Over-Innovation: A Cautionary Tale

The difference between simple and elegant can mean the difference between success and failure for your brand.



There’s a tale often told in design circles of how, in the heat of the space race, NASA paid over a million dollars to develop a pen that worked in zero gravity. The Russians, however, took a different approach. They used a pencil.

It’s the kind of story we want to believe. How great would it be if there were an inexpensive, head slapping, “why didn’t I think of that” solution to all of our design problems? It’s true that we can fall into a trap of “over-innovating” –finding complex solutions when a simpler solution would do. After all, from the perspective of most users, simpler is better. Who wants to spend hours devouring a manual on a new product or software package? What we want is to have something so elegant, easy, and intuitive to use that no manual is needed.

But there’s the catch. Simple and elegant are not one and the same. While elegant may look simple, it’s usually the result of a lot of development. Elegant performs and is simple to use. Simple doesn’t always perform. What we really need is a simple user experience, not a simple product.

The power of design is that it gives us methods to approach solutions from all angles. You don’t arrive at elegant from the bottom up. You start by establishing requirements, adding in all the necessary features and qualities. Midway through, you may actually have an incredibly complex product. Then, much like a sculptor, you strip away what’s unnecessary. You combine parts and pare away superfluous functions. Innovation teams work incredibly hard to get the right kind of solutions in the right spots to arrive at an elegant solution.

Take Microsoft’s Project Natal, an amazing new gaming interface that debuted earlier this month at the gaming conference E3. Natal looks like no other game controller you’ve ever seen. There is no controller. At least not one you can hold in your hand. Natal uses a sophisticated scanning system that not only recognizes how you move and who you are, but how you feel. In this demo, the fluidity with which the virtual character Milo interacts and even converses with the human player is truly remarkable. The potential for Natal beyond gaming is astounding. Imagine a virtual companion so aware that it could recognize when a shut-in was depressed or non-responsive and call for outside help. To the user, Natal’s interface looks simple. There is no learning curve. You just interact as you would in real life. From a design perspective, Natal is incredibly complex, combining next gen facial and voice recognition, motion capture, and artificial intelligence to arrive at an incredibly powerful and transparent user interface. Elegant and genius.


And that Space Pen story? It’s simply not true. Pencils were problematic for both Russian and American astronauts. Pencil tips can break off and float away, potentially blinding an astronaut or causing a short in electrical equipment. The Space Pen itself, is very real. Paul C. Fisher of Fisher Pen saw the need and developed it on his own, investing a reported million dollars in the project. The result was the famous Fisher Space Pen which employs a pressurized ink cartridge. It’s been used by both American and Russian astronauts since the late ’60s. It also became a huge commercial success, still selling forty years after its development.

A case of “over-innovation”? Hardly. I’d say they got it just right.

Read more of Ravi Sawhney’s Design Reach blog
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Ravi Sawhney is the founder and CEO of RKS, a global leader in strategy, innovation, and design.

Since founding RKS nearly 30 years ago, Sawhney has earned a variety of top honors in the design industry, and assembled a client list that includes HP, Intel, LG, Medtronic, Seiko, Sprint, and Zyliss, among many others. In the process, RKS has helped generate more than 150 patents on behalf of their clients.


In 2004 Sawhney was named chairperson of the Industrial Design Excellence Award program, where he created the IDSA/BusinessWeek Catalyst award for products that generate measurable business results. Most recently, he was named Executive Director of Catalyst to direct its evolution into a program to develop case studies illustrating design’s power to effect positive change.

Sawhney also invented the popular Psycho-Aesthetics® design strategy, which Harvard adopted as a Business School Case Study. He is a regularly featured lecturer at Harvard Business School, USC’s Marshall School of Business, and UCLA’s Anderson School of Business, where he teaches this business-driven design tool.

In addition to RKS, Sawhney has played an integral part in the founding of several other businesses, including Intrigo, an innovative computer accessory company; On2 Better Health, a health products company; and RKS Guitars, best known for its reinvention of the electric guitar.

About the author

As the founder and CEO of RKS Design, Ravi Sawhney has spent more than thirty years at the forefront of product and technology innovation, and has grown his industrial design consultancy into a global leader in the fields of strategy, innovation and design. While leading RKS, Sawhney has helped generate more than 150 patents and over 90 design awards on behalf of his diverse list of international clients, and his work has been featured on the cover of Business Week’s best product design issue