Let’s not call it design…think of it as innovation

For years, designers have referenced and promoted IBM’s own Thomas Watsons’ 1973 one-liner: ‘Good Design is Good Business’ and it’s true:

“…research results showed that for every $100 companies invested in design, they saw an increase to their turnover of $225.” — UK Design Council

Many designers have a urge to improve. Whatever their individual processes, many designers observe business and product inefficiencies and see opportunities to put themselves to great use. It’s often not just the brand or visual problem the designers find themselves usually assigned to improve, but also many other many opportunities within business.

Right now, you can’t seem to say business without innovation. They are seemingly come hand-in-hand…why? Why is innovation a word used across many industries and disciplines? Why now do influential public figures use it so often and invest into it? Innovation seems to be exciting people and the masses appear to be looking to adopt it.

Interestingly, designers who ‘innovate’ define innovation differently, they speak of good vs bad innovation, and many different processes adopt an ‘innovative approach’.

To me, it seems that Innovation and Design strive to achieve the same thing and seem to be spoken about in the same ways. Of the two, innovation is widely adopted and it appears to be much more exciting and doable.

The [unintentional] Rebrand of Design

If design is understood as an out-of-reach skill, that you’re either born with or not, then is innovation something that can be taught and understood? If that is the case, then it’s easy to see why innovation is becoming an acceptable part of business. Leaders take on the new challenge and not placed in the ‘too hard basket’.

Designers are using the word too. Creative studios have noticed the synergy between ‘design’ and ‘innovation’, and so have adopted it.

And yet, it seems that businesses are much more comfortable with the term innovation than design. By replacing ‘design’ with ‘innovate’ they are able to stand by their words and prove their approaches as something new, exciting and up-to-date.

Maybe design is turtlenecks, beautifying and proclaiming theatrical sentences that make no sense to anyone. Maybe innovation is doable with excitable smiles, understandable terms and white boards that say “the future is now!” or “ideas boom!”.

Therefore, perhaps the designers and the leaders of business — those who yearn to be understood as the problem solver, working deeper than cosmetics, creating sustainable impact — have [unintentionally] rebranded successful design as innovation.


The Pitfall of Innovation

In this context let’s define terms.  Design is to create with truth and functionality, advertising is to persuade and to innovate is to be new.

To consider innovation separate from design is proving to be its pitfall. According to research from Doblin (an innovation consultancy)

“… business realise that 96% of all innovation attempts fail to meet their financial goals … Business leaders are increasingly looking to design to not just help, but lead their innovation processes.”
Replacing the word design with innovation is not steering away from turtlenecks and man buns; otherwise design wouldn’t be coming back into the equation. It’s the apprehension of creating something tangible. Once something is made, and seen, held and touched, you’re forced to put your ideas into practice early on in the process. It is then easier to criticise, and you’re faced with many more problems to overcome along the way.

Design is terrifying for business leaders because it surfaces problems. Innovation sounds and feels immediate. But they are both about process.


Designers have learnt that if they don’t make, test, repeat — you fail to meet the needs and the expectations. Designers learn to be comfortable in the process, and expect things not to work, to look at it differently and to get back up and try again in another way.

According to the research from Doblin, by excluding the design process from innovation, the attempt reaches financial failure 96% of the time. And according to the UK Design council, for every $100 spent on design, companies saw an increase to their turnover of $225.

If these two research results can be seen side by side, it’s an interesting correlation. What can we as designers and business owners do to mould these two words together. How can we really learn from each other?

Let’s declare a new word. We need a term that demonstrates we are really learning from each other. Until we find that word, maybe Design needs to keep using the word Innovation, until people see that without design making things tangible for them, innovation is just a white board.

If you’re looking of ways to move beyond the whiteboard Rai Projects reshapes business to do better. We work alongside you to make real shift, and deliver real outcomes.

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