“Design-driven innovation”: focused on making sense of things

November 5, 2021 · 4 Lesezeit

In his book entitled “Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean” published by Harvard Business Press in 2009, Roberto Verganti introduces the concept of ‘radical innovation of meaning’ and puts it in perspective with the more traditional ‘technological innovation’. This type of innovation that focuses on making sense of things is called ‘Design-Driven Innovation’. Jean-Marie Buchilly, Innovation Cell Manager at Fischer Connectors, explains why this essential book is still a game changer today.


Innovation starts by listening.
Listen to the customers.
Listen to the market.
Listen to the trends and weak signals.
Design-Driven Innovation is no exception to this as it starts by listening to the design discourse.


Design-driven innovation – radical innovation of meaning


Illustrated in the graph below, design-driven innovation is different from technological innovation as it focuses on the meaning.

Both technological innovation and innovation of meaning can be combined. However, this is not mandatory at all, and radical changes can happen through innovations of meaning only.


(Graph from “Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating what Things Mean”, Harvard Business Press, 2009)

blog book review graphic

A great example of an innovation of meaning is the Fiat Panda, that paved the way for city cars (small) with lots of room for a very affordable price.


The Nintendo Wii is another example that combines innovation of meaning, a value proposition that is not focused on the quality and realism of the console top performances, but on the playability and the fun procured by the experience. However, this has been made possible by the technological availability of MEMS accelerometers that are key enablers for such a joyful experience.

The Interpreters – the ones who lead the design discourse


Companies that exploit design-driven innovation make proposals. They put forward a vision. It is a push strategy. These companies step back from users and take a broader perspective. They are not only following existing trends, they are making proposals with which they will modify the context and build scenarios that would perhaps never occur if these companies did not deliver their unsolicited proposals.


In order to achieve this, organizations rely on interpreters. Interpreters are the ones who are able to connect and build new meanings between a company, its products and the global world. Such interpreters are key and participate in the Design Discourse.


The Design Discourse – a dialogue that looks for new meanings

The network of interpreters are immersed in a collective research laboratory through which organizations, designers, artists, and schools are conducting their own investigations. These researchers are engaged in a continuous dialogue. They exchange insights, interpretations and proposals in the form of artworks, studies, speeches, prototypes and products. This diffuse and networked research process on the possible meanings of things is the design discourse.


Participating in the design discourse


It’s a three-step process:

  1. Listening the design discourse: identifying and attracting key interpreters who can act as bridges. These interpreters do not belong to your industry but target the same life context – worlds that are relevant to your users but that are unusual to your competitors.
  2. Interpreting: generating your own vision and proposal for a radical new meaning and language. Integrating and recombining knowledge and producing new interpretations through internal research and experiments.
  3. Addressing the design discourse: diffusing your own interpretation to interpreters. The goal here is to use the seductive power of interpreters to share your idea with the world.


The Cultural Prototype – a way to share your assertion with the world


To address the design discourse, design-driven companies rely on cultural prototypes. These can include books, exhibitions, cultural events, concept products shown at fairs, journal articles, presentations at conferences, corporate showrooms, a web site, special products for landmark pioneering projects, and design competitions.


A cultural prototype is a way to share your vision and your assertion with the world. A cultural prototype is not a brochure to promote a product. It’s not for the final users but for the interpreters. Cultural prototypes speak the language of research and not the language of marketing and communication.


From an Intellectual Property (IP) standpoint, cultural prototypes anticipate the moment when a company declares ownership on an innovation. And competitors will never be able to imitate the real meaning of an innovation.


Creating value for the future


As a learning organization, one should never underestimate the importance of the design discourse. The fact that the highest value for the future of the company can come from what could sound and look from 2nd or 3rd importance today, is a reality that has been experimented by multiple organizations through the innovation history. This is what intrapreneurs and people who work in innovation should stand for and defend at any price within the organization.


>> More in the online book review by Jean-Marie Buchilly, Innovation Cell Manager at Fischer Connectors, in Medium

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