Design thinking and design-driven innovation a la Verganti

Roberto Verganti, a professor of Management of Innovation at Politecnico di Milano has written the best design thinking book for years: Desing-Driven Innovation, Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean(Harvard Business Press, 2009). He considers design thinking in the context of innovation. This is not surprising but his viewpoint to design-driven innovation is revolutionary: its about radical innovation of meaning. After all, design means “making sense of things”.


What is that? Take an example from Verganti’s repertoire: Metamorfosi, a new kind of lamp produced by Artemide, an Italian design firm. Metamorfosi is a system that emits an atmosphere created by colored light. Its user could control it and change the light according to user’s mood and need. “The company … created a system that could emit human light, a light that made people feel better and socialize better” (p. 2). The lamp itself was not meant to be seen. Metamorfosi changed radically the meaning of lamp.


Other cases of radical change in meaning are Nintendo’s Wii-consol, Apple’s iPod and iPhone, Kartell’s bookworm, and Alessi’s corkscrew.


Dogmas of traditional design and innovation approaches


Verganti pointed out some strong dogmas embedded in traditional approach towards design and innovation. They are (in my terms)


  1. Radical innovations are mainly technological (technology)
  2. Design is about make products look beautiful (styling)
  3. Best design must be user-centered (user-centered design)
  4. Innovation is a creative, intuitive endeavour (creativity)


Against all these three points there are strong arguments.


  1. Radical innovations are more and more related to meanings, and in many cases the products which create a new category of things are “low tech” (say Alessi, Kartell)
  2. Beauty is not so important for customers, because people buy meanings not products.
  3. User-centered approach is not possible in radical innovation because radical means something really new and unforeseen; radical innovations are proposals.
  4. Radical innovation in meanings presupposes careful R&D about the cultural contexts of people and their values.


Verganti: “radical innovations of meanings doesn’t come from user-centered approaches”. Companies are making proposals, putting forward a vision…. It is push strategy.” (p. 10)


The language of things


The concept of meaning is normally related to language. But in very natural way people attach meanings also to products. According to Verganti a product’s language is its material, texture, smell, name, and finally form. From this idea of the language of things Verganti builds a model for investigating design and innovation, a product appeal to people and their needs along two dimensions: function and sense. Function is directly connected to the “constitution” of products – their technology. Sense is embedded in language of things. Function leads to performance and sense to meaning.


[Function + Sense] => [Performance + Meaning] => [Needs of People]


The process of design-driven innovation


It’s interesting how Verganti sees the process of design-driven innovation.


“The process of design-driven innovation is a research process – that is, it is exploratory, it aims at creating an entire breakthrough product family or new business…” (p. 172)


To produce radical innovation is often not possible without radical researchers, who “envision and investigate new product meanings through a broader, in-depth exploration of the evolution of society, culture, and technology” (p. xi). They are interpreters who are able to envision how people could give meaning to things.


Who are these interpreters? There are people involved the design discourse. Design discourse is a circle or network of people who are engage in a continuous dialogue about new products, people’s need and values. I would like to call design discourse an ecosystem of design. In this ecosystem there are artists, cultural organizations, media, retail and delivery firms, designers, architects, technology suppliers, research and educational institutions etc.


In design-driven innovation firms must listen to interpreters, who see the envisioned context of life. It is not enough to observe users in their current contexts. But the listening of interpreters is not enough for success.


“This knowledge [from interpreters] then must feed a process through which a company creates its own vision and proposal; internal research and experiments that allow the firm to eventually develop a radical new meaning and language.” (p. 172)


I like to call this phase “interpreting and implementing”. The process starts by design-driven innovation together with technological research [sense + function]. Then there is concept generation for specific targeted users. Finally there is the product development, in which product style, interface and ergonomics are defined.


Model of radical meaning innovation:


(M) Meaning reseach (exploring new contexts of life)


(T) Technological research (developing new functionalities)



M => concept generation


T => product   development


M + T => new products with radical new meanings




Some challenges for design-driven innovation


The central concept of design-driven innovation is that of meaning. Everybody knows that meaning is a very confusing concept. There are even several terms used as synonyms of meaning: sense, connotation, intension, concept, idea, stories etc. Sometimes meanings are attributed mainly to languages (semantics and pragmatics), sometimes even to such abstract things as “life” (the meaning or purpose of life).


To understand better design-driven innovation a special “branch” of research must be defined and established: the study of the language and meaning of things. It is multi-disciplinary research related to linguistics, semiotics, philosophy, anthropology, consumption research, economics, media and communication (social web), narratology, literature, cultural studies etc.


Most examples analyzed by Roberto Verganti concerns products. It’s relatively easy to understand what a radical meaning change of products means. But design thinking is more and more concentrating the design of services, like health care, transportation, tourisms and cultural services (events). There challenge is the design of experiences (see Tim Brown’s book Change by Design). And because service is interaction and communication, the concept of the meaning of things is not applicable. Of course, there are radical changes of meanings also in services, say McDonald’s and Starbucks, also mentioned by Verganti.


I think we need a new concept of meaning of service. There we could apply theories of practice: action theory, pragmatism etc. The notion of intention might be useful as well as empathy (or sympathy). We must make distinctions between intention, result, and impact of action.




Personally, I liked very much Design-Driven Innovation. The book is well written, clear and impressive. The references are numerous and useful. Especially I appreciate the role of research in innovation process. A meaning of Verganti’s book is to change radically the topics of design: away from styling and user-centered focus towards senses we give to things – and life.