I’m a big fan of design-led innovation, and who leads this amazing process is a fair question. I’d like to unpack this question with five reference points; Roberto Verganti in Milan who wrote Design-Driven Innovation, Park Advanced Design Management in Germany with research on design leadership roles, Yu-Jin Kim in Korea with research on the strategic role of UX and Mobile designers, Marco Insanti in Boston who developed the concept of T-shape people, and Tim Brown of IDEO in San Francisco and their work determining the personality profiles of design thinkers.
The principle of design-led innovation was first developed by a friend of mine, Roberto Verganti, who wrote a book on it, Design-Driven Innovation, Harvard Business Press, 2009. Roberto has invited me to run workshops for his MBA/design students in Milan several times, so I’ve learned his point of view quite well. Verganti suggests that rather than technology-driven innovation which is pushed by companies, or incremental innovation which is pulled by the market, a third strategy of innovation in more effective, one that creates new markets and new meanings, based on designers leading innovation processes. He suggests that in radical breakthrough innovation, like the iPod or Wii, we must look beyond product managers, focus groups or engineers to what he calls “interpreters” – those who conceive and design new product concepts, and create new product meanings. In Italian companies, most often the interpreters are industrial designers and architects working as independent consultants and reporting to the CEO. In Italy, in order to become an industrial designer, you must first be trained as an architect, so there is much overlap between product design and architecture. And in researching Italian companies, Roberto found that the CEO or other executives are very hands on and often work with independent designers and architects to create new product ideas, based on creating unique design the leads to new meanings of the product itself. Note brands like Alessi, Prada, Ferrari, Gucci or Coach. I fully agree with this premise; design-driven innovation is more effective than technology or incremental innovation, and, as obvious as it may sound, it is lead by design leaders.
This may lead one to ask, what kind of design leaders are out there? I would reference another business associate, Frans Joziasse a director at Park Advanced Design Management in Hamburg. In a workshop we ran together, Frans suggests four roles of design leaders, the Concept Curator, Creative Guru, Top Designer and Innovation Director, depending on the skills, experience and intentions of the design leader. This is applicable to any design discipline; industrial design, brand design, UX design or service design, and all four types of design leaders would be capable of leading design-driven innovation process.
A third reference point would be the post doctoral research conducted by Yu-Jin Kim in 2011. I was fortunate to be her research supervisor during my last year as president of DMI. She had just completed her PhD in Korea evaluating the strategic role of digital designers, and came to DMI in Boston for a year to further research this topic in the US. We looked at the actual roles of UX designers two of the leading US digital agencies, and compared them to open positions in the top 100 digital design agencies in the US. We evaluated four distinct roles of UX designers; Form Giver. Concept Generator, Service Initiator and Solution Provider. Going up a scale of influence depends on the individual and their amount of experience, ultimately becoming digital and mobile design leaders, and capable of leading design-driven innovation.
Lets also take into account the work of another acquaintance, Marco Insanti, an operations strategy and management innovation professor at Harvard Business School. In the early 90’s he was conducting research on a large technology company in Japan, and identified the combination of design, business and technology skills and determined there are four different kinds of people, depending how they applied their skills in these three areas. Insanti called them Expert, Generalist, A-shaped and T-shaped people. In T-shaped people, the one that became most well known, the employees had a deep understanding and background in Design, which is the stem stroke of the T, and they also had very good peripheral understanding to Business and to Technology on their sides, or the top stroke of the T.
Insanti published this research, and about ten years later someone at IDEO noticed it, liked it, and began to discuss that T-shaped people make for great design leaders and design thinkers. Fueled by IDEO’s public relations muscle, the concept of T-shape people got traction, because it supported the idea of design thinking they popularized along with Roger Martin from Rotman Business School in Toronto. In 2008 the Harvard Business Review published “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown, President of IDEO, which suggested a design thinkers personality profile, which included empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentation and collaboration.
The article tells a compelling story from first hand knowledge, because these are the personality profiles that fit designers perfectly, who are IDEO’s employees, the people they know best. And I think these also are the characteristics needed to lead design-driven innovation. Here’s why:
Empathy – designers love to create good things for people, and usability stems from designers wanting to do what it right for the user, therefore empathy should be natural for design leaders.
Integrative thinking – designing is an iterative process, and designers often continue integrating, even “noodling”, until they to find the best solution. The downside it that this can unfortunately lead to over-design, or just adding more bells and whistles or frosting on the cake. Interestingly, Steve Jobs called the extra bells and whistles issue under-design, and argued that the designer should not stop designing until they have found the very essence of the product, or its simplicity.
Optimism – I’ve never met a designer that didn’t think they could solve a challenge. And often the best design comes from first knowing the constraints.
Experimentation – Similarly, creative people, like designers, always like to try new things, to experiment, in order to find that best solution, albeit a product, service or experience. Experimentation is at the core of design creation.
Collaboration – Also fundamental to great design success; smart designers collaborate. No one person holds all the answers. Perhaps the strongest part of Ray and Charles Eames may be the word “and”. Its always been there.
The answer, I think, is that design leaders and design thinkers lead design-led innovation. Not just anyone. These are unique people, most often with a background in design or liberal arts, coupled with a technical and business orientation. We’ve created a Design Leadership Scorecard to help evaluate the performance characteristics of design leaders, which, by the way, happens to be significantly different than the performance characteristics of general business leaders.
Design leaders not only lead design-led innovation, they also help develop cultures of innovation. Now that’s the kind of senior talent every company needs. But be careful, there are a lot of posers out there, and the really effective design leaders are in very short supply. It takes a keen perspective to know the wheat from the chaff.