Advice For Designers Looking to Get Their First Patent

During my first week at IBM, a few of my teammates and I were trying to find a meeting room. The rooms on our design floor were all booked so we ventured out. As we tried to navigate the lettered halls, we happened upon some relatively discrete placards outside of individual offices that read, “Master Inventor.” Pictures were taken, terms were Googled. Is it a job title? How does someone get one of these? Without realizing, it was our first introduction to patents at IBM.

As new hires, we were challenged with an accessibility exercise to help people with low vision (impaired visual ability but not complete blindness). We worked in groups and pitched our ideas to accessibility experts at IBM. It was after this pitch that a reviewer said, “You should patent this,” and handed us his business card. We were all a bit surprised since we knew nothing about the patent process. Although our ultimate patent idea varies from the initial solution we pitched, I’m hoping this article will help other designers feel more confident about filing their first patent. As the design discipline continues to evolve from a niche trade to a set of skills for creative problem solving, patents can be a measurable outcome of this shift.

Log Things That Annoy You and Those Around You

We’ve all been told that necessity is the mother of invention. Sitting alone at a whiteboard conjuring up a patent idea is one method, but a far less fruitful one than trying to solve a problem that already exists in the world. Throughout my day if I find myself thinking “I wish we had a thing that could…” or “It’s so annoying when…” I note these thoughts and set them aside for future patent ideas. Similarly, if I’m in a work meeting or at a coffee shop, I note any unique complaints that I hear from others. Ground your patent ideation in the real world around you. When I started grounding patent creation in the realm of solving existing problems, rather than trying to create something new, the entire process became much more approachable. At an engineering-led company, designers may feel excluded from the patent process because we don’t typically invent new technology. We spend our days uncovering and solving problems for users. If designers shift their mental model of what patent creation is, they will realize their natural workflow and way of thinking are very conducive to patent creation.

Align with the Strategic Initiatives of Your Company

Getting a patent became a personal goal, but all of my team’s patentable ideas didn’t come from wanting a patent, but from the accessibility design challenge itself. If your company has an internal patent review and submission approval group, your idea has to be both novel and relevant to the enterprise. By aligning your patent with current endeavors of your organization, patent reviewers are able to link invention value to business value. At IBM Research, there is an ongoing initiative to better understand and design for the lives of an increasingly aging population. Other pertinent initiatives include the need for more more efficient and secure credential management and improved accessibility in product design. Note, these are broad areas that allow designers to think wide while still tying their creative output to the needs and interests of the organization. Improving the lives of users through increased security, quality of life for the elderly, and assistance for those with disabilities provides social and therefore business value. These areas are ripe for innovation. Immersing ourselves in the lens of our users gets the creative mind working. Leverage your patent goals in a way that advocates for a cause you and your organization are passionate about. Your blank whiteboard will suddenly fill with ideas.

Combine Existing Technologies in New & Novel Ways

In 4th grade I did a presentation as Ruth Wakefield, the inventor of the chocolate chip cookie. She owned the Toll House Inn and on a whim one night, decided to add some chocolate shavings to an existing cookie dough recipe she usually made for her guests. The rest is history. Both chocolate shavings and cookie dough were established entities, and neither element was altered, only combined with one another for the first time. Remember, ground your patent exercise in the purpose of solving a problem. Operating from this lens will tell you whether to create a new technology or find a way to combine existing technologies because you will do what is most advantageous for solving the problem itself. Re-organizing an existing process or applying a well-known technology towards a new use case are both patentable approaches. If you and your peers are looking for help brainstorming novel ways to combine existing elements, Models of Impact and Extrapolation Factory provide targeted group activities.

Don’t Go It Alone

As designers, we are accustomed to the collaborative process. Use patent creation as an opportunity to form long or short-term patent groups that leverage different disciplines and ways of thinking. Personally, I enjoyed meeting with my patent group to hear their current project work, weekend excursions, and recent breakthroughs. It’s a great opportunity to work with that colleague that isn’t on your product team. If you have an engineer or developer whose work you admire, approach them to work on patent ideas where you can bring your unique skill sets together. Patent groups can be a great bridge between different disciplines and business units. Our group of 4 found a nice balance between group ideation and dividing up specific individual tasks for the patent application process. Keep in mind, once the patent idea is formed, the work is far from over! Leveraging a patent group for both creative and tactical resources is critical. Our entire patent process took almost a year, while coming up with the idea took a few weeks. Researching prior art (existing Intellectual Property that relates to your patent idea), email and phone communication with the patent office, submitting all application materials via the internal patent portal, and writing and editing the disclosure are some of the procedural tasks that can be completed much more efficiently with a divide and conquer approach.

View Patents as an Exercise, not an End Goal

Don’t view getting a patent as a linear process or a guaranteed outcome. Be open to your “brilliant” idea being rejected or, more likely, already existing. Be equally open to an odd idea making its way through. Always enter the activity of patent creation with a genuine desire to solve a problem so the benefit of the exercise moves beyond the patent. Your mind will start working in a problem-solver mode, benefiting your core product work and other personal or creative endeavors.

For other designers at IBM that have successfully filed patents, comment any additional tips or advice and share your story with your colleagues! As the creative process has moved from the work of individual inventors towards collaborative innovators, we should bring a unique design-led view to patent creation at IBM.

Patent team: Michael Lee Kenney, Diana Sun, and Calvin Bench

All thoughts expressed are my own.