Just what is innovation and how can design engineers acheive it?

6 min read

Good design usually involves innovation and these days, good design and innovation are as essential to the marketing message as they are to functionality. So, as the perceived demand to bring 'new and improved' products to market more regularly increases, the burden of continuous improvement through innovation falls on the shoulders of design engineers.

Examples of such a fast-moving innovation culture can be found in a number of companies such as Apple or Dyson, to mention just a few. However, while innovation has always been a key objective of the design engineer, other more practical aspects cannot be allowed to fall by the wayside for fear of developing a 'style over substance' approach to design. As with many problems, approaching it from first principles is usually a good place to start. Combine this with a fresh dose of inspiration and the rest will follow... hopefully. A master of design is Dieter Rams. The prolific German Industrial designer came up with 10 principles that make up good design that are as relevant today as they were when he first mooted them in the early 1970s. At the top of Rams' list is innovation. Indeed many of his principles involve innovation, or at least are areas where innovation can be applied and yielded. So using aesthetics, making products intuitive, unobtrusive and elegant all need an innovative approach. In essence, Rams strove to be innovative by bringing together aesthetic design with functional engineering in the simplest way possible. His message was: don't be complicated for the sake of it, but if it is complicated to engineer, ensure it is simple to use. Rams also used principles of sustainability by saying products should be long-lasting, environmentally friendly and minimise waste in every sense possible. Nothing should be superfluous. These are sentiments that are echoed today and will require an innovative mind to address them in the future. What is innovation? It is obviously within an engineer's remit to deliver innovation, but it is easier said than done. The term is frequently overused and is in danger of becoming another meaningless buzzword. But innovation as a concept sums up what engineers do, and what they need to do: sales people sell, management manage, engineers innovative. Engineers consider that good design should incorporate at least some innovative elements, however, when marketeers tell you a product is 'innovative', or management demand more of it, what exactly do they mean? The right kind of innovation Broadly speaking, innovation falls into two camps: incremental and disruptive. Incremental innovation is what most people mean to when they talk about innovation. This is what's expected from design engineers: improvements over a previous piece of technology or product. There is a danger, however, that incremental improvement can be confused with incremental change and that is not always a good thing. Incremental innovation must ensure real improvements to really be effective, and not just change for the sake of change. However, with the rate of change in today's society, it is not always easy to spot what is innovative, and what is just different. Disruptive innovation on the other hand is a very different animal. It is often the product of 'blue sky' research carried out with little or no targeted application or commercial goals. While this sounds like commercial suicide, it is an approach that has led to some of the biggest companies in the world today. Indeed governments and multinational companies invest heavily in it to help secure long term prosperity. Dr Stephen Myers, director of accelerators and technology at CERN, says: "If you think of a candle many hundreds of years ago and you incrementally improve it, no matter how much you improve it and how well you do that, you will never end up with a light bulb. A light bulb needs electricity, the vacuum technology, the manufacturing and all these other things. "Disruptive innovation is looking at the very long term. Burt Maxwell had no idea we would have a communications industry and Einstein didn't know we were going to use special relativity for GPS systems." Incremental vs. disruptive With the recent economic situation, many companies both large and small have cut back on blue sky research, and any corresponding disruptive innovation. So how much should you invest in something with no clear return? Jeff Kodosky, co-founder of National Instruments, says: "It's a challenge and we have debates about it all the time. It seems like we live in a world where we expect continuous improvement and when a widget gets introduced that has a new capability, we want that in our widget. "It is a characteristic of society that the pace of incremental improvement is accelerating. But we are responsible for that and enjoy when we benefit from it." Many believe that to overcome the really big issues of the day, blue sky thinking is essential and will lead to ideas and technology that would never have been contrived incrementally. But not all agree. Dick Elsy, chief executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, says: "Are engineers wasting their time in incrementality when they should be working on bigger challenges? I don't think they are. Take the automotive industry and compare a car today to one 25 years ago: all incremental improvements. But, at the same time, those engineers are beginning to get to grips with the bigger issues of how you provide mass transportation for everyone without screwing the planet up. That is being stimulated by governments saying, 'we must reduce CO2 output'. And the engineering machine has kicked in to address it. "So, correctly targeted incrementality can fix some of the bigger problems. But, you can't stop people working on trivial gadgets and get them to start working on bigger picture things unless you incentivise them to do so." Innovator's dilemma Getting too comfortable with incremental improvements on a single technology has its downsides, however. While many improvements and innovations in one technology might still be possible, not looking further can mean new technology can be passed off as too risky or not relevant. There is a danger of the, 'it will never catch on' mentality stopping real progress. "To have a long term strategy, design engineers and companies need to have a certain amount of disruptive innovation happening," says Kodosky. "So you need to try things out because it is possible, even before anyone has figured out what you are going to do with it. "Getting that balance right is a challenge and ibn tough times that is the kind of stuff that gets cut. But, that is also what plays into the success of companies 10 or 20 years in the future." Too much innovation? By its very nature, innovation can be expensive, unpredictable and is inherently risky. And while it is necessary, can you ever have too much of it? Dr Myers says: "A group leader of the controls group who was trying to build the control system for LHC said to me, 'the last thing I want is innovation! I want them to build the control system and make it work. He didn't want someone trying something different. "So, there is a balance to be made between using well-established technology and using it well, and going for something newer and riskier, and trying to be innovative with it. But, I do think you need to do the latter a bit more, even if it is a bit more risky." Similarly, having extra restraints on a project can actually yield better results. It is certainly not true that more funding, and better facilities, automatically lead to more innovation. In fact it can be quite the opposite. "Two years ago we were doing more with less," Dr Loren Picco of the Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information at the University of Bristol. "There is an interesting balance to be struck. By not just buying the thing that solves your problem for you and having a more constrained budget, you can generate more interesting ideas as a result and actually get more creative." The question of what exactly is innovation remains, but where to look for it and how to incorporate it in to a design can more easily be defined. Certainly using Rams' list is a good place to start as it clearly identifies what more can be done, and aspects that can be targeted. The genius of Dieter Rams Good design... Is innovative The possibilities for progression are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for original designs. But imaginative design always develops in tandem with improving technology, and can never be an end in itself. Makes a product useful A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy not only functional requirements, but also psychological and aesthetic criteria. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could detract from it. Is aesthetic The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful. Makes a product understandable It clarifies the product's structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user's intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory. Is unobtrusive Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user's self-expression. Is honest It does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept. Is long-lasting It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design it lasts many years, even in today's throwaway society. Is thorough down to the last detail Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer. Is environmentally friendly Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product. Is as little design as possible Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.