Just before I left for my end of year holiday, there was an interesting post on Bruce Nussbaum’s BusinessWeek NussbaumOnDesign blog. It mentioned a recent statement by Don Norman, a key leader in Design, in which he had stated that innovation is driven by technology and science rather than design’s focus on peoples’ needs. This initiated an interesting discussion that even saw Don Norman weighing in.
I suppose that I should be pleased by such a pronouncement. After all, my own background is from the science & technology side of things, and more than once I have found myself annoyed by thick-headed design bigots espousing fanciful ideas about design being the only thing that matters or that innovation cannot be planned. But on the contrary, I find that the esteemed Mr. Norman is wrong.
Does that mean that it is design that drives innovation? No. Rather, science & technology and design are two equally important ingredients in successful, sustainable innovation.
Strangely in his comment on Nussbaum’s blog, Norman makes the rather absurd claim that need follows the existence of technology. Looking at the examples cited, it is easy to see how laughable this argument is. Norman states, “The need for communication devices (telegraph, telephone, radio, cellphone, internet, postal mail, email) came after the technologies made them possible.” I doubt that Norman can be so naïve as to thinks this is a credible statement.
The need to communicate existed before and independently of the vehicles of communication. As human social conditions evolved, so too did the demand for communication efficiency evolve along various measures. People made due with the technologies available because they did not imagine that alternatives could be available. At times, these limitations placed constraints on other aspects of societal evolution. Naturally, the science and technology needed to enable new modes and models of communication evolved to meet the latent need. These technologies were not adopted because they existed, but because the need existed to drive the adoption. The fact that no one stood up and said, “Boy, a Blackberry would sure make my life easier,” in 1950, does not imply that the need case for the device did not exist.
Yes, it is sometimes very difficult to identify the latent need before it is expressed. But, it is there. Yes, the enablement of a solution requires the science & technology foundation to make the solution possible. But, absent a need, the invention is little more than a curiosity.
Successful innovation responds to a need (design influence); successful innovation delivers a novel solution (science & technology influence). Design leads us to understanding how to marry capability to need in a way that creates value; the language of capability is defined and expanded through invention in science & technology. Thus, it is that the intersection of design and technology is the wellspring of innovation.