Thinking Design

In his book “Design-Driven Innovation.  Changing the rules of competition by radically innovating what things mean” author Roberto Verganti argues that truly ground-breaking innovation happens when leaders propose a new vision to the market that is made possible by a new technology, but most importantly, how it changes the underlying meaning (or the ‘why?’) of a certain activity.   He actually challenges the traditional view of ‘Design Thinking’ practiced by leading industrial design firm, IDEO, stating that the ‘user centered’ approach and its reliance on observation more often than not leads to incremental, not radical, change in what people are doing (or not yet doing).

The book includes a couple of keystone examples for his theory, including the Wii.   Verganti argues the Wii transformed gaming from an entertainment activity requiring thumb dexterity to whole-body motion and socialization (for virtually everyone, not just experts).  Other examples include Apple’s iPod/iTunes and WholeFoods – both transformative plays in their respective domains.

Verganti acknowledges that most companies focus their competitive moves on ‘why’ a customer/consumer needs a product vs. simply the ‘what’.   He instead makes the case that most companies do not understand how meanings change or how to innovate them:

  • That companies are too focused on exploring meaning through one side of the value equation, marketing and communication and not research and development (R&D/Innovation)
  • That companies focus too much on studying people instead of simply proposing or suggesting new things to them

Verganti argues that ‘Design’, which in its deepest nature means ‘making sense of things’, is the process that should be followed to uncover game-changing opportunities.  He discusses how the meaning of design is still hotly debated, but offers up his own definition by first saying what he thinks is not Design, namely the two extreme, common definitions.  One, the narrow view which implies design is merely the shape or form of products, or two, the broad notion that Design is anything related to innovation and creativity thinking.   Verganti argues that good Design need not be seen, but it should be identified when it is present – that it comes from anticipating needs, proposing a vision.    An example is Artemide lighting, which focus its value proposition on the lighting effect (adding colors), not the shape of the lamps – it tries to change the reason for buying lighting – not because the lamps are aesthetically pleasing, but because the lighting effect makes people feel better.

IM_artemide01Verganti’s book offers a counter view of IDEO’s user-centered Design approach (gain inspiration from studying people in their environments or current context, etc.).    Either approach can have its successful applications – I’m not trying to make a definitive argument favoring either philosophy.  It is interesting to point out that Apple, arguably very successful nowadays and poster company for anything Design, seems to follow Verganti’s approach more than IDEO’s approach – They propose new things to people.  “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” – the late Steve Jobs.    Procter and Gamble did come up with the Swiffer, a very successful franchise with over $500 Million in annual sales by observing how people were cleaning floors and the compromises they were making, for example, using make-shift solutions, wearing their dirty clothes, etc.

What I personally find compelling about Verganti’s approach is that it welcomes the unfairly bashed  ‘Tech Push’ thinking into the innovation mix and that it is its interplay with design-driven thinking leading to what he calls ‘Technology Epiphany’s’.  As of today, we’re still a technology-driven country, and thus, we should embrace the intertwined nature of new technologies with new individual and social experiences to change the true meaning of things, to help make better sense of the world – so long live R&D, science and engineering, the application of known theories into unknown markets.


  • A great read! And an inspiration for every single R&D powerhouse to question the status quo, regardless of which theory they follow. Every effort should be centered around product and/ or service can we or the customer think of. Then, and only then, at a later stage, the question if its possible should arise. Otherwise, we limit ourselves to artificial boundaries. And guess what: Other (braver, more innovative) companies will take the lead.

  • An inspirational and though-provoking read! Infusing R & D (and the entire organization and customers) with the nature of new technologies with new individual and social experiences can create true meaning of things, that can help to make better sense of the world – and positively impact it for future generations to come!

    Excellent, post!

    Judy White SPHR GPHR HCS
    The Infusion Group™

  • I would agree that design is more than just a shape or form of a product. Our field case study, SpyneTech’s back brace would be an example of a design that proposes new things to people. It is an innovative product that addresses a problem that many back brace users have and a product that they do not know that they may need (a brace that makes automatic adjustments.)

  • Pingback: Thinking Design | Fred Zimny's Serve4impact

  • Pingback: Innovation jargon for cocktail parties – time to sound smart | Necrophone

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s