Designing at 10,000 Feet

Innovating strategically for your business

Many designers leave design school with their heads high and a feeling that they’re off to do amazing things. They even get crazy and buy shirts that say things like, “Design Will Save the World” (mine doesn’t really fit any more).

But once you get your first job at a world-class agency, cutting edge design lab, or just a “boring” Fortune 500 company, reality starts to settle in.

Instead of doing things like this…

Probably hacking a mainframe. Enhance!

…you end up doing this:

Nit-pixeling: Why all designers have carpal tunnel.

There are many reasons this can happen, but one that sticks out to me is that designers often don’t really know how to innovate for their companies.

When you’re in design school or just brainstorming with your friends, you get a blank slate. Revenue, business model, product positioning, marketing…they simply don’t come into play. You’re welcome to innovate in the most bizarre, unrealistic ways imaginable.

The real world doesn’t work quite like this ☹️

First, designers should understand that not all innovation has to end with colonizing Mars or solving world hunger. Second, innovation for existing businesses and products must take the existing business model into account.

What follows are three innovation lenses you can pop into your thick-rimmed designer glasses to help you innovate in new ways!

3 Ways to View Innovation


1. Experiential

West Elm, popular for their modern furniture and home decor, recently launched West Elm Hotels. On the surface, it sure looks like they’re entering the boutique hotel space to compete with other luxury hotels.

At face value, it sounds like a dramatic shift from their current retail business model. However, all the signs point to this as an innovative way to enhance the customer experience.

West Elm is typically housed inside suburban shopping malls on the metro/urban fringe. These locations typically have a small footprint in young professional districts, and are not conducive for testing merchandise.

Think about it. Unless you’re in the West Elm store laying on a micro-bed in front of a bunch of strangers, or sitting at a cramped desk covered in artisanal candles and other home decor, it’s extremely difficult to truly experience the goods you’re about to buy.

Hotels are starting to sound like a great idea, huh? What a better way to experience West Elm merchandise than staying several nights in a boutique hotel with decor exclusively available from West Elm! It’s genius, comfortable, and innovative.


2. Evolutionary

A few years back, Dropbox launched Carousel and purchased Mailbox. All the design community was aflutter! They had fantastic marketing, and engaging UI.

However, no sooner than they began, they would shut down both of them just a few months later. Dropbox stated that they would be shifting their focus to businesses and away from individuals. More WE…less ME.

The problem facing Dropbox was that they had a killer feature (Dropbox Sync) but no product on its own.

While competitors like Box and iCloud threatened their core feature, Dropbox was forced to innovate if they wanted to stay alive, all the while leveraging their core technology. Enter Dropbox Paper.

It’s like paper, but on the internet!

The cloud-based document editor is not all that innovative on the surface — there are plenty of other document collaboration tools — but it is innovative for the Dropbox business.

It provides an evolutionary path from a feature to a product.

Speaking from personal experience, our agency occasionally used Google Docs, but there was no agreed-upon way to capture meeting notes. Once Dropbox Paper launched, we transitioned overnight because it was such a seamless conversion from Dropbox Sync. Our internal ecosystem of organization and execution was complete.

With Dropbox Paper, it’s easy to imagine Dropbox Spreadsheet or Dropbox Presentation. Or Dropbox Calendar. The path to innovation for Dropbox isn’t necessarily innovative (Google has this fairly well licked already), but that’s the point. Sometimes innovation is building a business out of a feature.


3. Exploratory

Being so far removed from what’s cool to you youngsters nowadays, I’ll be stepping way outside my comfort zone to discuss Snapchat Spectacles.

Full disclosure: I can barely keep up with Facebook and have never opened Snapchat in my life. But I do know enough to understand that it appeals to the 16–25 year old demographic. You know, like Facebook did just a few years ago!

This is Snap’s challenge: How can Snapchat mature outside of a very particular demographic? It might require a little bit of experimentation.

A sneak peak at season 2 of WestWorld, probably. Don’t you change, Dolores.

On the surface, Spectacles are a kitschy play. They’re plastic. They’re gaudy. In a hundred years they’d probably be a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy.

But their recent change from Snapchat to just Snap, Inc. would suggest otherwise.

They are maturing. Spectacles, while still being marketed to the same audience as Snapchat users, are just an experiment to help them figure out how exactly to grow.

  • Today they’re fun, silly and sold to those doing fun 20-year old things (what are those again?).
  • Tomorrow, maybe they’re marketed to new parents to capture their toddlers taking their first steps.
  • Next year, maybe business professionals wear stylish Ralph Lauren Spectacles to stream important business calls to their global offices.

Snap, Inc. is now a photography company (by their own account), so innovation will come in the form of finding new ways to take photos. Spectacles hints that their vision of photography is hands-free. By experimenting with their existing audience, they will learn how to mature their offerings to reach new demographics.


Hey, cool stories, why are you telling me?

I do believe that designers learn how to “think big” in school, but usually don’t know how to translate that in the business world.

Innovation comes in many different flavors, but only succeeds when it enhances a business’s existing model. Designers should learn how their business makes its money, who it serves, and what values it truly provides.

From there, you can use your amazing nit-pixeling skills to dream up new concepts which are not only innovative, but approachable to your product team.


Check out our latest project Innovatecards to help you innovate big ideas based on real companies.

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