Design, Meanings, and Radical Innovation

Design, Meanings, and Radical Innovation

Design, Meanings, and Radical Innovation: A Metamodel and a Research Agenda

Roberto Verganti

kHUB post date: October 7, 2020
Originally published: July 28, 2008 (PDMA JPIM • Vol 25, Issue 5 • September 2008)
Read time: 40 minutes

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Recent studies on design management have helped us to better comprehend how companies can apply design to get closer to users and to better understand their needs; this is an approach usually referred to as user‐centered design. Yet analysis of design‐intensive manufacturers such as Alessi, Artemide, and other leading Italian firms shows that their innovation process hardly starts from a close observation of user needs and requirements. Rather, they follow a different strategy called design‐driven innovation in this paper. This strategy aims at radically change the emotional and symbolic content of products (i.e., their meanings and languages) through a deep understanding of broader changes in society, culture, and technology. Rather than being pulled by user requirements, design‐driven innovation is pushed by a firm's vision about possible new product meanings and languages that could diffuse in society. Design‐driven innovation, which plays such a crucial role in the innovation strategy of design intensive firms, has still remained largely unexplored. This paper aims at providing a possible direction to fill this empty spot in innovation management literature. In particular, first it proposes a metamodel for investigating design‐driven innovation in which a manufacturer's ability to understand, anticipate, and influence emergence of new product meanings is built by relying on external interpreters (e.g., designers, firms in other industries, suppliers, schools, artists, the media) that share its same problem: to understand the evolution of sociocultural models and to propose new visions and meanings. Managing design‐driven innovation therefore implies managing the interaction with these interpreters to access, share, and internalize knowledge on product languages and to influence shifts in sociocultural models. Second, the paper proposes a possible direction to scientifically investigate the management of this networked and collective research process. In particular, it shows that the process of creating breakthrough innovations of meanings partially mirrors the process of creating breakthrough technological innovations. Studies of design‐driven innovation may therefore benefit significantly from the existing body of theories in the field of technology management. The analysis of the analogies between these two types of radical innovations (i.e., meanings and technologies) allows a research agenda to be set for exploration of design‐driven innovation, a relevant as well as underinvestigated phenomenon.

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