Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sugar + Cream : Herman Miller + Designed Innovation.

Does innovation happen inside large organizations within an R&D department by people who have the education, expertise and budget to experiment, ideate, develop, research and eventually innovate?


There are plenty of case studies that imply innovation as the only sustainable competitive advantage. Likely, there are also a similar number of case studies around organizations that buy innovation or find it brought upon them by outside forces.
Many times innovation happens outside in the larger world where people interact with organizations, products, services, and each other. And, while not an easy truth to prove, this would make the most sense as a place to foster more innovation. Hence, we have “Open Innovation” and successful examples like Herman Miller.

Herman Miller has designed a model for open innovation that has become a cultural necessity, from this outsider’s perspective. The Setu chair, designed by Studio 7.5 for Herman Miller, and named by Capsule, is a current example of such open innovation. But one of the most successful open innovation efforts in chair design is the now famous Aeron chair by Bill Stumpf and a more current effort, the Embody chair by Bill’s business partner Jeff Weber.

I recently had a discussion with Jeff over breakfast, where he gave his perspective on design and innovation. Some of his thoughts give us a perspective on the essential elements of open innovation and design as a pair, similar to the argument that some would have as cream and sugar existing better when together in a coffee.

“Design is the synthesis of truth and beauty”

The essential element required when designing for human beings or any species is empathy. Essentially, being able to put yourself in the seat of the user, guest, pet or customer. From here we get truth when we see the design effort through others’ senses. 

“The violin as an object, could be seen as ornamental, but it really isn’t, music production comes from the beauty of 400 years of research and development by the musicians”

Beauty is measurable, but perhaps not using the typical corporate metrics, as there’s likely no discernable Internal Rate of Return or Net Present Value of beauty. So, we measure it with our gut, trust and intuition; this indicates we need more MBA curriculum around these subject areas.  

 “You have to earn the right to design something”

This is the most beautiful piece of our conversation and it makes the most rational sense. This isn’t about being hired by a client, but earning the right through a deep empathy with the audience. You may design many things without “earning the right,” but you and your client may find the recipient or audience rejects the design or worse yet, renders it irrelevant because you didn’t earn the right. You may be able to offer a more innovative widget, but have you earned the right to redesign it?

The chair is a crutch for the able-bodied human. Do you know what your crutch is when it comes to design? Does your team measure design, in any form? How do you earn the right to design for your audiences?

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider these thoughts. And thank you Jeff Weber for taking the time to share these insights. 

Aaron Keller
Managing Principal

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