The role of design in the innovation process

Today’s companies succeed only to the extent that users engage with their products and services. With these words, Daphna Glaubert, an architect and researcher at HEIG-VD, summed up a major challenge all modern businesses face. Her comments also point to the key role that design plays in the innovation process. Because no matter how clever and revolutionary a new product or service may be, if it’s not easy for people to use, it won’t be successful. And that’s where designers step in.

Building on its Innovation by Design Challenge last fall, Innovaud devoted its first Innovaud Connect of 2018 to the role of design in the innovation process. The conference, held in Renens on 27 February, gave the more than 50 attendees a chance to learn about the key aspects of design and the design tools available at HEIG-VD, Ateliers de Renens, ECAL and Innovaud. The goal was to bring designers and businesses together and foster collaboration.

After a brief introduction by Didier Schwarz, Innovation Advisor at Innovaud, Glaubert began her talk by answering a single question: What is design? She believes that design plays a central role in our economy. The purpose of design in the innovation process is to create value by allowing companies to differentiate themselves in highly competitive markets: just look at Apple, IBM and Nike. And while most people associate design with the way an object looks, today it serves an even more important function – to help create products and services that fit seamlessly into the human environment.

According to Glaubert, innovation processes should include both design thinking and design doing to be effective. They should also address the four “orders” of design identified by Richard Buchanan: graphic, industrial, interaction and systems. This comprehensive approach is what enables product developers to turn a simple, functional object into a memorable experience. The main steps are generating ideas, implementing them and adapting them to user needs so as to create an experience. In this respect, the work that product and service developers do is similar to that of architects.

During the second part of the conference, two Vaud-based companies discussed the benefits they found in using a design-oriented approach. These companies were startup La Fraiche, winner of the Innovation by Design Challenge 2017, and scale-up Abionic, which has developed a revolutionary biomedical diagnostic platform that lets doctors perform tests in record time using just a single drop of blood.

La Fraiche founder and CEO Félix Burnand discussed his experience at the Innovation by Design Challenge held last November at the Ateliers de Renens technopark. Over the course of a week, his company worked with Renaud DeFrancesco and one other designer at the Ateliers; the goal was to explore design-oriented innovation. The result was a pivot for the startup – instead of providing urban farms for the retail market, Burnand decided to target the corporate market and develop mini-gardens for office buildings using a farming method called aquaponics, which combines techniques for raising fish and cultivating plants in water. Burnand is enthusiastic about his new business model and said working with the two designers helped him ask the right questions.

Then Dr. Iwan Marki, CTO of Biopôle-based Abionic, explained that the scale-up’s rapid growth is due in large part to its upfront work with design firm Oxyde, based in Lausanne. Oxyde’s designers helped the company understand why investors weren’t very impressed with its first prototype, despite a promising concept and proven efficacy. After receiving a brief, the designers went through each key design-related aspect of Abionic’s system – its customer promise, ease of use and overall coherence – and came up with an entirely new model less than six months later, ahead of production. That was a real advantage because the company – still young at the time – had to quickly get its product on the market.

The main takeaway from the conference was that it’s become more important than ever to factor design into product development. The highly animated Q&A session at the end of the presentations shows just how pertinent this issue is. While La Fraiche’s experience illustrated the importance of including industrial designers right from the planning phase of a new project, Abionic showed that it’s possible to completely revamp a product using a design-oriented approach. Abionic is now one of the 21 innovative, fast-growing companies in Vaud to have earned the “scale-up” label, and its success can be attributed in no small measure to the support of the talented designers in our region.

By Eugène Schön.