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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