Everyone is gunning for innovation.

In the second machine age, it’s the differentiator to end all differentiators. In the modern business parthenon, innovativeness is equated to clever product designs, good looking websites, science fiction-like gadgetry.

But innovation is just a buzzword. I mean, it’s not, really, but the way that it gets used in ad copy is so broad that it can now be deployed to mean anything that is essentially new, even if that newness is only superficial. “Innovation” is a word pregnant with meaning that has been reduced to little better than jargon. So what is innovation really? Can it be designed or predicted? Is it products or ideas or things?

Innovation is method. It is a culture. It is ways of working and the stuff that supports them. It is concepts that disrupt the way that humans accomplish work or pleasure or goals, big and small.

Generally, it can be categorized by the way that it impacts a system: Sustaining, Evolutionary, Revolutionary, and Disruptive. Sustaining innovation only impacts a closed, internal system and not a greater market, so mostly what we are concerned with is the latter three.

These are the types of innovation that impact outside people and markets, and which marketing copy is asking us to believe in when it tells us that a person or group or product is innovative.

Historically, and through the first machine age, we did not often observe innovation occurring at the right end of the spectrum, however we are in a period of punctuated change and are seeing more and more disruptive products every day. There are many of us now working hard to find ways to build systems that are self-disrupting, so that we can solve problems before others do it for us.

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This means not just understanding how markets are being disrupted, but trying to actually design products and environments that respond to changes in external conditions in real time. We have to build things that capable of improving on the fly.

It is interesting to hear how often people call themselves “designers” now. Sometimes it might be because it is part of their job title. Sometimes it might be because they produce work in Photoshop and InDesign. Sometimes it might be because they studied it in school.

I’m not sure if it is because of the advent of digital, but with increasing frequency I hear a specious conflation of the product of design with the process.

If there is one thing to take from this piece, it is that design is not flat logos or neat advertisements or slick websites. Those are the byproducts of great design thinking. If our aim is innovation and improvement in the ways that things get accomplished and changes in behavior or work structure, then design must be about much more than the nodes or endpoints of the work. Design is the methoda at least as much as it is the product.

But enough exposition. This is about the work, right? Here are a few insights I’ve gained working as a designer focused on innovative output.

Spectrum of Innovation

To be a great maker, you must develop taste. Paul Graham observes that designers must contend with a fundamental question: How do you make good stuff? It can be easy to defend things as good by hiding behind the veil of relative quality, but design is measurable. It has a human purpose, and can be measured against the success or failure of other work with similar goals. Its degree of disruption can be tracked and quantified. In order to do increasingly better work, designers must improve their perspective and understanding of not only their own discipline, but of all facets of human culture. Good designers are both technical practitioners and cultural generalists, parlaying nuanced sensitivity into elegant work.

As I hinted above, design is more than graphics or illustrations. It comes in many stripes: architectural, interior, urban/community, film, web, game, sport, industrial, product, automotive, transportation, naval, marine, organizational…there is even a great deal of work put into recruiting products from different disciplines in order to design experiences. I would posit that all design is about creating experiences—giving rise to moments in time in which a user feels or sees or does what the designer wants to share with them, be it as small as taking a certain path through a kitchen to as significant as making a better vehicle purchasing decision.

Design is not limited. It is often decoupled from the tangible. I am an organizational designer. My discipline recruits object-oriented thinking and what [little] we understand about humans in certain environments to try to draft better ways of working, better chains-of-command, and most importantly, and organizational ecology that is adaptive in the face of chaos. I work with incredible teams to design processes and teams and support structures that give rise to ideas and innovation. In some senses this becomes a sort of meta-design, in which we are building inspirational context in which productive work can happen. The majority of our work is about redefining the way that people relate to one another and does not result in logos or ad copy or any tactile experience—but most product designers or architects would recognize the processes as endemic to their own disciplines of design. Design is about producing something that changes behavior, even if that’s just better ways of working.

Because ultimately, design in any discipline is about solving human problems. Good design is about doing so elegantly. What differentiates design & art is teleology. Art should express an individual or culture’s idea in such a way that it can be interpreted consistently. Or not. Design, however, is married to the need to dive human action. A design’s success or failure can be measured against its ability to create a human result. To cause reactions and responses that are predictable. In order to do this, it must respect the context within which its goals exist, and cause change in that system. We can qualify this on an imminently instrumental spectrum: bad design interrupts and arrests attention. Good design is useful and graceful and relevant to humans for whom it is built. Be a good designer.

…because good design isn’t just pleasant, it’s ethical. Since design lives at this intersection between artifact and human behavior, and since its purpose is to create change in the way that people do or work or think, it becomes incredibly important for it to account for ethics. The line between great design and effective manipulation is often extremely difficult to find, and we must not extricate the need to do good in the world from the desire to do good design. The latter should give rise to the former. The key is to keep focused on the humans in the system. Good design solves for the end users, manipulative design solves for the seller.

But this is just a primer, a jumping off point. Take it further, test it, break it. The key here is not to remain in the concept cloud of design, but to become a practitioner. Get to work. Do sh*t that makes people’s lives better. Go forth and solve problems.

Spencer Pitman is a cofounder at Caracal.io, Apellix Additive Manufacturing, and he directs strategy for PCR. Among other things, he is an organizational designer, developing systems, processes, and ways of working that give rise to innovation as both method and practice. Pitman believes that adaptive, responsive organizations are a more human way to work, and advises with many companies on preparing for an increasingly uncertain future. As a local industry expert, we asked him to write something specifically for this month’s Design issue.