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Innovation by Design: What Is It & Why Does It Matter?

Innovation by design is the utilization of a designer’s methods and sensibility to address the customer's needs. Innovations in design bring new ideas to the design process, allowing designers to be more efficient and cost-effective.

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
5 min read
Innovation by Design: What Is It & Why Does It Matter?

Innovation drives the world forward. It is what heals illnesses, protects individuals from danger, and makes life easier, more efficient, and more enjoyable. However, innovation does not just happen. It takes a catalyst, and one of the most robust catalysts for innovation is design. It moves an idea smoothly along its journey from a simple insight to a tangible, marketable product or service. Design provides the focus and structure that innovation so badly needs.

Design-thinking firms stand apart in their willingness to engage in the task of continuously redesigning their business…to create advances in both innovation and efficiency—the combination that produces the most powerful competitive edge.‌‌‌‌ Roger Martin

But while it is an easy thing to say that design drives innovation meaning, many are confused by how it actually works, as well as why design can be such an integral part of making innovation happen. This post will go into the what and the why of innovation by design, and discuss how businesses can use both the design process and designers to advance innovation in their organization.

What Is Innovation By Design?

Innovation by design is the utilization of a designer’s methods and sensibility to address the needs of the consumer. Along with this design-driven approach, strong business strategy and technological feasibility are used to create both market opportunity and customer value.

Basically, the goal is to solve more complex problems with the methodology of a designer. This methodology is solution-based rather than problem-based. The aim is to find what actions will create the desired results. Exploration of the most beneficial outcomes is accomplished with everything from systemic reasoning and imagination to intuition and logic.

However, what many people miss when they think about “innovation through design” is what design actually is. The biggest misconception is that design is simply what a product or service looks like. In actuality, design is how (and why) the product or service functions. It is taking an idea and making it tangible and useful.

Why Does Innovation By Design Work?

One of the key steps of innovation by design is engagement with consumers. Prototypes are created, and then tested, and then refined. It is essential to do this because it minimizes the risk of product or service failure. Organizations learn what customers want, what they like, and what they will refuse to buy. These insights, which can not be effectively gained from methods such as market research or historical data, are essential for designers.

A true and deep understanding of customers creates the competitive advantage that gives organizations that use innovation by design higher margins and greater customer loyalty. It is this part of the design process that ensures profitable, popular, and revolutionary innovation.

But not only does innovation by design lower the risk of innovations, but there are also four other benefits that can be associated with it. The first is an improved ability to secure funding for development. Funding can be challenging to receive. Every organization has a budget, and much of that budget must go towards business as usual costs.

The company has to keep running and to do that, it takes money. However, when design becomes a much more integrated part of the innovation process, the end product is easier to visualize. It is backed by customer input. There is a more clear return on investment. This type of clarity makes it easier for leadership, investors, and stakeholders to get behind new innovations.

This leads to the second reason innovation by design works so well. When there is a clear process of design, there is more clarity for everyone on your team, from the developers to the investors. Everyone is on the same page. Marketing can begin to plan a timeline. Sales can begin to develop their pitches. Finance can begin to adjust the future budget. The entire organization can better prepare, and they can stress less about last-minute surprises, especially when it comes to resource use.

Improved clarity, as previously mentioned, leads to better preparation. Another reason that innovation by design works so well is simply that an innovation’s introduction to the market goes more smoothly. When a plan is laid out and marketing, sales, and finance have been prepared more adequately, the innovation is shown to the public in the best light. The best market entry strategy is used, the best fundraising pitch is developed, and the best sales tactic is implemented. The product or service just has a much better chance of taking off.

Because of all of the previous reasons why innovation & design work, the fourth reason for success is created: organizations are able to better identify the commercial viability of new products and services. The engagement with consumers allows companies to see whether they should even pursue a particular innovation. The increased funding for development allows businesses to fully develop prototypes to flesh out their ideas and see how tangibly possible they are.

The improved clarity of the innovation enables the entire organization to test out how marketable, sellable, and financially viable an innovation is. And, finally, the improved preparation allows businesses to understand what exactly it will take for a product or service to succeed.

How Can Innovation By Design Be Implemented?

Innovation by design can be implemented in eight simple steps:

  1. Discover: The is the step where exploration needs to happen. It is time to find out what consumers’ unmet needs are. The best place to start is choosing a specific topic or area of interest and then gathering data.
  2. Reframe The Topic: Once you have started down a path with a topic or idea, you need to take a deeper look at it and find any insights or patterns that you can. Throw out any assumptions that you may have about a particular problem, or the solution to previous problems, and reframe your point-of-view.
  3. Incubate: This step takes patience. You need to unleash your creative side by doing things differently, looking at different stimuli, and acting accordingly. Let the idea grow.
  4. Ideate: This is when the seed of an idea begins to bloom. It is time for the innovation team to begin meeting and sharing ideas. The team should discuss all possibilities and make those possibilities more visible.
  5. Refine: When all of the ideas are in, it is time to take a good look at them. Really dig and and figure out what is possible and what is feasible. This is where much of the design comes into play. The innovation should be laid out in a very clear way.
  6. Test: Once the idea is decided on, the team should begin talking to consumers. Find out what they think and how they would react to that product or service. Build prototypes and try them out.
  7. Launch: Once the product or service is tested and refined, it is time to get approval and launch it.
  8. Improve And Scale: When the product is available to the public, the team should get feedback and improve it. At this point it can be scaled up.

What is Innovations In Design?

What about innovations in design? Just as design can improve innovation, innovation can also improve design. There are several innovations in design that have helped designers be more creative and efficient. For instance, 3D printing has allowed designers to rapidly prototype products at a lower cost. Other advances in software, such as augmented reality tools, can give designers a better understanding of how their design will look in real life.

You have a powerful combination when you combine innovation by design with innovations in design. With this combination, you can create products and services that are much more efficient and cost-effective than ever before. It allows designers to explore new possibilities in product development and service delivery.


Design is one of the most critical components of creating killer innovations. By incorporating a design-driven approach into your innovation processes and understanding the importance of design thinking in innovation, you can create stronger and more successful solutions for your customers.

To learn more about innovating by design, reach out to an innovation agency such as Techtrend Group.

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Phil McKinney Twitter

Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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