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Book Review: Design-Inspired Innovation
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Book Review: Design-Inspired Innovation by James Utterback, Bengt Arne Vedin, Eduardo Alvarez, Sten Ekman, Susan Walsh Sanderson, Bruce Tether, and Roberto Vergant

Design-Inspired Innovation

Written by: James Utterback, Bengt Arne Vedin, Eduardo Alvarez, Sten Ekman, Susan Walsh Sanderson, Bruce Tether, and Roberto Vergant. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific, 2006. 258+xvii pages.
Reviewed by: Laurence P. Feldman

Design-Inspired Innovation

“A design-inspired product delights the customer” (p. 1, italics in original). This concise opening sentence sets the tone for a book that is designed “…to promote the wider diffusion of tools and practices, including effective alliances between manufacturing firms and design firms to create more widespread, successful product designs” (p. 24). It is a different, and in some ways more searching, approach to meeting the needs and wants of customers in increasingly fragmented markets.

Is there a real difference between delighting customers and meeting their wants and needs? Recently, I purchased a DVD-VCR player-recorder made by a major manufacturer. This new model was of pleasing aspect, with an almost-flush gleaming black-plastic front.

In use, however, its (design) shortcomings became apparent. The buttons for such basic functions as on–off and ejecting either DVD or tape are hard to see, and they aren't easy to operate when located. The flush front was achieved by the use of a drop-down door that spanned the entire front. When up, the smoked plastic window that covers the operating function indicator makes the determination of the current function of the player—REWIND, PLAY—almost impossible to read close up, let alone across the room. To be fair, it should be pointed out that the unit comes with a remote control and has some on-screen prompts, but the insertion of a tape or DVD requires close-up interaction with the machine. The 100+ page manual that accompanies it is illogically arranged and not easy to follow. In short, this product meets our family's needs imperfectly, and in a far-from-delightful fashion.

Written by seven authors from four different countries, this book is a primer on how the integration of design with the product innovation process helps to avoid or minimize such problems. Rather than being a collection of individually authored contributions, it is an integrated report of international research on the role of design in the innovation process, which is a topic rarely addressed.

This book defines design-inspired innovation in terms of three different, equally important aspects. Two of these, technology and needs(i.e., satisfaction), are well known in current practice. The third, however, summed up as language, is either disregarded or neglected. Language in this instance refers to the meaning of the product in the sociocultural milieu in which it is perceived and used: It is the product's emotional and symbolic value. An aim of design-inspired innovation is to achieve success through a high level of sociocultural fit.

A recent example described by the authors is the iconic iPod music player by Apple: a product that has revolutionized the way we listen to music. The creation of the iPod was, essentially, the combination of existing technologies in new ways. It was developed for Apple by Portal Player, a firm with design expertise in portable music players. Working with Apple's suppliers of five key off-the-shelf components, Portal Player developed a reference model that, with additional design input by Apple, became the iPod. However, it is not merely a music player in conveniently compact form. It has developed meaning and has become, virtually, an expression of its user's sociocultural fit in the same way that a BMW is not merely a car but is an expression of its owner.

As a function in the product innovation process, the role of design has suffered in several respects. First, it has had to overcome the tendency to dismiss it as an important ingredient for success. Even where its importance is acknowledged, there have been, and still are, cultural barriers to the integration of design in product innovation. The tendency of engineers and others to stress function often leads them to perceive design as a consideration that is more artistic than functional, which is not necessarily the case.

In addition, the primary emphasis of a firm has been meeting the needs and wants of its customers. It is only relatively recently that the ability to define market segments with increased precision, combined with the incorporation of modularization, has provided a means for considering delight as a significant objective in product success. An example given in the book is that of a saddle for which its modularized design permits various parts to be interchanged to suit the requirements of both horse and rider.

To date there has been little research on the strategic role of design and its impact on the firm. However, one of the authors, Roberto Verganti of the Politechnico di Milano, asserts that firms clustering around Milan, Italy, owe their success to the pursuit of an innovation strategy that plays on the deeper symbolic and emotional meaning of the product. Verganti, who appears to be the originator of the application of the term design-inspired to product innovation, explains that innovations these firms have produced are successful because they are disruptive, not only functionally but also because they move customers toward accepting new design language and new product meaning.

This, he contends, requires the involvement of the whole firm, as well as outsiders (contractors), in the constant monitoring of the sociocultural environment:

What is peculiar in design-inspired innovation is that designers act as brokers of knowledge about languagesrather than technology …. But the greatest value comes from their ability to understand the subtle dynamics of values and meanings in society and the impact these have on product language. [Designers] … talk about new, unexpressed semantic needs of users. They observe the socio-cultural models and make proposals to affect the emerging dynamics in socio-cultural models. Their attitudes are more reminiscent of architects. (p. 177, italics in original)

However, in the case of truly disruptive products, such information is rarely available prior to market entry. The ability of firms in the Milan region to overcome this problem may relate to the fact that they are mostly involved with fashion/style-oriented design (primarily in clothing and housewares).

In summary, this book performs the useful function of exposing many parties in the product innovation process to the objectives and process of design. There are several examples of the considerations involved in the design of specific products, including a saddle, the Ipod, and a radically different wheelchair. In addition, Appendix A contains an interview outline useful in the hiring of designers and design firms. It is followed by an extensive bibliography. This book should prove very valuable to individuals and firms working with, or contemplating a relationship with, designers and design firms.

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