Radical design-driven innovation
The secret of Italian design


Roberto Verganti, Professor of Management of Innovation and co-Director of the Master in Strategic Design, Politecnico di Milano, Italy, roberto.verganti@polimi.it

Claudio Dell'Era, PhD Student at the Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Italy, claudio.dellera@polimi.it


What is design driven innovation and how does it lead to competitive advantage? The debate on what is design is alive since the birth of design. It is not our purpose here to enter into this debate, that is authoritatively developed in design schools. We can assume, as a starting block, the most acknowledged interpretation of design as the integrated innovation of function and form. A definition, however, that needs to be further adapted to better highlight the peculiar approach of Italian manufacturers. Our adapted framework is illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The dimensions of innovation
The scheme expands and elaborates the concept of form, to better capture the communicative and semantic dimension of products. Indeed, the classic dialectic of function versus form, sometimes leads the less expert observers to restrain the latter to the esthetic appearance of products. Many times, indeed, the debate of function versus form has been focused on the contrast between functionalism-rationalism, on the one hand, and styling, on the other hand. This intellectual seduction is more tempting when investigating industries (such as furniture and lighting) where esthetic content is deemed to drive competition. And many executives, still consider nowadays design as a matter of styling (which is sometimes an explanation of the difficulties design encounters when trying to climb the corporate ladder and to diffuse in business schools). Apart from styling, what matters to the user, in addition to the functionality of a product, is its emotional and symbolic value, i.e. its meaning. If functionality aims at satisfying the operative needs of the customer, the product meaning tickle her/his affective and socio-cultural needs. It proposes to users a system of values, a personality and identity, that may easily go beyond style. Several scholars have recently recognized and underlined the semantic dimension of design (1), and some of them have even postulate that, in short, design is "making sense of things" (2). This is even more evident to those design managers dealing with brand identity and communication.
To support this perspective, let's consider the example of the lamp Metamorfosi by Artemide. This lamp is the result of a radical innovation of meanings. Here light is deemed as responsible for emotional conditions, thoughts, and memories and is therefore intimately connected with the wellbeing of people. Hence, the design of a lamp generating a "human light", thanks to the proprieties of colors and light control. A user would likely buy this lamp not because of its "nice" style but because of its "nice" (human) light. The innovation of meaning (buying light instead of lamps) is in itself evident. The designers underline this innovation thanks to a proper choice of
language: they hide in some extent the physical object (by minimizing the forms and using translucent materials), to give more value to the real message delivered by the product, the emotions produced by its light. What a breakthrough for an industry where style and appearance of the object is generally deemed to be the drivers of competition! The example also shows that a given meaning is achieved by using a specific design language. This is the set of signs, symbols and icons (of which style is just an instance) that designers can adopt to deliver the message. Translucency and minimalism of the object, for example, is the language of Metamorfosi to express the sense of human light.
We may define design driven innovation as an innovation where novelty of message and design language is significant and prevalent compared to novelty of functionality and technology. Successful Italian manufacturers in design-intensive industries have demonstrated unique capabilities to master design driven innovation. In particular, their innovation strategy is punctuated by endeavors to take the lead of competition through breakthrough changes of product meanings, what we call radical design driven innovations.
Innovation may be seen as the result of a process of generation and integration of knowledge. There are typically three types of knowledge that are essential for an innovation process. First, knowledge about user needs. Second, knowledge about technological opportunities. Third, knowledge about product languages. The latter is the knowledge about the signs that can be used to deliver a message to the user and about the semantic context (socio-cultural models) in which the user will give meaning to those signs. It is possible to contrast the design push innovation with two other typical situations: technology-push innovation (where innovation emerges from the availability of new technology principles and devices) and market-pull innovation (where innovation tries to answer explicit and immediate customer needs) (3). In all three situations knowledge about a product language is present. In fact, as said above, innovation of function and message occurs in any novel project. However, what is remarkably different across the three situations is the role played by this type of knowledge. The major drivers of innovation in market-pull and technology-push endeavors are knowledge about user needs and knowledge about technology, respectively. In these two cases knowledge about product language is ancillary; it usually enters the innovation process along the way.

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