Innovation saturation

Once again, I find myself approaching this next empty blog page with an overactive bee in my rather tattered bonnet. I was going to write this about a month ago, but then a not inconsequential thing happened…Steve Jobs exited stage right.

Before this happened, I was thinking about what I would tackle as my next blog entry, and – as usual – found myself venting in one of the various LinkedIn discussion groups about the misuse, overuse and general misrepresentation of the word ‘innovation’. It felt like a good topic to wrestle with and I was all ready to approach the keyboard. With the sad passing of Steve, I found myself thinking about this word ‘innovation’ more and more as he seemingly forged from one to another, leaving a trail of establish consumer electronic behemoths in his wake. In the weeks that passed since, the word innovation has been rightly used as a watchword for his legacy and I think Apple will need to take some time to find their ‘post Steve’ personality (what happens with Apple is for another post methinks) in order to find the most appropriate tone of innovation with a somewhat more considered chap at the helm.

However, it got me thinking and observing quite how much the word ‘innovation’ has been touted to represent abysmal and mediocre service.

I did a bit of basic dictionary referencing. ‘Innovation‘ is the action or process of innovating. Fair enough. ‘Innovating‘ is to make changes in something established by introducing new methods, ideas or products. Again…makes sense. The key word for me is the word ‘new‘ in this. ‘New‘ is – according to the dictionary on my Mac – ‘not existing before; made, introduced, or discovered recently or now for the first time‘. This certainly resonates with my understanding of the word ‘innovation’ – the process of creating something (be it a process, product or idea) that previously did not exist…something NEW.

This is what galls me so about modern design marketing fluff. The word innovation is so overused and misrepresented that it has almost lost its meaning. If every single product, marketing, branding, graphics, media and engineering agency is genuinely innovating, then why are we not living in some Utopian future with perfect lives surrounded by perfect things? If innovation is so abundant, then how can someone like Steve Jobs make such an impact in the world that – when he departs – the world is left wanting. If everyone is telling the truth then we should be overwhelmed by new-ness every time we step foot out of our homes.

I appreciate that I may be over-egging the pudding here. Forgive me. I have to admit, that from my observations within the design industry, it is the corporate world that is often driving this horrible misuse. Much like ‘thinking outside of the box’ and other such stomach curdling phrases heard in those glass panelled board rooms all over the world, the client gets what the client wants. If they ‘want’ innovation, they will bloody well get innovation. Right? If UniGamble PLC wants to ‘innovate’ and ‘re-invigorate the category’, and are prepared to pay big bucks to be told how to do it, I do not blame any design agency with a sense of opportunity for saying “Yup…we can do that innovation thingy…and we’ve even got a bespoke, trademarked process (with post-its) to allow you to do it with us in a groovy holiday lodge somewhere remote. It’s called ‘The Innovation Station™‘ system.” And there’s not a suit in sight. How groovy.

You can probably tell that I have been part of this machine in my time. Talk the talk, walk the walk. I genuinely don’t have a problem with the concept of ‘innovation days’ per se. If they genuinely set out to try and generate something new…something genuinely innovative…then that can only be a good thing. Changing our world for the better. Using the assembled weight of multiple creative minds and experienced professionals to pool their thinking, spark off each others’ suggestions and nurture that tiny germinating seed of revolution into something mighty and ‘game changing’. That’s brilliant to be a part of and there is palpable sense of awe when it happens. If you can get the right people in the same place all striving for the same ultimate goal (rather than a freebie expenses paid trip abroad) then sometimes…just sometimes…it works.

As a design business owner, it is a struggle to find simple and straightforward ways to explain the benefits of the design process to those who often don’t see its value. It’s often a tough sell…trying to convince people and businesses to have faith in your abilities to take their idea or current product and allow you to re-craft it in such a way as to make it better (however that may manifest)…and at the same time part with hard earned cash to do so. No matter how much you use ‘convincers’ such as past case studies or client testimonials, it is an act of faith that secures that purchase order. Square Banana is just one in a large resource pool of design available to any prospective client out there, and with such ‘faith based’ purchase relationships, I don’t want that client base to feel cheated when they buy ‘innovation’ and simply get ‘mediocrity’. I’m a firm believer in ‘doing what it says on the tin’. If you say you can genuinely make that business more money by ‘innovating’ within their design project, then bloody well do you damnedest to achieve that. I appreciate that many clients do their utmost to scupper your efforts (despite what they claim to want from the project), but – as the chosen design partner – you should be aiming to genuinely innovate if you are claiming that as your core service.

I’m not discussing, devaluing or doubting the other noble and tireless services offered by product designers; breathtaking concept styling, cost saving through clever part design and arrangement, incredible material usage, complex 3D CAD assemblies, ingenious mechanical thinking, intelligent patent circumvention… the list goes on. My gripe is singularly with the word ‘innovation’ in its truest sense.

My worry is that product design is attempting the same language of deception and suggestion that is so prevalent in advertising. Advertising can get away with it because they are dealing in dreams and aspirations – their messages can penetrate your brain and monkey around in there – deliberately so. Product design is ultimately rooted in physics and reality. Often utter spectacular reality…but reality nonetheless. Using ad-speak to sell a pragmatic vision is complex and requires lots of intellect and confidence that the claims can be met when that ‘thing’ pops out the production line and into the hands of the intended user. Advertising innovation can live in our dreams, but product innovation has to live in our hands…and is HAS to deliver.

Many would say that Steve Jobs never actually innovated (I’ve yet to read his biography) and he has inferred as much in saying that he cherry picked ideas and simply made them beautifully commercial, emotive and relevant to consumers. There were phones before the iPhone. There were touchscreen devices before the iPad. There were MP3 players before the iPod. So if the guy that has been hailed as the ‘innovator of our generation’ didn’t actually genuinely innovate, then what right have the broad population of design providers to claim they are – in fact – innovating?

I know I’m ranting, and I know many of you will disagree with what I am saying, but I hope that most will see that there should be a more honourable sense of delivering what we claim to be able to. If you claim to be able to ‘innovate’, then please do so. If not, then please stop using the word to define something you cannot deliver. I don’t know why this specific word and its misuse bugs me so much…there are many other buzzwords that are bandied around with equal abandon and disdain. Maybe I hold that word and its resultant output in higher regard than I should?

I strive to innovate…every decent designer should, but I don’t necessarily promise it from the off. If a project allows me to find an ‘innovative’ solution which will fundamentally change the commercial landscape for my client then brilliant…but its rare. More often than not, the product is simply a beautiful resolution to the design brief which exceeds expectation and makes the client oodles of money.

There’s nothing wrong with that…is there?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *