What is Design Innovation?

Alexander Obenauer
The New Industrialist by Mindsense
7 min readNov 2, 2017


Products that go through a rigorous, empathetic, and iterative design process and end up having a fundamentally innovative concept and/or design that wholly innovates on the way the user interacts with the product, and often therefor, the content of their lives — this is design innovation. It’s innovating on a product through its design. It requires an immense amount of taste, empathy, creativity, and variety of inputs / perspectives.

This is what I often find myself specializing in. Think about it: Mail Pilot doesn’t contain a technical innovation. It doesn’t introduce a new replacement for the (terrible) email protocols like IMAP or SMTP. Instead, it uses today’s technology to allow people to interact with their content in a totally new way. It is a seriously innovative product that delivers real value to over 50,000 customers. How?

Design innovation.

When I introduced it to the world in 2011, we made a bet that people thought about and wanted to interact with their email very differently from how current email clients enabled them to. We bet that this was the root cause of the immense issue email had become for many. We made a bet that people would want reminders: the ability to have an email with a bill that’s due in 2 weeks leave your inbox until you actually need to act on it. We bet that people wanted to treat their emails not as “unread” and “read” but rather as “incomplete” and “complete” — and that this paradigm shift would reduce a lot of stress and friction users experience when interacting with their email through the client. Get it? This is design innovation.

It doesn’t need to exist on its own, though; often it is supported by or used in conjunction with technical innovation. But more on that at the end.

“Sounds like you want to make design sound more important than it is, Alex! After all, a fresh coat of paint looks great, but it’s just the surface.”

In this case, no. The design of the product is everything the user interacts with. The steering wheel — a truly ergonomic input for humans — versus something much worse, like a joystick. It’s about psychology, business, ergonomics, and more. Each of those links will take you to an article I’ve written further on this. The first two are two of my most popular ever.

I love design innovation, because so often, when done right, the results look obvious in hindsight. It takes a thorough, rigorous, and iterative process to get to the result that is so perfect that, given hindsight, it seems like the only possible solution. (As an aside: This can be frustrating to product designers when something has been terribly designed for years, they spend months iterating, finally end up on the perfect solution, show it off, and everyone says “yeah that’s exactly how I would have designed it.” What they really mean is they think the design is a great or perfect solution, but the phrasing can be demoralizing to many designers. I’ve seen it time and time again.)

Enough with the primer, let’s dive into the details and some examples.

Principles of Design Innovation

Let’s talk about the principles of design innovation. Design innovation is:


Good design innovation is respectful of its context. It understands and fits in to its surroundings. It does not force a design meant for a different context on all contexts it lives in.


Good design innovation is deeply empathetic. Understanding the problems people and organizations face, the roots of those problems, how people approach them and think about them — these are all inherently difficult things to do that most ignore. Empathy is hard, but necessary for good design innovation.


Good design innovation progresses people or organizations towards a goal, or works to solve some specific problem(s).


Good design innovation is not superfluous; everything is intentional. Nothing is added simply for aesthetic appeal without intentionality behind achieving some goal or adhering to a core value.


Good design innovation is ongoing; it requires learning from prior iterations, deeply understanding what was observed, and from that, designing better educated iterations to run next.

Examples of Design Innovation

Here are a few examples from around the globe:


Many podcast players shipped with the ability to speed up an episode so that you could listen to it in less time. But it meant having to pay closer attention to keep up, and it sounds a little weird. Instead, Overcast launched with “Smart Speed” — the ability to speed up podcast episodes by removing the pauses. On top of that, it keeps track of the amount of time you’ve saved using the feature.

Mail Pilot

At a time when innovation in email had been stagnant for years, I proposed a new kind of email client that would allow users to interact with their email the way I theorized they naturally wanted to think about it. The new features were seamless to the user, but under the hood they were shoehorned into existing protocols, making the product totally backwards-compatible. All of its innovation was design innovation, helping it to close a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, launching my company.

Coca-Cola Bottle

The Coca-Cola bottle represents design innovation to achieve specific business goals, and it worked.

The original bottle was pretty generic, and copied by many imitators. So that consumers would know whether they’re buying a coke or a knockoff, Coca-Cola launched a totally new bottle design, inspired by the shape of a cocoa pod. The design killed off imitators and was “the catalyst that [helped] Coca-Cola become the most widely distributed product on earth.” The shape became so iconic that it was then used as an image on the company’s cans. See point 2 in this article for more.

Other software examples

The folks at Astro found a way to use the front-facing camera on the iPad to effectively add a new hardware button for their iPad app.

In 2004, before it was heard of, Delicious Library launched a significantly faster and extremely delightful way to input your books, DVDs, and other media into their app: hold up the barcode to your webcam. Once lined up with a series of red lines, much like a barcode scanner at a checkout register, the product with all of its details was automatically loaded into your library.

Other hardware examples

After a decade of bland beige machines and dramatically failing sales, Apple’s iMac G3 communicated something about where the new Apple was headed; it drew a line in the sand and showed the world what the new Apple was about, and the kinds of customers it was going to serve. It put the “personal” back in personal computer.

MP3 players existed before the iPod. The iPod represented a lot of Design Innovation — most of its innovations were in design — and insodoing brought portable MP3 players to prominence.

One final note: Design Innovation doesn’t exist in a vacuum; revolutionary products often involve design innovation supported by or living alongside technical innovation. The iPhone X is a great example, where to achieve its bezel-less design, the device required the technical innovation of a foldable OLED screen.

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