Design in Innovation

Posted on: 11/11/2016

What is “design in innovation” and how can it be used to benefit UK industry?

Design is a powerful tool when used effectively throughout the entire life of an innovation project – from concept all the way through to commercialisation.

What is ‘design in innovation’, and how can it be used to help UK businesses?

Design is a powerful tool when used effectively throughout the entire life of an innovation project – from concept all the way through to commercialisation. It can lead to time and cost savings and better project outcomes; especially when embedded early in a project’s life cycle.

This short film presents case studies in healthcare, logistics and digital services, which demonstrate just some of the ways that using design in innovation can deliver increased impact and value.

Click here for video

You are welcome to share and use the “Design in Innovation” film for non-commercial purposes, such as education and information sharing, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial- No Derivs Licence. Please attribute the Knowledge Transfer Network and the Design Special Interest Group.


The UK is a world leader in creativity and design, and this provides a huge opportunity for UK plc to exploit the use of design in early stage innovation to deliver improved social, economic and environmental impact.

There are few areas of the economy where design activity has not contributed value. The Design Council’s 2015 Design Economy report provides compelling evidence of design activity generating £71.7bn in gross value added (GVA), equivalent to 7.2% of total GVA in 2013. And that seems to be a growing contribution, as between 2009 -2013, the design economy GVA grew at a faster rate than the UK average. In 2013, the total value of exports where design had made a key contribution was £34bn. This constituted 7.3% of total UK exports in 2013.

According to a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report, every £1 invested in design provides an average return on investment of £25. But design does not only provide financial ROI. It can also provide benefits across the innovation process.

Innovate UK clearly views the early use of design in innovation as an opportunity to improve the desirability, usability and feasibility of technology enabled innovation across all sectors. [hyperlink to their design strategy] It makes an important contribution in:

·      Acting as a glue for collaboration: design can be used as a facilitator for collaboration within the innovation process.

·      Helping simplify complexity: ‘design thinking’ can be used to break down complex concepts, processes and issues into core components, and to communicate them simply and clearly across stakeholders.

·      Identifying and tackling the ‘right’ problems: working with designers to utilise their problem solving skills on broader challenges can help businesses and organisations identify genuine economic, social and environmental viable opportunities, rather than concentrate on ‘solutions looking for a problem’.

·      Helping rethink strategy, logistics and processes: using design early in business development can act as a disruptive process for innovation within organisations and across sectors.

Get in early

Innovate UK published its Design Strategy in late 2015. It recognised that, while the UK has a strong tradition in design, many UK companies are not using relevant design tools and methods to help explore possibilities in early stages, to help clarify the fuzzy front end of innovation – where a business’ routes forward are not always clear or linear.

Early-stage design encompasses the various activities undertaken to arrive at a range of good ideas, which may then be further developed and refined towards commercialisation. The ideas may relate to products (physical or digital), services or even business models. Such activity is distinct from engineering design or styling, which typically occurs later in a project and involves the refinement and final specification of a product or service.

Designers often refer to this process as a “double diamond”, with alternating phases of divergent and convergent thinking. Using this model, the first three stages could constitute early-stage design:

1.     Discovering the innovation context (divergent thinking)

2.     Definining opportunities (convergent thinking)

3.     Developing propositions/ideas (divergent thinking)

Applying best-practice design processes at each of these steps can accelerate, de-risk and improve innovation outcomes. It will give you (and investors) greater confidence in your ideas, streamline development and reduce the likelihood and cost of rectifying problems later on.

However, wait too late in the development cycle and the opportunity to use design in these more strategic ways is lost, and its potential contribution much diminished. Avenues for exploration can be quickly shut down as attention focuses on delivery and decisions are predicated on reducing the time to get to market. But if that means that the wrong solutions are developed, then this becomes extremely costly; especially when essential revisions are only realised after significant commitments and investments have already been made.

In approaching these first steps in engaging designers, KTN has produced guidance to help generate the right conditions for such collaborations to start.


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