How to Use Design for Innovation


Design is a human-powered field of practice that combines imagination, certain ways of thinking, and making things. There’s a lot of myth-making and mystery language associated with design, so don’t let that confuse or lose you. Design is a field made of disciplines, but it’s also the discipline of innovation. That’s how we see it.

How can we use design to innovate (create something new that adds value and improves our situation)?

In a series on Censemaking, Cameron Norman introduces us to design, design thinking, and critical design – the three cornerstones of the field of design practice. But how do we use it?

The Design Helix

We developed the Design Helix as a model to explain the activities that go into design. Like any good model, it’s meant to guide, not prescribe, design work.

You can start by identifying a problem or situation you want to change. Nearly every organization faces situations they want to see improved, avoided, or enhanced. What’s sometimes called Problem Finding is a big part of design, because we often tackle the wrong problem.

People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”

Theodore Leavitt (attributed)

The above quote illustrates a common issue of people confusing the problem with a solution. Purchasing a drill to create a hole is one solution. But what is the hole for? If it’s to hang a picture, then ask yourself if there are other ways to hang the picture? Do you need a picture? Could a change of paint or a houseplant do the same thing? Is the point of the drill the hole, what the hole does, or whether the hole is a means in a chain to beautify a room? Your solution might be to purchase a drill, but it could be many other things. The problem-finding role of design will help clarify this.

The technique known as the 5-Whys is one of the ways we can get closer to the root of the situation and better define the problem at hand. This is part of doing design. The Design Helix guides us through two parallel, intertwined processes: imagination (envisioning what might be) and production (creating what is or will be).

Problem Defined, Solution Imagined

Innovators are interested in solutions — they want something better than before. Design is the means to create and sustain that. Defining a better problem is a big step toward developing that better solution.

Focus is a great benefit here. Most organizations have so much going on that focusing becomes difficult. They spend too much time focused on irrelevant or inconsequential problems. Once we have our problem or situation clarified, design allows us to walk through steps to address it.

That begins with research to reveal and explore what we know about our situation. This helps us to see if a solution exists and has yet to be implemented or whether there are aspects of a solution available to us that we can combine to address our problem or situation. Research will 1) optimize what is known, 2) spot opportunities in what’s already in place, 3) assess whether a solution can be achieved, 4) avoid costly development time and resources chasing an unsolvable issue, or 5) lead us down the innovation path.

This is where we combine what we know with what we can imagine. It’s where the many tropes and (often) misleading models of design thinking come to mind, like people using sticky notes and whiteboards to brainstorm. In truth, this does happen sometimes. But the means to surfacing and generating ideas are many. At Cense, we use all those tools (and more) and also virtual spaces and dashboards and embed the idea-generation process in imagining possible futures and connecting it with strategy.

It’s part of a conversation about what you want, where you are, and where you want to go. We make better conversations by design.

Make Sense, Make Change


By sensemaking — a structured process of going over what we know, checking our assumptions, and matching it all with resources — we can figure out what we need to do next. Sensemaking takes our ideas and winnows them into possibilities that we can turn into innovations.

Next, we make things. Try these ideas out and make prototypes — mock-ups of the solution — in physical form, digital form, or even as a thought experiment. This helps innovation by testing our hypotheses, learning by doing, and also helps de-risk our ideas. By testing them out in limited form before deploying them widely, we can find ‘bugs’, correct assumptions, and make enhancements before they become live. This is a structured and very safe process, but it requires a willingness on the part of those designing. Usually, our designs could be better at the beginning. We make things better over time with iterative development, refinements and care.

This means you end up with a new product or service and a means to understand your market. It also helps you reduce costly mistakes in development.

The alternative? Come up with a “good idea” and hope it works. Design is systematic, thorough, and focused on what people will use, not just what people want. That focus on the product and the consumer, customer, client, or citizen (whoever you’re designing for) and understanding how it fits within a system is what design is all about.

Are you interested in learning more about how this design process works and how it can help you? You can check out the design series on Censemaking, our blog archives, and, of course, contact us if you want help doing more to do better.

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