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Posted in good design, not good design, tools of the trade by hemmant jha on November 14, 2010

Innovation, Innovation everywhere.

To us, innovation means clear thinking. Sadly, in our profession, innovation as a word has lost much meaning. It has been so worn down through misuse and overuse, dyed and colored and beaten threadbare, that the word is barely able to communicate its original intent : the act of creating something new, be it thought, idea, product, technology.

It was with this baggage, and with trepidation [and anticipation], that I joined the discussion about Innovation hosted by the Chicago Tribune on November 09, 2010. To put things in perspective, while there’s nothing wrong with the appropriate use of the word, in the world of design it occupies the same exalted status as the word ‘interesting’ – which is the word designers use when nothing else comes to mind – at best, it is meaningless, at worst, a red flag.

And here’s why I feel this once significant word is in trouble : taken at face value, everybody’s an innovator these days, regardless of what they do and how well they do it. There’s innovation wherever you look – it’s impossible to take a stroll online without tripping all over it.

Frontiers: The BP magazine of technology and innovation | BP

Ford lists design, safety and quality under the banner ‘innovation’

McDonald’s Trends and Innovation

The list goes on and on. A bottle of really good scotch to anyone who can find a website of any major company that does not use this word.

Design companies no longer design, they innovate – in fact, the biggest design companies are the worst offenders. I say this with complete confidence because this is the industry I’m part of. When I worked at large corporations, I was their client, and as founding partner of a small design company, they are sometimes mine.

IDEO | A Design and Innovation Consulting Firm

frog design | Global Innovation

gravitytank is an innovation consultancy focused…..

design continuum : We are a global innovation and design….

fuseproject : we create brand building innovations by developing….

The discussion at the Tribune was not the appropriate venue for our thoughts on innovation, so here they are : we’re a product design / technology development company where we’re all proven innovators, with meaningful patents and products under our belts – innovation is central to what we do, and it is our reason for being. Which is why I can safely say that this word now carries as much meaning in general usage as the word ‘change’ does in politics. Everybody wants it, and apparently everybody delivers too.

Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The way we understand innovation has a lot to do with our time, this age we live in. Imagine Ford in 1903, forging the way for automobiles to be more affordable – it was fresh thinking, the first time things had been done that way. Innovation meant invention. A lot of essential stuff has already been invented in the last two hundred years – if inventiveness were to take a break, we could do just fine with what we currently know.

In this landscape, what means innovation? Not much. Because it’s a popular term, everyone wants in – pundits espouse it, clients demand it, designers must showcase it. Like anything overused, it’s also been diluted enough so it’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Most prominent and successful corporations [you may know them as big money, big budgets, big clients] in existence are not run by their founders, who were likely the original innovators that made them what they are today. Large companies are ‘managed’ by professional managers. And professional managers manage, they do not innovate. What happens when sales are down? Professional ‘innovators’ are called on. Tactically, this has proven to be a poor solution. Innovation consultants are not vested in a company – their efforts are better characterized as a cursory glance, not a long, hard look.

We all know this : at the end of the day, corporations [and individuals, leopards and lemmings] do what they know how to do. They tend not to operate too far from their comfort zone – they’re just like people, and not many of us are comfortable taking risks [soy vs. skim does not count]. When looking for design solutions, in order for us to make it possible for our clients to think different, we first learn to think like them. For us, that means thinking clearly, without bias, without buzzwords, without catchphrases.

Uncolored thinking. That’s innovation, step 1. And it’s something we can all do, in whatever we do. Would you agree?

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