When thinking about innovation, we tend to do so from two important angles. The first, and more likely to make headlines, is radical innovation. Sometimes referred to as breakthrough, discontinuous or disruptive. Radical innovation entails a significant shift from an existing performance by providing something new to the world. Something that will dramatically change customer expectations and eventually replace existing methods or know-how; a major “level up” if you will. 

The second key perspective is the incremental innovation angle. This is the type of innovation effort that focuses more on addressing customer pain points through line extensions and upgrades to existing products or services; by contrast to radical innovation, advancements are demanded (or pulled) by the market. Garments, beauty products, detergents, food packaging, household appliances, and many more fall into the latter category.

What is design-driven innovation?

As many success stories nowadays show, in order to remain competitive, organizations need to look beyond improved features or functions, no matter how dramatic. Particularly, they must understand the emotional ties that customers create with the products and services they purchase and gradually trust in.

Realizing that neither technology-push nor market-pull strategies provide an adequate framework for innovating the (often elusive) “meanings of things”, Roberto Verganti – Professor of Leadership and Innovation, Politecnico di Milano - introduced in 2009 a third and very different approach: the radical innovation of meanings or simply, design-driven innovation

“[successful design-driven organizations follow] a strategy and a process that leverage the rich and multifaceted network of a firm’s outsiders, looking beyond customers to those "interpreters"– such as scientists, customers, suppliers, intermediaries, designers, artists - who deeply understand and shape the markets they work in."

- Roberto Verganti – Professor of Leadership and Innovation, Politecnico di Milano

In other words, a design-driven approach - underlined by the fast-trending principles of design-thinking and sustained by the conviction that design helps business grow – provides the right tools & methods to create innovations that customers do not expect, but which they eventually love and become passionate about.

Below, are four design-driven innovations that illustrate this point and the organizations or people behind them.

The Alessi Bird Kettle

First introduced in 1985 and designed by Michael Graves, this celebrated kettle featuring the bird that sings when the water is boiling has transformed the breakfast experience in many households by infusing an aura of originality, uniqueness, and prestige. Having sold nearly 1.5 million units to date, the Alessi 9093 kettle remains one of the Milan-based company’s most successful products and a testament to an impeccable innovation process that embraces participants and notions far beyond it.

(note: The Alessi Bird kettle is one of the main cases examined by Prof. Roberto Verganti in his book.)

The Learning Thermostat

While on a mission to re-engineer unloved yet important home products, Nest is a company that has given objects like the thermostat and smoke alarm both a modern tech makeover and a higher meaning. The Nest Thermostat, for instance, has enabled a once unexciting object that needed constant, manual adjusting to step into the 21st century. With the ability to learn schedules, program itself, and connect to its owner’s phone, this heat-regulating device makes a clear statement about the impact of smart houses on our energy consumption patterns and more broadly, our daily lives.

Teddy the Guardian

Developed and launched by Croatian start-up IDerma, Teddy the Guardian is a design-driven innovation that disguises advanced medical tech in a lovable toy. It's objective? Providing pediatricians and parents with meaningful and complete insight into a child’s health condition, without the usual strain of a standard check-up. When asked what they owe their success, Teddy’s creators, Josipa Majic, and Ana Burica, note the critical contribution of their “interpreters”: a visionary team of health marketers, data analysts, and developers as well as support from medical industry experts. 

The Mini-Skirt

A less tech-demanding but equally impactful innovation was the introduction of the mini-skirt in the 1960s. This modern wardrobe item characterized by a hemline well above the knees enabled designer Mary Quant to cause an unexpected revolution. To this very day, the mini-skirt remains a symbol of women’s liberation from conservative fashion and marks their empowerment. Alongside "ensembles" (or business suits) created by iconic Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani, these developments represent two of the most applauded (and radical) innovations of meanings in clothing and apparel to date.

Final Thoughts 

Understanding the deep emotional ties that consumers develop with their products renders a significant competitive advantage. By recruiting interpreters who can identify, understand and shape the markets they work in, design-driven organizations become more impactful and their products more likely to stand the test of time. Next to technology-push and market-pull tactics, the radical innovation of meanings hence becomes “the third way of innovating” – a way that is more attuned to our wishes, aspirations and ultimately lives.

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