Design Philosophy Driving Breakthrough Innovation


There are processes, methods and tools that make our ability to create predictable, reliable and repeatable. However, when breakthrough innovation is called for, might an appropriate design philosophy be more useful?

Chris Bangle Associates continues to frame and solve design and innovation challenges for global design-centric corporations. Chris became well known for breakthrough innovation challenges through his decades of experience in the automotive industry and at a recent presentation at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, he shared his approach to developing breakthrough products, services and experiences. This is the third and final article in this series.

How does one synthesize a design philosophy for breakthrough innovation?
The intention is to talk about 'Design Philosophy Driving Breakthrough Innovation' -- not necessarily "design for innovation". Who is leading whom here? Does design follow innovation or cause it? Is a breakthrough achieved through methodical process or serendipity and fortune?

Many design processes are based on "just say 'no" - having the designers do endless reiterations until either something spectacular pops up unexpectedly or the clock runs out on the project. Is that how one 'drives' innovation? All of these are good questions; there is the additional discussion to be had on what constitutes the 'design' of an innovation.

Much of what is attributed to 'design' is in fact an engineering invention. Philosophizing about breakthrough innovation risks either being in the category of "useless information by the incompetent" - celibate priests giving advice on sex comes to mind -- or that of "hindsight being 20-20" with after the fact explanations. Creating a good spin to explain later what no one knew was happening at the time.

Begin at the root: 'synthesizing' means combining different things; I assume here you mean different approaches or methodologies into a working philosophy for design. Again, begin at the beginning, with the "why" of what is being done. If it turns out that the motivations are well within the "MAYA" box then "breakthrough" is not being asked for here.

I am reminded of the type of design assignments we used to see from a big client -- "give me something totally new that no one has ever thought of before but does exactly what everyone else is doing, so no one will have to learn to like it." Most likely, they too were telling their bosses they had commissioned a "breakthrough innovation".

Returning to the effects of serendipity, I am a firm believer that 'Luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet' (Seneca, a first-century Roman philosopher), so, one had better do a lot of preparatory homework. After that, the thought processes that lead one to different areas of thought are not so unusual in my opinion. The difference is in learning to read and accept the unusual and unexpected as a desired result and that is largely in the hands of the client.

How does a design process for breakthrough innovation differ from the traditional design process (Direction - Design - Development)?
My process is one of Understanding (Do we really 'understand' what it is we are trying to do and why?), Believing (I have informed myself as best as I can; done my homework; and now I 'believe' -- with no proof other than my commitment of heart -- that this is the right choice) and then, Seeing ('seeing' the small details and corrections that are needed).

All processes that come to an effective end need to follow that path. Be very wary of words like "direction" and "development" since they have process overtones of objectivity that are suffocating. If a client wants "breakthrough innovation" then the first question to ask is do they themselves understand the consequences of the request and do they know enough about the subject to believe in the innovation when they see it. Anyone can read the feedback numbers of clinical tests; one doesn't need a CEO's paycheck to do that.

What metrics would one use for breakthrough innovation as opposed to incremental innovation?
Metrics are like hindsight: always 20-20. Søren Kierkegaard said that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forward. Most metric systems try to make the time gap so small that it is almost real-time; one sees how one is doing as one is doing it. This is the closed-loop approach to anti-missile guidance systems: the incoming target is tracked as well as the outgoing interceptor missile and its path continuously tuned until the two intersect.

However, with anything "breakthrough" the real question is "would one know what target to look for even if one saw it?" The more one knows about where it is one wants to go, the more it becomes a game of 'evolution-firsties.' We are all going to get there someday and this group just got there ahead of the rest, so, the metrics one already has in play just need to be extended. The more unimaginable the 'breakthrough' the less it has to do with the existing culture and their metrics.

Think about the revolution in smart phones. What metrics of the cell-phone world -- call clarity, battery life, compactness or durability -- describe the appeal of the first iPhone? Had a design teacher in the 60's been shown a black slab of cold glass on a sharp edged rectangular metal backing and told it was the "phone of the future" he would have sent you packing to the library to read up on ergonomics.

Metrics are delusional and as Peter Drucker once said: "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." It is not true, however, that if one cannot measure it, one cannot enjoy it ... or that it is revolutionary. What metrics would one apply to Jazz that Mozart would have understood? Even with the limited five-octave range of a keyboard in his day, why didn't it appear as a style of music in the 18th century for him to participate in?

I like to think the great designs and art pieces have pre-existed our creation of them ... but just on a plane we don't yet perceive. They are able to will themselves into being by using us poor designers and artists as their shoddy tools. That is what the Muses are for, to mediate between the worlds and give us hints and insights into what is waiting to be born.