Designing the Future

Designing the Future: Past and Future Trajectories for Design Innovation Research

Designing the Future: Past and Future Trajectories for Design Innovation Research

Gerda Gemser and Gloria Barczak

Originally published: August 2, 2020 (PDMA JPIM • Vol 37, Issue 5 • September 2020)
Read time: 1 hour

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In this article, we focus on design innovation, that is, innovation in the external appearance of a product. Design has become an important competitive tool for managers and a fruitful area of research for scholars. The term design is rather elusive, having been attributed very different meanings. For example, when design is defined as an outcome, it has been conceptualized as enhancing product functionality, ease of use, and/or appearance (e.g., Homburg, Schwemmle, and Kuehnl, 2015; Noble and Kumar, 2010). When examining design as an activity, it has been conceptualized in terms of sketching, prototyping, and form giving (e.g., Hise, O'Neal, McNeal, and Parasuraman, 1989). A detailed description of how to define design from a descriptive or normative perspective is beyond the bounds of this article.1 Ultimately, what is an appropriate definition of design is dependent on one’s research aims. In the context of this virtual issue, we conceptualize design in terms of a product’s external appearance, which is determined by a specific configuration of visual elements such as colors, shapes, lines, proportions, and materials (Rubera and Droge, 2013).2 The presence of design innovation is subsequently determined by the degree to which a product’s external appearance deviates from prior designs in a given product category: the more a design is similar to prior, competing designs, for example in terms of color, shape, and proportion, the less innovative it is (Gemser and Leenders, 2001; Mugge and Dahl, 2013; Talke, Salomo, Wieringa, and Lutz, 2009). Conceptualizing design innovation in terms of new product appearance allows us to make a clear distinction between design innovation versus technological innovation (which focuses on the product’s technologies and related functionalities) and builds on prior conceptualizations of design innovation (e.g., Dan, Spaid, and Noble, 2018; Mugge and Dahl, 2013; Noseworthy and Trudel, 2011; Rubera, 2015; Rubera and Droge, 2013; Rubera, Griffith, and Yalcinkaya, 2012; Talke et al., 2009).

One of the early studies demonstrating the importance of design for differentiating new products was by Berkowitz (1987). In subsequent studies, the influence of design on the success of new products, services, or companies has been further corroborated (e.g., Candi, 2010; Candi and Saemundsson, 2011; Hertenstein, Platt, and Veryzer, 2005). Over the years, researchers have identified specific factors impacting the influence of design on performance. One prominent factor identified as influencing performance is the degree to which design is innovative, being more than a simple refinement or extension of extant design (e.g., Gemser and Leenders, 2001; Rubera, 2015; Talke et al., 2009). An often‐used example of innovative design which gathered commercial success is the Apple iMac3, launched in 1998, whose design included the use of translucent colors and soft round forms, revolutionizing the “look and feel” of PCs (e.g., Dell'Era and Verganti, 2007; Eisenman, 2013; Talke et al., 2009). Another well‐cited example is the successful “Family Follows Fiction” product range from Italian household goods manufacturer Alessi, where ordinary kitchenwares were materialized as playful, toy‐like products, using plastic materials, translucent surfaces, and bright colors (Dalpiaz, Rindova, and Ravasi, 2016; Dell'Era and Verganti, 2007; Verganti, 2008). A more recent example is the Cybertruck, from Tesla, an angular, stainless steel, all‐electric pickup truck, which has been described in the popular press as “revolutionary” in design. Although its commercial success is uncertain, preorders for the truck bode well (Mehta, 2019). Overall, a global increase in the number of design patents (Chan, Mihm, and Sosa, 2018; Filitz, Henkel, and Tether, 2015; Rubera, 2015) suggests that investing in novel designs is a general trend across industries, making research on the effectiveness and management of design innovation of particular interest.

In the last 20 years, research on the innovativeness of design has gathered the interest of researchers resulting in valuable insights. However, an organized review of the research on this topic is lacking. This article, and the accompanying virtual issue on design innovation, was developed with two objectives in mind. First, to conceptually clarify design innovation and provide an overview of its evolution, particularly within the Journal of Product Innovation Management (JPIM) which has been one of the most active of business journals in publishing articles in this space. As part of the evolution, we discuss important knowledge garnered about design innovation, clustering this information into four broad research themes. Second, we aim to encourage future research in the area by highlighting fruitful research opportunities that can help progress the field. To reach our objectives, we performed an analysis of research on design innovation as published in JPIM and other relevant academic journals. Based on this analysis, we wrote our editorial and created a virtual issue, composed of prior published articles in JPIM that illustrate relevant research on design innovation.

In what follows, the approach for selecting the articles included in this editorial and concomitant virtual issue is outlined. The paper then proceeds with the insights derived from the analysis of the selected papers, a set of research priorities, and concluding remarks.

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