This essay is part of the “Managing Innovation” essay series that starts with “Innovation isn’t what you think it is.”
For years, my Alphabet business card said “Director of Rapid Evaluation and Mad Science.” With my name on over 70 issued US patents and titles like Engineering Director and CTO under my belt, you might expect that I would center my “bubbling test tube and sparking Jacob’s ladder” inventive contributions to the innovation process. I don’t. In fact, I credit my skills as a designer — communications design, product design, solutions design — as among my greatest strengths as an innovation leader. To be a great innovator, you must harness the power of great design.
So, what does design have to do with successful innovation? Nearly everything, as it turns out. But too often we emphasize the role of invention when we think about the innovation process.
In previous essays, I stripped away the buzzword, marketing fluff of “innovation” to define the hallmark traits of true innovation: massive impact and an upending of the status quo via creative destruction. But I left some key questions unanswered, namely, “how does one go about creating innovation in the first place?” and “how important is invention vs. design in the innovation process?”
When we fixate on invention as a means to innovation, we’re doing it wrong. In my decades of experience as an innovation leader, I’ve found that the high-impact innovations that stick are built on the same foundation; Not new technology or new inventions, but excellent design and marketing, with invention playing a supporting role.
design isn’t just another pretty face
Design is often misunderstood as making things pretty after all of the hard work is done. Nothing could be further from the truth. Design is the process by which the potential value of solving a problem is realized in practice. And there may be as much or more to discover in the process of refining the solution and making it practical as there was in the original technical or creative insight.
the iPad and the invention of tablet computing
In a previous essay I make the argument that Apple “invented” tablet computing (made tablet computing a high-impact, viable market) by delivering the iPad. The iPad wasn’t so much a technical revolution as it was the right combination of design and systems engineering that allowed the promise of tablet computing (an idea decades old) to finally be fulfilled.
There were lots of functional predecessors to the iPad, including Apple’s own Newton (early 90s) and the PSION Organizer from the 1980s. However, with the iPad, Apple went beyond the merely functional to make something that was elegant, compelling, and beautiful. And along the way, Apple defined an interaction vocabulary that is now ubiquitous.
the Tesla Roadster and the invention of the electric car
I could similarly make an argument that Tesla “invented” the electric car. Sure, electric cars had been around for years before Tesla shipped the Roadster in 2008—over a century, actually, since some of the very first horseless carriages were electric. But nobody wanted an electric car until Tesla made electric cars outrageously sexy as well as practical. Now Tesla defines the category and has upended the entire automotive industry.
say again? iteration is the key
What these examples show is that iterative design is the key to successful high-impact invention. The first embodiment of an idea is never the best embodiment. This means you iterate — try, test, and try again — very often picking up where previous designers and inventors left off and learning from their failures.
Apple didn’t start from scratch with the iPad, they learned from their previous failure—the Newton—and from the designs that had come before, like the PSION. Tesla didn’t start from scratch, they built on over a century’s worth of learnings about what made a car great and the long history of failures of electric cars in the market.
And even after learning from all of the previous tablet computing designs, Apple didn’t ship their first version of the iPad. It went through many internal design iterations and experiments before the product was ready for its big reveal. Even the size of the first version wasn’t a sure thing until shortly before it shipped. I know, because I was there.
I wasn’t there for Tesla’s internal iterative process, but I know that it happened because for all of its flaws and shortcomings, the Roadster was a pretty great car. You don’t get that right on the first try.
what’s old is new again
There are very few truly new ideas that find their way to the marketplace. As the previous two examples illustrate, most high-impact innovation is built on a conceptual framework that is decades or even centuries old.
This means that if you are working as an innovator, most of the ideas behind your innovation aren’t new. Sure, you might discover a new component or process that could give you an advantage, but if you just came up with it, it is likely someone else could have the same, or an equivalent insight tomorrow.
And since the ideas you are working with aren’t new in the fundamentals, others will likely be working on something very similar. As a result, winning in innovation usually comes down to who can iterate and learn the most effectively, not who can be the most creative or produce the most radical ideas. This is great news for second (or third) movers, and the market has validated this approach time and again.
Taken seriously, this idea of iterative design is the foundation of innovation is a deep challenge to the idea that innovation is driven by technological discovery. That doesn’t mean you throw away technological innovation—it is vitally necessary to support future designs—but if your goal is to build an innovation team, you might want to invest more in designers and less in mad scientists. It also implies that the foundation of great inventions of the future might actually be ideas from years or centuries ago that have yet to fulfill their potential impact in the world.
Fortunately, you don’t have to wait years or centuries to go from a good idea to something with high impact in the market. The key is in the methodology. Creating high-impact innovation in the span of weeks and months requires a rapid “build, test, learn” iterative loop, which is explicitly called out in contemporary methodologies like design thinking or the lean startup. Let’s take a look at design thinking.
iteration and design thinking
In the design thinking methodology, we begin with an ill-formed, vague sense of the problem, and then co-evolve our understanding of the problem and our ideas about solutions.
One of the essential features of design thinking is that we re-define the problem and then translate that problem definition into needs, and those needs into things we can measure, or benchmark. By making this process explicit (and by using lots of Post-It notes) we create a shared understanding among all participants of both the problem and the proposed solution.
design thinking case study: Project Loon
The year is 2011, and a team at Google [X] wants to tackle the global disparity in access to connectivity. We start with the problem that lots of people lack connectivity because it is really expensive in large parts of the world. Why is it expensive? Digging into this further, it appears that there are a multitude of reasons why connectivity is expensive, all related to disparate challenges on the ground. (Imagine lots of scribbled notes on a whiteboard that say things like “terrain,” “conflict,” “distance to fiber,” etc.) The diversity of problems is daunting until we articulate a key insight: If the problems are on the ground, maybe the solutions are to be found in the air, or in space.
A quick exploration of air- and space-born connectivity options eliminates satellites for reasons of cost, but we can’t eliminate high altitude platforms, or HAPs, as a potential solution, especially as that could allow our customers to use the phone they already have. This narrows our potential solution focus to fixed-wing, loitering solar powered communications drones, or aerostats (balloons and airships).
Back-of-the-envelope power-storage calculations make fixed-wing solutions look infeasible for the battery technology of 2011, and stratospheric airships look too expensive and risky, but free-floating balloons look like a real possibility if we can launch enough of them and steer them well enough. It turns out that steering the balloons is doable, and Google’s Project Loon is born.
Loon became a separate Alphabet company in 2018. Recently, Loon announced a deal with Para Todos Peru (IpT) and Telefonica to provide service in Peru.
I’m not a design thinking zealot, but the iterative loop of defining and re-defining problems and solutions is magical. It’s hard to be on different pages with your co-founders or research team if you are constantly and explicitly defining the problem, and then relating that back to your solution as you develop it.
implications of design-driven innovation
I’ve given you a few examples of design-driven high-impact innovation (there could be many, many more) and a pointer to an iterative design methodology you can implement. But let’s step back and consider the implications of what it means to center design, rather than invention or technical advancement, in the process of high-impact innovation. What does this really mean?
If you, like me, identify as an inventor — a Mad Scientist— acknowledging the supremacy of design in innovation may feel like your contributions are being devalued. That is not true; your contributions still play a critical role, but the value can only be realized when combined with the power of iterative design. Understanding this, and working with skilled designers will accelerate and multiply the impact of your inventions.
If you are an innovation manager with a team that is heavy on inventors and scientists, but light on designers and product managers, you are almost certainly doing it wrong. Bring designers and product people into your process from the very beginning and not as an afterthought, and your impact will be multiplied.
And if you are a business leader or entrepreneur and you want to foster high-impact innovation, integrating a design thinking mindset into your company culture, coupling R&D activities with design, and giving skilled designers and product managers a voice early-on in development rather than late in the process will multiply your success and impact.
Long story short: for high-impact innovation, bring designers in early, iterate, and don’t mistake a technical advance for a product. That’s where design comes in — Apple has understood this for years— and I hope this has been helpful for you to understand it, too.