Lecturer and design expert at Central Saint Martins, Dr Matt Malpass, reveals how businesses can benefit from ditching the Post-its and taking a design-led approach to innovation.
Dr Matt Malpass, senior lecturer in industrial design and researcher in critical design at Central Saint Martins, believes that when comes to innovation, there’s a lot that businesses can learn from those who do it on a daily basis – designers.
For a truly design-led approach to innovation, rule number one is to realise that it’s about more than trying to force blue-sky thinking out of unsuspecting employees, he argues; you have to do it, rather than
just think about it.
“A lot of businesses are having their directors do MBAs in design ‘thinking’ – which essentially equates to a lot of Post-it notes arranged on a wall. That makes me a bit suspicious,” he says. “I don’t think that you can truly have design thinking without the practice of design. Designers think through doing, through making, through the production of stuff.”
This “doing” might involve developing material objects, prototyping experiences or creating interfaces for a digital service – and it’s not necessarily simple: “This creative activity requires iteration and requires design skill and experience gained through practice,” he adds.
According to Dr Malpass, the benefits to innovation are clear: a practical approach builds creativity and emotional intelligence into a product or service from the off. So how can businesses better use principles of design to innovate?
Let go of right and wrong
“Designers have to manage uncertainty and complexity in any given design project,” he explains.
If a designer is given a brief to design a chair, there are an infinite number of ways through which the designer can fulfill it – size, scale, colour, material, finish, the type of chair, and where it’s going to be situated. No two designers would approach it in the same way, yet both could appropriately fulfill the brief.
In design, this is an example of a wicked problem, Dr Malpass says. “There’s no right or wrong solution; there’s only an appropriate solution.
“It’s different from a structural problem, which you might find in accounting, where one plus one equals two. Designers are comfortable with this complexity – and with ill-structured problems – and are equipped to address this.”
Uncertainty exists in all businesses, so getting comfortable with this, and the fact that there’s no right or wrong solution, should stop problems from becoming stifling, and instead make them seem like opportunities. As Dr Malpass says: “Designers love a problem.”
Observe existing practices and identify gaps
For something to be innovative, it has to be new, he says. But creating a completely new product isn’t always necessary.
Instead, gaps in the market can be found by observing how products and services are already used and looking for how you can better facilitate its use.
“Gaps can be found by observing existing practices. Heinz Beanz is a good example; with the old tins, you open them up and, if you’re cooking for one, you will only use half. Then you put it back in the fridge with clingfilm over the top, or you empty it into a cup.”
Now you can get individual, smaller pots of beans for the fridge. “It’s a nice innovative product design, showing how designers have observed an everyday practice and then made an improvement,” he adds.
The process that led to this innovation is a good paradigm for business, Dr Malpass explains, because the packaging designers took their observations and translated what they saw into an object: “It’s a very subtle intervention, but it’s commercially successful, because it’s positioned within an existing practice that a designer has innovated around.”
Act out your products and services
“I think that play and looking at the world through a child’s eyes is very important,” he explains. “It’s easy to work backwards from ridiculous ideas. Think how inventive we were as kids; everything was about imagination. As we go through life, that gets knocked out of us.”
It sounds cringeworthy, but performance and play are useful ways to solve problems. The lecturer’s teaching involves a form of structured play called “design improv” – where students use theatre and drama techniques to imagine, and then perform, interactions with products or services.
“Like playing house as children, we can carry that into the design process,” he says. “When you start doing things in [physical] spaces with the body, you get a sense of how something might exist.”
Airport security is a good example of a process that his students have acted out. It’s a useful way of showing how these exercises can translate into very real and improved services. Gatwick has transformed its security areas and halved waiting times.
“Designers at Gatwick would have explored how to design out that frustration from providing clear bags which have handles to the way the space is laid out. These little interventions just reduce so much conflict,” he says.
This kind of experience design could only come about by designers and team members performing that experience and playing with it, he explains. “It’s not the sort of thing that you can do by sitting around a table and being told to be creative.”
Managers should clear the room of furniture and employees should walk each other through the use of their product or experience.
Can it be scaled up?
“Innovation is the translation of insight into something useful,” says Dr Malpass. It’s only an innovation, he argues, when it moves beyond idea and concept, into something that has a place in the world, is scaleable and has some effect.
“It’s more than invention and it’s more than self-indulgence. For example, somebody tinkering in a shed creating vacuum cleaners is interesting, but when those vacuum cleaners make their way into the world, are used in an everyday context and have reached some sort of scale, this is when we can talk about them in terms of innovation,” he says. “That’s when it becomes something more than itself.”
Dr Matt Malpass’s new book, Critical Design in Context, is out now, published by Bloomsbury