Designing for Innovation: The Role of Time and Space

The language of design is geared towards birthing products and services, but rarely about their sustainability and life over time. What else might move the dialogue from studio to ecosystem?

The latest issue of Fast Company (the magazine) is focused on the top 50 innovative companies. The list features technology-focused companies, architectural firms, design studios and social innovators. Apple is there, so is IDEO, along with a group of people and concepts that were less familiar.

The focus for the issue was on who was innovating well this past year. On Apple they write:

Forget Apple’s ascension to the most valuable tech business. Forget the iPhone 4’s drama-defying success. If all Apple had going for it were the iPad, it would still be atop our list. Most impressive of all, though, is how Apple’s platforms have enabled an ecosystem of creativity, from gaming to finance to chipmaking.

What stood out here was how Apple was developing an ecosystem of creativity. Here, the focus is on creating an entire culture of innovation within a particular company. Cultural production is not something done lightly, nor easily.

Tony Schwartz, writing for the Harvard Business Review, suggests six ways or “secrets” to building this kind of innovative culture:

  1. Meet People’s Needs. Recognize that questioning orthodoxy and convention — the key to creativity — begins with questioning the way people are expected to work. The more people are preoccupied by unmet needs, the less energy and engagement they bring to their work.
  2. Teach Creativity Systematically. It isn’t magical and it can be developed. There are five well-defined, widely accepted stages of creative thinking: first insight, saturation, incubation, illumination, and verification. They don’t always unfold predictably, but they do provide a roadmap for enlisting the whole brain, moving back and forth between analytic, deductive left hemisphere thinking, and more pattern-seeking, big-picture, right hemisphere thinking. The best description of the stages I’ve come across is in Betty Edward’s book Drawing on the Artist Within. The best understanding of the role of the right hemisphere, and how to cultivate it, is in Edwards’ first book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
  3. Nurture Passion. The quickest way to kill creativity is to put people in roles that don’t excite their imagination. This begins at an early age. Kids who are encouraged to follow their passion develop better discipline, deeper knowledge, and are more persevering and more resilient in the face of setbacks. Look for small ways to give employees, at every level, the opportunity and encouragement to follow their interests and express their unique talents.
  4. Make the Work Matter. Human beings are meaning-making animals. Money pays the bills but it’s a thin source of meaning. We feel better about ourselves when we we’re making a positive contribution to something beyond ourselves. To feel truly motivated, we have to believe what we’re doing really matters.
  5. Provide the Time. Creative thinking requires relatively open-ended, uninterrupted time, free of pressure for immediate answers and instant solutions. Time is a scarce, overburdened commodity in organizations that live by the ethic of “more, bigger, faster.” Ironically, the best way to insure that innovation gets attention is to schedule sacrosanct time for it, on a regular basis.
  6. Value Renewal. Human beings are not meant to operate continuously the way computers do. We’re designed to expend energy for relatively short periods of time — no more than 90 minutes — and then recover. The third stage of the creative process, incubation, occurs when we step away from a problem we’re trying to solve and let our unconscious work on it. It’s effective to go on a walk, or listen to music, or quiet the mind by meditating, or even take a drive. Movement — especially exercise that raises the heart rate — is another powerful way to induce the sort of shift in consciousness in which creative breakthroughs spontaneously arise.

Schwarz’s argument underscores the importance of considering time and space for healthy design. If one is to consider designing for human systems we need strategies that recognize the conditions in which humans have evolved to thrive in. The modern office cubicle is just over a half century old. Fluorescent lights have been in use for twice as long. Our modern educational system with its rows and stiff structure modeled on the factory is just a little older than that.

None of these were designed as human-centred supports for learning, rather they aim at economizing time and space to produce a product. Innovation is not really a product, it’s too complex and not very specific. But, like many of the best things in life, it can bring value beyond what is known in the moment its conceived.

Consider what a design plan might look like if we planned our products for ecosystems, to be a part of a larger complex whole where it was intended to function for a longer time, producing value on its own over that lifecourse. What might that look like relative to a product that or service designed for a very particular time and space that is seen to not evolve? We speak of timeless designs, but those are designs that have an integrity that lasts beyond the moment and a function that reveals greater use or sustainability over successive periods.

In health and social service terms, this might be developing strategies  that address not only the immediate conditions, but create a developmental approach to evaluation and adaptation that supports the adaptation of this program to changing conditions.

By factoring time and space into design, the promise of creating more responsive and sustainable products emerges and the more likely people will take design as something beyond producing the latest trend.

** Photo by alancleaver_2000 used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr

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