Just Say No To 'Innovation'

kindle2examplePromoted as the "in" word in design circles in recent years, 'innovation' has become a mantra devoid of meaning. Glorified by the likes of Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek and David Kelly of IDEO, "innovation" blurs the boundaries between the worlds of engineering and design. It devalues the real strength of industrial design by forcing an analytical structure over the process of developing a non-analytical design. Similarly, it makes engineering play design, while over-selling its value in defining the "right design".

I was first asked to look at the merits of innovation way back in mid-2000, when Carl Yankowski, then CEO of Palm, called me to discuss design. The talk went on and ended a year or so later with the best selling Palm Zire, yet the point he made was shocking at the time. Carl took the Palm V out of his pocket and said warned me, "Don't you dare design anything like this!"

Carl went on to explain that while the Palm V was a commercial success, the company had had serious problems with how the metal casing had been glued together. Regardless of the merits of the case, the message was clear: over-engineered products may gain success yet become a burden to the company.

A top executive at Circuit City made a similar point to me few years back. After a very successful presentation, he stopped me and said, "This is all very nice, Gadi, yet why is it that so many design projects fail?" With 30 years in electronics, the man knew a project or two and had the pleasure of knowing half the design world as well. After a long discussion the issue was clear. He meant innovation, not industrial design. It was tough to get through the blurred definitions as he was using the design press jargon. He was gunning for the intergalactic-business-making designer-wannabe engineers.

While innovation speaks of metrics and tangible features, design is usually defined by intuition and intangibles. It is far easier to explain metrics and tangibles. It is also assumed to be safer to make decisions based on numbers and engineering calculations. Yet the quintessential question about design is not "is it a 'good' design?"; it's the other question: "is it the 'right' design?"

That's where "innovation" fails. The innovation crowd makes a fundamental mistake: that a complex market problem can be solved by a good analytical design. If you build the "process" right, and put the right "validation" and "methodology" in place, using more technology with more investment in the "process", you'll get a better product—wrong!

In reality, winning a market battle requires a very complex equation of advance performance, marketing insight and appropriate design. We use the term "look & feel" often when talking about the right design approach. Both "look" and "feel" can not be quantified or learned in engineering schools. These terms are intuitive to the knowledgeable and obtuse to the novice. In reality the "look & feel" of a good product is a nuanced, multi-faceted approach to technical constraints, target demographics and trend-forecasting combined with a special sauce—the designer's talent and intuition.

Such a complex formula for design success can not be resolved by analytical methods. Time and time again I see metrics and focus groups fail in predicting the outcome of a design effort. Many times excellent design work is butchered by analytics (Think GM for a minute…). Human culture is ageless, and excellent design always brings technology and our cultural heritage together. The Sony Walkman made music, an essential human need, portable. The Kindle (especially the new one) may become the "Walkman" of reading. With that cultural quality both products are a triumph of design over innovation.sony-tps-l.jpg

The question is essentially "how do we make decisions about design?" The answer is: "not by analytics alone!" The making of a good design—say a great mobile phone design—is so complex that the only way is by relying on the designer's intuition in solving this nuanced formula. If the issue is the reliability of this method, the answer is the designer's track record in resolving such challenges. Some people have more talent than others—that's a fact of life.

With the economy in dire straits and every development dollar being scrutinized to the penny, design is facing a strong challenge to its philosophical core. If "innovation" wins these few R&D dollars, intuition will suffer badly and with it many more projects will fail. We can't afford to leave the room and the decision-making to analytics alone. Say no to innovation, welcome to intuition.

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

Read more of Gadi Amit's blog: The New Deal

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  • Steve Portigal

    It's fascinating to see designers champion the "intuition" and "creativity" of their profession. I think other professions make strong use of both of those qualities, but don't necessarily acknowledge or credit it themselves. I also think that there are rules and processes of a more analytical nature that support, inform, and structure the synthetic work we all do, but that we may not necessarily see it ourselves.

    I've been teaching people for the last few months about how to do "synthesis" - how to connect user research findings to opportunities and solutions. But there's still a number of nuggets that are really really hard to deconstruct so that "anyone" can do them. But putting an analytical framework on a synthetic approach has been really empowering for me; I see my own process more clearly and can structure the work to best support that. I would say that both approaches are essential and ideally should be integrated.

    Portigal Consulting - http://www.portigal.com/
    All This ChittahChattah - http://www.portigal.com/blog/

  • John Rood

    Gadi, thanks for the post. I respond to it at http://www.kuczmarski.com/blog... where I try to make the point that the type of design discussed doesn't scale well; I also argue that the metrics and processes you oppose are necessary to minimize development costs and fully integrate consumer insight.

  • Shahar Klein

    To leave design only to "look and feel" by those people who "have more talent than others" is leaving a few details out of the equation.
    As design now is far from "giving form" to objects, knowing what makes people react to products is the secret language that products are speaking.Designers should talk the language.The language has some "rules and regulations" that are constantly changing and should be adapted by designers all the time.
    As for "innovation"? I completely agree with Gadi.
    But it is fading and turning green...
    My problem is the "innovation merchants", which I've met during work with some clients: they usually take over the client and charm him with the buzz word- while leaving designers out of the process.
    The power today is with the "green merchants"...

  • Venkatesh Agaram

    I always thought that innovation involved a certain level of design effort and that a design could vary between a hazy idea in someone's head to a proven prototype ready for launch. Intuition in all this ensures success, and analysis is needed when pure intuition is not enough to get to the underlying phenomena or for comparing things.

  • Michael Plishka

    Interesting perspective! I've shared my thoughts on this here as well: http://bit.ly/dT83.

    It is not unusual for large companies (that claim they are innovative) to develop products according to established and measured performance values, then lose market share to ’inferior’ products (according to the previously mentioned performance metrics)-simply because a smaller company has designed it with that certain je ne sais quoi.

    Your point is well taken.

    ~Sometimes intuition in design isn’t given its due~

    ~Sometimes the design is right because it is~

    ~Sometimes you just know~

  • Om Suthar

    I liked this article but that "look and feel" approach can only be successfully executed by very few. The sad thing about success is everyone wants it achievable by emulation. Now we know thru design thinking, everything is not so linear in approach. I think "look and feel" is a valid point but not a notion everyone can adopt. I don't mean to be a pessimist but if everything was a great design, how would we define great? I mean that is an extreme and very absolute hypothetical but still. At the very least innovation gives some kind of formula for mediocre designs to occur on a consistant basis. Genius is rare. Thats my argument.

  • Gadi Amit


    I don't seek to devalue science or engineering. However, I do seek to protect and re-establish the value of non-analytical creativity, especially in design. In reality, design is far from a measurable science while its affected negatively by argumentative analytics.
    Designers like me (or Google's now-resigned Doug Bowman, if you read lately) see and feel the negative effects of placing classical design 'under the thumbs' of overly-cerebral methodologies. That has history,and 'innovation' mantra has been central to that negative process. Yet the most important element is that its far from being crystal-clear if 'innovation' delivered more than classical design. In tough economic times, the difference in approach is substantial in budgets and resources.

  • Daniel Erwin

    The sort of intuition-based design you seem to be praising was summed up well by Roger Martin during the 2007 Strategy Conference. He quoted AG Lafley, "The data is simply an aide to my judgment. The data never tells me what to do." (http://trex.id.iit.edu/events/...
    In the philosophical sense, you are indeed correct that there are lots of things numbers and quantitative methods - even structured or rational processes in general - don't adequately account for. Kurt Godel proved this rigorously in 1931 - there's no debate.
    Yet still Newton's and Einstein's physics are both really, really useful. That's because we use them as a part of a process that is driven by intuition.
    The design we should be aiming for uses metrics and numbers as just one way to understand the world, as an equal partner with our broader understanding.

  • Gadi Amit

    Bruce, is that really you? I find it hard to believe… Still, if it is you, thank you for explaining me the nature of a 'personal attack' and 'prejudice'.
    It is crystal clear that you are well aware of the philosophical kinship you formed with ‘Innovation’. Legitimate as that ‘innovation’ philosophy may have been, it is my opinion that:-

    A) Like it or not, your writing was central to its establishment as a major theme in American design circles. It also matched IDEO’s pitch for many years. It is perfectly legitimate to name you and IDEO for an idea you both promoted vigorously. Interestingly enough your current BW blog assumes the use of ‘design thinking’ as a 'new' theme, again, matching to IDEO’s latest pitch. While designers at IDEO do some great work regardless of old or new slogan, I can’t say such about your understanding of design methodology.
    B) Your past and present opinion on industrial design sought to devalue of the Designer’s line or the magic of the form. Contrary to your approach or ‘innovation’, Form and Line have great value – measurable, real-life, big-business value. And forms or lines are not all I stand for…
    C) Acting like a true chauvinist, your reply would have liked people of other (‘stupid’) opinions to just shut-up and disappear. Your reaction more than establishes the need for a serious look at practicing designer opinions on ‘innovation’ and its assent in the last decade.

    With that said, I still wish you well!


  • John Payne

    Though i agree with the need to respect the designers intuition, it seems that the author presumes that innovation is only analytical and that design is only intuitive. With that I disagree... They are more intermingled than that and even in dire economic straits, we need both.

  • Bruce Nussbaum

    Please don't confuse personal attacks with intellectual disagreement. By using loaded language such as "by the likes of," you prejudice what you say before you even say it. It's not nice, not fun. It's stupid behavior.
    As for your argument, it too is stupid. The language of design and innovation are blurring is because the boundaries are blurring. The next categories of industrial design, graphic design, software design, etc. are all disappearing as we move through an increasingly digital world. Products are services, services are products and most everything is about designing emotional experiences.

    The methodology of design is evolving as well, becoming more complex and formalized. The process and power of design is applicable to organizations as well as products, cultures as well as individuals. Design is also becoming much more democratized, with a broad mass of people doing it on their Macs and their iPhones. We design our music collections, our identifies on line, our lives with the new tools of design now available to us.

    As for the blur between design and innovation, that's a gender thing. Male CEOs still think design is what their wives do at home with drapes. They like the military, metric, engineering SOUND of innovation, even though most innovation today is about the design process. I long ago gave up fighting with people over nomenclature. Call it a banana. i don't care.
    You've got bigger problems than arguing over the blurring of language. Hulu as No. 3 on your World's 50 Most Innovative Companies list? I'm a big fan and user of Hulu, but No.3? You've got some work to do on your methodology.

    Bruce Nussbaum