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What Is Innovative Design? 7 Designers And Thinkers Weigh In

Jurors for the 2015 Innovation by Design Awards share their critical framework for judging truly creative design.

How do you define innovative design? It it a matter of beauty? It is good form and even better function? We put the question to seven esteemed judges in the 2015 Innovation by Design Awards, our fourth annual celebration of creativity in design. Their responses offer insight into what many of us know instinctively but few can articulate: the recipe for design greatness.

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“Innovative design is strikingly elegant but simple and intuitive to use: you cannot fathom how you once lived without it. I’ll paraphrase Hemingway’s maxim for writers: Cut out the ornamentation and design as straight as you can.” —Richard Florida, founder of the Creative Class Group

“There’s certainly no good checklist for innovation because by its very nature it should surprise us. Groundbreaking design defies our sense of what can and should be done. It exposes the intrinsic power of technology. It reminds us of the profound nature of invention: our very human need to create. And ultimately, good design should make life more beautiful.” –Mark Rolston, founder of argodesign

“It’s quite simple. Did the design move the world? This can be measured in myriad ways, but the No. 1 thing is did this design change the world and change it for the better. Originality, beauty, aesthetics–these are needed, but I am much more interested in the problem design solves and more importantly the people’s whose lives are changed, even if just a little.” –Bradford Shellhammer, founder of Bezar

“How is it solving the problem it was designed for? What new approaches have been taken in this solution? Is it really offering an improvement over other designs or is it just ‘new’? I try not to get swayed by the aesthetics of a design. Elegant, sleek, beautiful, do not have anything to do with innovation. Since I am a materials guy, I always initially zone in on the materials choices (this may be a bad thing but I can’t help it!). I feel that there needs to be at minimum an ‘appropriateness’ when selecting them. I get frustrated by superfluity. Does the selection enhance or detract from the design’s effectiveness? Is there use of a ‘new’ material when an existing one would have been suitable?” –Andrew Dent, vice president of library and materials research at Material ConneXion

“Innovation comes from pushing beyond the expected. What I look for isn’t always pretty, at least not at first. It may take some getting used to. It is new and different, but not different for different’s sake. Innovative design is thoughtful, appropriate and ambitious. Innovative design is risky, so not everyone can be an innovator. I look for those who are risk takers, because we should celebrate them, learn from them, and aspire to be like them.”–Bobby Martin, Jr., co-founder of Original Champions of Design

“Articulating what makes a design ‘groundbreaking’ is almost as difficult a task as actually creating it. To be sure, there is no set criteria, but there are certainly a few lenses that I consider important. First, is the design timeless? Meaning, does it sit outside of current trends? Second, does the design demonstrate new thinking and/or solve a problem in a new way? Third, does it have broader impact and application beyond the specific instance of the design? (e.g., Can the solution potentially be applied to other design challenges?) And lastly, does the design affect behavior in a meaningful way?” –Dan Gardner, co-founder and executive creative director at Code and Theory

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“Innovative design is new and different. It introduces aesthetics that haven’t been seen before–something that produces a surge of adrenaline as it catches your attention. Beyond that, the product must be meaningful. It must respond creatively to a real market need. There are many new ‘inventive,’ technology-driven products that introduce new functionality. It’s when that functionality is driven by people and connects to human needs that innovation occurs.” –Stuart Karten, founder of Karten Design

To see the winners of last year’s Innovation by Design Awards, click through our slide show above.

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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