ReThinking Design

06 Jul 2010|cfinlay

“If you are going to innovate on the level of meaning you have to be prepared to be radical.” John Fly, VP of Strategic Planning, Milliken & Company.

Meaning showed up as a powerful theme in DMI’s Re-Thinking Design 2010 conference, held recently at the W Hotel in San Francisco. It was clear that managers were struggling with the ability to quantify and qualify the value of meaning. Through the audience comments it was made very clear that meaning, in all of its abstract glory, was a highly prized asset in the market strategies of the attendees. Unfortunately author, innovation expert and panelist that day, Roberto Verganti gave little hope to those in search of an easy answer. “You cannot design meaning. That is between the person and the object. You can only design platforms to make possible or encourage certain meanings.” But he did provide a choice piece of advice: “Start with meaning, not specification.”

Designing the platforms that invoke, provoke or inspire meaning is a wonderful but tricky job to have. The expert panel made it clear that the expression of meaning comes from the insights brought out in strong research, testing, and design, as well as the fair play between departments. The audience made it clear that managers are struggling to take steps towards integrated management approaches that include meaning-based results while justifying them with their leadership, boards, and investors. They also face the challenge of spreading their vision through their coworkers, whose support they need. A key challenge of sharing a meaning-based vision is that when meaning hits structure a fine mist of details often results. These details, made up of variations in departmental language and competing visions, can distract companies from their best options. John Fly of Milliken & Company made an appropriate statement about avoiding the urge to apply more traditional business processes to meaning-based innovations saying, “You can’t drive innovation through efficient processes. You have to do it through effective approaches.” In case there are any doubts about the value of that advice it is important to remember that Milliken holds the largest number of patents of any private company. All in all, it is clear that creating platforms based on meaning requires the same passion and energy from the internal champions as meaning-based products and services create in their customers.

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