What with all the attention on user-centred design and the like, it seems at times that researchers have forgotten about companies that just design (apart from the obvious Apple cliché). Vergati was part of a research group that investigated design companies in Italy, and came up with conclusions that what he calls ‘design-driven innovation’ is tied the meanings created and understood within a network of players, and that they can be compared to the innovations happening in the technology world.
Design driven innovation, that plays such a crucial role in the innovation strategy of design intensive firms, has still remained largely unexplored. This article … proposes a meta-model for investigation of design driven innovation. In this meta-model a manufacturer’s ability to understand, anticipate and influence emergence of new product meanings is built by leveraging on external interpreters (designers, firms in other industries, suppliers, schools, artists, the media, etc…) who share its same problem: to understand the evolution of socio-cultural models, and propose new visions and meanings. Managing design driven innovation therefore implies to manage the interaction with these interpreters, in order to access, share and internalize knowledge on product languages and influence shifts in socio-cultural models.
Second, the article proposes a possible direction to scientifically investigate the management of this networked and collective research process. In particular we show that the process of creating breakthrough innovations of meanings partially mirrors the process of creating breakthrough technological innovations. Studies of design driven innovation may therefore benefit significantly from the existing body of theories in the field of technology management. The analysis of the analogies between these two types of radical innovations (of meanings and technologies) allow to set a research agenda for exploration of design driven innovation, a relevant as well as under-investigated phenomenon.
While much attention has been paid to ‘user-centred design’ consultancies such as IDEO and Continuum, Vergati instead focuses on Italian ‘design-driven’ manufacturers Alessi, Artemide, and Kartell (also noting Apple and Bang and Oulsen).
Rather they have developed superior capability to propose innovations that radically redefine what a product means for a customer. For them, design driven innovation is the radical innovation of a product’s meaning.
They give an extreme example as Alessi’s dancing family kitchenware, that transformed tools into transitional objects.
Radical changes in meanings instead ask for radical changes in socio-cultural models, and this is something that might be understood (and affected) only by looking at long-term phenomena with a broader perspective. Design driven innovation is therefore pushed by a firm’s vision about possible breakthrough meanings and product languages that could emerge in the future. As this vision cannot be developed solely by looking at current user behaviors, the process of these firms has few in common with user-centered approaches.
design driven innovation is the result of a networked research process, where knowledge on languages and meanings is shared among firms and external interpreters.
The most significant contribution comes from our participation to the research project “Sistema Design Italia” (Italian Design System). The project looked at management practices in Italian Design, involved 17 research teams in Italy, and developed 74 case studies of successful product innovations in several different industries.
The semantic dimension of design has been actually recognized and underlined also by several design scholars and theorists (Heskett 1990, Margolin and Buchanen, 1995, Cooper and Press, 1995, Petrowski 1996, Karjalainen, 2003. Friedman, 2003, Lloyd and Snelders, 2003, Bayazit 2004, Norman, 2004, Redstrom 2005).
Some examples of radical changes in design meanings include:
- Alessi’s ‘Family Follows Fiction’ products (changing kitchenware from being functional to “symbolic objects of irony and affection”)
- Swatch (changing watches from jewellery to fashion)
- B&A Beosound 4000 stereo (music players changed from electronic devices into pieces of furniture)
- iPod (while the style was important, others on the market were equally if not more stylish. The real change in meaning was from music being something that was listened to to being accessed).
Market? What Market? We do not look at market needs. We make proposals to people
Ernesto Gismondi, Chairman of Artemide.
Working within the metaproject transcends the creation of an object purely to satisfy a function and necessity. Each object represents a tendency, a proposal and an indication of progress which has a more cultural resonance.
Alberto Alessi, CEO Alessi.
|Language and Meaning||Technology and Functionality|
|Design driven (Radical innovation of meanings and languages)||Technology push (Dosi 1982)
Incumbents and disruptive innovation
(Christensen 1997, Christensen and Raynor 2003)
|Socio-cultural regimes||Technological regimes (Latour 1987, Callon 1991)
Complementary assets (Teece 1986)
|Archetypes, Icons||Dominant Design (Utterback, 1994)
Business Classics (Sanderson and Uzumeri, 1995)
|Languages and signs||Architectural and component innovation
(Henderson and Clark 1990, Baldwin and Clark 2000,MacCormack et al. 2006)
|Design research||Technological Research
(Burgelman et al. 2004)
(Kogut and Zander 1992)
Knowledge generation, integration and retention (Iansiti, 1997)
|Design Discourse||Business Ecosystems (Iansiti and Levien, 2004)
Open Innovation (Chesborough, 2003)
|Key Interpreters||Alliances, trust and cognitive distance (Granovetter 1982, Noteboom 1999)
Co-Design and supplier involvement (Clark, 1989, Liker et al. 1995, Sobrero and Roberts 2002)
|Language Brokers||Gatekeepers (Allen 1977)
Technology Brokers (Hargadon 2003)
|Immersion||Absorptive Capacity (Cohen and Levinthal 1990)|
Analogies between management of radical innovation of meanings and management of radical innovation of technology, and possible related theories
A dominant design is “the design that wins the allegiance of the marketplace, the one that competitors and innovators must adhere to if they hope to command significant market following” (Utterback, 1994). Theory on technology management has suggested that industry dynamics change significantly in nature after a dominant design emerges: competition moves from product innovation to process innovation and efficiency and the number of competitors significantly decrease (Utterback and Abernathy 1975, Suarez and Utterback 1995).
Alessi doesn’t make us feel as if we work for Alessi. Rather, we feel as if Alessi is working for us!
Alessandro Mendini, Architect (cited in Moon et al. 2004)
h.) Designers as brokers of languages and as gatekeepers
Among all interpreters in the design discourse with which a firm may interact, there are some that have crucial network position. Some may act as crucial gates that facilitate a firm access to the design discourse. Others are bridges between different socio-cultural worlds and industries, and therefore facilitate the transfer of knowledge on meanings and languages among different contexts.
Similar roles may be identified in technological innovation.
First, seminal studies on the organization of research and development have analyzed the role of gatekeepers (Allen 1977). Key interpreters, and in particular designers, may similarly act as gatekeepers: they facilitate the access of their manufacturing clients to the ongoing discussion about design languages, bring bits of knowledge, help their clients to interpret the design discourse, and to position themselves into this discourse. The role of Alessandro Mendini may be assimilated to a gatekeeper, as he has been for Alessi a crucial gate to access the design discourse.
Second, recent studies have observed the role of brokers, that move technological knowledge among different industries (Harada, 2003). Some investigations even analyzed the brokering role of designers and design firms (Bertola and Texeira 2003, Hargadon 2003).
A study on IDEO for example has shown how this design firm acts as a technology broker, having access to as much as 40 different industries and exploiting its network position to move solutions across industries (Hargadon and Sutton 1997).
What is peculiar in design driven innovation is that designers act as brokers of knowledge on languages and not only on technology. Language brokering is even easier as product languages are not industry specific: they move across industries more fluently than technology. Consider for example the diffusion of colored translucent materials from home furniture to computers (a linguistic exercise that let the Apple I-Mac speak the language of home rather than office. In this case Jonathan Ive, the VP of design of Apple, with previous experience in domestic products, acted as a broker of languages from households to computers). Design languages can also move across different socio-cultural worlds (for example across different countries), although this is a more complex process than fertilization of signs across industries, given that meanings are significantly culturally embedded. Indeed, Italian manufacturers involve a great deal of foreign designers in their innovation process, combining and integrating the brokering of knowledge on both the local and global settings.
… One of the most interesting model in this regards is the concept of absorptive capacity introduced by Cohen and Levintal (1990). An organization’s absorptive capacity is indeed its ability to understand and value external knowledge, and therefore to make sense of, learn about, and adopt new approaches. According to Cohen and Levintal, access to outside information cannot be restricted only to gatekeepers, especially in rapidly moving environments, but should be extended to the entire organization.