Design Reasoning and The Innovation of Meaning

What’s peculiar about the relationship between design and innovation? Why are they so related in the rhetorics of the past decades? How does design lead to innovation (if at all)? When and where do design and innovation overlap?

The clues might just be here, right in the understanding of design and the perspective on innovation.

Design As a Form of Reasoning

Let’s start from Kees Dorst’s formulation of design as a form of reasoning in his brilliant book Frame Innovation (here’s my review).

The initial framing is that What and How lead to an Outcome (plus an additional context of Why embedded in the meaning of that outcome).


What is about the elements or topics involved. How is about patterns of relationships, or approaches. The Outcome is often an observed phenomenon, something we can measure.


In that framing, deduction is easy to follow:


Building a website is almost such a case: we know what it is (say, personal site for branding purpose) and how to build it (WordPress), and we can be pretty precise on the outcome. It’s all well established practices. No alarms and no surprises.


Induction is just as understandable:


Sciences make use of induction: we observe a phenomenon about something, and we propose hypotheses to try to explain how things work. When the results derived from a hypothesis match what we observed, we become more confident in the appropriateness of our formulation of How.

When your business releases a successful new product, some of your competitors may be hard at work along the induction path: how did they do it? Can we do something similar or better? They don’t know how you did it, but they figure out their own version of How.

Normal Abduction

When we go into the realm of abduction, things get tricky:


Sometimes we have related practices and past experiences and we also have an outcome in mind, but may not know what, or which part of the problem, to attack. Traditional problem solving falls largely in normal abduction: we use the trial-and-error approach to figure out solution, largely based on our past experiences of problem solving (How).

A city’s police department often has lots of best practices and past experiences on addressing complex social problems like crimes. When the violent crime rate goes up, they have to rely on those experiences (How) to figure out where to start (What) to achieve the outcome of preventing and suppressing violent crimes.

When a business try to build a new product based their well-established experiences and practices of existing products, they tend to fall into the normal abduction approach. The limitation is obvious: few new concepts can be generated if the ideation is purely based on the past.

Design Abduction

And design abduction reflects the triumph of human creation:


Design abduction is the kind of creative problem solving that we all want. We only know something about the kind of outcome we want, but we lack both the direction and the means to achieve it.

Design abduction goes far beyond the analytical tradition that’s dominant in previous three forms of reasoning (deduction, induction, and normal abduction). Design abduction not only requires analysis, but also synthesis. It requires a holistic viewpoint from which we find the subtle balance and synergy between What and How, especially because, in this case, there are often much more than one combination of the two that can potentially yield the desired outcome.

Innovation of Solution and Innovation of Meaning

When I was reading Roberto Verganti’s Overcrowded, which elaborates on the difference between innovation of solution and innovation of meaning, it occurrred to me that design abduction is often the underpinnings of the former:


According to Overcrowded, innovation of solution “concerns better ideas to solve established problems. It’s a new how, a novel way to address the challenges that are considered to be relevant in a marketplace. A novel solution may introduce incremental or even radical improvements, but always in the same direction: they are ‘more of the same’ innovations.”

While innovation of meaning often comes from yet another paradigm:


Accordingly, innovation of meaning “concerns a novel vision that redefines the problems worth addressing. It takes innovation one level higher—not only a new how but especially a new why: it proposes a new reason why people use something. A new value proposition, i.e., a novel interpretation of what is relevant and meaningful in a market. A new direction.”

When other companies were hard at work thinking about how to create a thermostat that help the users better control it, Nest proposed a new meaning around their thermostat: here’s how you can NOT use it and spare all the hassle of having to control it.

With sleek touchscreen technology and a platform approach, Apple’s iPhone proposed a new meaning: instead of a dedicated phone-calling device (where the customers shall be grateful for any additional features other than making phone calls), here’s a powerful computing device that, by default, can do so many non-trivial things of your life, including making phone calls.

Innovation of solution and innovation of meaning is not a clear-cut dichotomy. It’s meant to provoke deeper thoughts that lead to better decisions.

So What?

Those are the thinking tools that you, and everyone in your org, can make good use of.

The operation, survival, and success of your org is all about priorities. Sometimes you can’t rely solely on analysis, even though the whole spectrum of modern organization and management is based on that traditional analytical approach.

To innovate, you need far more than analysis and solutions.

Facing the unprecedented volume, velocity, and variety of challenges and opportunities, you always want to ask:

  • What is the best approach?
  • How do we do that?
  • What do we expect?
  • What are the risks?

While you can also ask:

  • What form of reasoning do we need for it?
  • Is this likely analysis-heavy or synthesis-intense?
  • Are we trying to innovate the solution or the meaning? Or both?
  • What kind of help may we need from design thinkers?
  • Who, for that matter, are the designers and design thinkers in our org?

You can’t escape those questions when you want to prioritize and address risks.

Nothing New Here

All the above are not new ideas. Design researchers and practitioners have been onto those for decades.

The problem is how many people in your org understand them and how much.

Sometimes, helping your employees better understand design is far more important than hiring shiny new designers. Design thinkers are often right there, inside your org. And you need to better understand design to spot them.



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