Radical design-driven innovation

Roberto Verganti


Small Italian enterprises such as Alessi, Artemide, and Kartell have set new routes in the global design scenario. Notwithstanding their small size and limited resources, these firms have achieved leadership in their industries thanks to their unique capability to develop radical innovation based on design, i.e. innovations that promote a radically new meaning of a product system and that are based on breakthrough design languages. These capability of creating radical innovations, is rooted on their competence in understanding, anticipating, and influencing the emergence of new socio-cultural models and in mastering advanced technology to express new languages. They have therefore chosen to compete on the semantic dimension of products, which makes their advantage closely embedded in their brand and hardly imitated.

How to create and implement a successful innovation strategy based on breakthrough design languages? Starting from examples of leading Italian companies, we show how to place the search for new languages at the core of strategic thinking and how to create radical innovations of the product semantic by developing a design discourse, i.e. by cultivating a personal dialogue with literate customers, the design community and a wide array of local and global actors surrounding a firm.


As the arena of firms competing on low cost is increasingly crowded, especially as a consequence of competitors coming from new emerging countries with low salaries, many corporations are looking for new approaches to compete based on innovation: not a simple incremental innovation of product functionality, but breakthrough innovation that would add to a superior functionality an affective and emotional link between the product and the customer, which translates in greater brand value and long lasting profits.
And as corporations struggle to find a proper approach, they turn their eyes to a country and an industry that enumerates several examples of firms successfully competing on innovation and value: Italy, and especially Lombardy and the area surrounding Milan.
Firms such as Alessi, Artemide, and Kartell, have been capable to lead the competition in their industry notwithstanding their small size and limited resources, by creating breakthrough products with superior value. And this result has been achieved thanks to a unique receipt: using design as a strategic weapon.

Many corporations are indeed nowadays interested on how to better leverage on design. Magazines, events, schools: the interest around design is increasingly growing. Yet corporations are still in search of the best way to profit from design. Some consider design as a tool, a synonymous for ‘styling’. An interpretation widely diffused (everyone nowadays acknowledge the importance of product styling; therefore styling is not anymore a differentiating strategic factor, but rather a necessary diffused tool). Some consider design as a process to get closer to users and to develop products that better satisfy current user needs. A process usually outsourced to design firms. Recently this perspective of ‘user centered design’ has received much attention (see IDEO for example). Italian firms instead consider design as an innovation strategy.
They do not compete simply on style nor they chase current market needs. Rather, they have developed a unique approach to radically innovate the deeper emotional, symbolic and affective side of products, to innovate what products mean (or better could mean in the future) for people. A strategy that we will call ‘radical design-driven innovation’, and that will allow them to achieve additional profits and additional brand value.
This article describes the secrets of these Italian manufacturers, and how corporations can learn from their experiences to put innovation and value at the heart of their competition.

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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

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