task itself: very few clients actually want their real problems pointed out. It makes them look bad, after all and why pay someone to do that?

If innovation in the hands of a designer is an important part of a problem solving process, in the hands of Business Week it seems it is a part of removing the very idea of a problem from design. It smoothly separates what is useful and what is just fun in the design process, and leaves a rather worthless buzzword on the other end. Innovation is a means of producing novelty and novelty is exactly the sort of stuff that is good for bad business. Novelty can be sold for the sake of selling, it can be hyped, pumped, churned, and then forgotten once the profit margins fade and the new consulting trend is catching on.

Of course Business Week is new to the innovation/design game so there is plenty of time for designer to make a legitimate impact. The only question is how? What is so worrisome about the latest trend over at Business Week is how clearly professional they are at the language of co-option. Both the magazine and the consulting companies have been in this game forever. Designers are new at it, and for all the solutions and skillsets they bring in, they lack an infrastructure to fall back on and ride. In other words they are just a bit outmatched here. But perhaps with a little innovation they will end up on top in this ride.

*Frog actually launched a new site while I was in the midst of writing this, so that is no longer true, and to their credit they have buried the innovation language deeper in the site than it once was.

Posted by Abe at July 11, 2006 04:45 PM


I have been purchasing the Business Week magazine and no doubt they serve as a guide in designers aim. This is a useful magazine to all those who wants to build unique infrastructure and any other designs. Business Week is not just a magazine; it is a guide that will enhance your business.

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