With the recent passing of Steve Jobs, a lot of people and experts are crowning him one of the greatest innovators of our time, if not of all time. It’s rather hard to disagree, as he’s helped bring forth many innovations that have seriously changed the way we look at our future. And with all the talk about innovators, folks are starting to celebrate the lives of other creative geniuses at any level or platform before it’s too late. But all the talk about innovation is leaving people thinking, what is real innovation and how can one be innovative in whatever they’re doing?
Is innovation just a synonym for “invention”, or is it really just a positive spin on “imitation”? I guarantee if you ask five different people, you’ll probably get five different answers. Not because everyone is wrong, but because the exact definitions for ‘innovation’ and ‘innovator’ seem to vary by situation. Once you feel like you’ve answered the question, the next step is to figure out how you can be innovative so that it might help you go further in your situation.
Below, we will go through some definitions and examples to eventually get you to a better basic understanding of innovation, and how it can help you as a designer.
And the answer is…
The word “innovation” kind of varies and is almost completely subjective; it has to deal a lot with the situation and it’s surroundings. Some will tell you that it’s the act of coming up with a new idea while others will tell you it’s just taking any idea and making it your own. I think it’s safe to agree with both points to a certain extent.
The dictionary lists it as something new or different introduced. That’s a concise textbook definition but innovation is not just about an idea or just about creating something new. If that was the case we’d be talking invention, right? And if we were talking just about ideas, we’d be just dealing with cultivating creativity, right? Innovation is much deeper than that, and lies in creating new processes.
Coming with a new and creative idea is just one point of being innovative because the next step is making something tangible from that idea. When you make that tangible thing, are you just hoping people like what you came up with or are you really thinking about it? Innovation begins with research so that you can, in turn, come up with a great process.
Think about this: some of the most innovative things are not new ideas, they’re just better processes. You create a better process by looking at what’s out there, figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong with it, and coming up with something new. The “idea” portion isn’t the most important thing; it’s about how you portray it. For example, if you are a web designer with your own business, your innovation doesn’t necessarily come from an “invention”, but it may come from the way in which you carry out your process: for example, finding a great way to figure out what your client wants or creating an easy way to communicate with clients can be your claim to innovation. You may also show it through your super intuitive designs.
The most important part, however, is doing something different. It’s a competitive world out here, and when a company sees another company come out with something new, oftentimes they try to mimic it and mark it down a couple bucks. I guess I understand the current marketing strategy, but how does doing something like that gain you real loyal customers? Companies in this situation (where they feel behind), have a better chance at re-doing the process and coming out with something new—pay attention to what those customers are saying they hate about said product and fix it. Don’t make the same thing and expect people to come running.
What are the differences?
Once again, trying to really define and teach innovation is really sticky, so perhaps one could understand it when being put against related terms. Innovation can be a completely new idea or a borrowed and improved idea. The thing, however, is not to get caught up in the “idea” of it all, but to focus on the finished product. We all have ideas.
Invention has a very similar definition to our topic. When we think of inventing, we obviously think of making something new. But the process of invention really only deals with creation. In the invention stage, we are working things out, on what’s usually a new idea. In the invention stage, we are trying our hardest to put money into the creation of an idea. We want whatever it is to work and be amazing. Innovation suggests that whatever we have isn’t necessarily a new idea, but it’s our new attempt to basically put it in front of people’s faces. In innovation, we have our finished and tangible reflection of the idea and now we typically want to make money off that, or at least get it seen on a larger scale.
For example, if you’ve studied a bit of science history, you may know we attribute the invention of the telescope to Galileo. The problem with this, is that telescopes were around for a while before Galileo got his hands on it and many people used them. He actually joined that bandwagon fairly late; he was about a year or so behind. Telescopes prior to Galileo’s usage weren’t used as a device to look at moons and stars—it was basically a pretty useless magnifying glass, sometimes purchased for fun. However, Galileo decided there was something important in the sky and he wanted to take a look at it, so he researched the product, made it better by increasing the distance in which you can see things and ended up giving us the precursors of the modern day telescope.
Galileo did not invent the telescope, but he helped to innovate and cultivate the idea. Steve Jobs didn’t create the MP3 player, but he helped to innovate the idea. Being or creating something that is innovative is about making the right connection to your consumer. There are many products that take extremely complex topics and scale them down to put them in front of an individual so that they may use it. There are also products that seem to be useless, that can be innovated into extremely useful products. However, if you have a simple audience and try to sell them an extremely complex product, you’ve completely lost hope. It’s just about making the connection between an idea or invention and an individual who has a problem to solve. Inventions can be innovative, but innovations do not have to be inventions.
Innovation relates not only to creation and making connections, but the organization as well as the design. If you want to create a better process that relates better to your audience, you’ve got to design it and organize it in a way that is easily understandable to your audience. Else, you’re a lost cause once again. Any product usually does not live without invention in some stage, but at some point there has to be a focus on the process and how to make it better for what ever problem needs to be solved. It’s easy to confuse invention and innovation, but the truth is, innovation is much more important.
Any good business, whether large or small, knows that in order to stay ahead of the game, they’ve got to be innovative. It isn’t about being better than anyone else, instead it’s about creating products and services that will have longevity. The great thing about innovative products is that they are typically timeless. Gimmicky products? Not so much.
Why is it so important to cultivate innovativeness? For one, people have short attention spans and get tired of new things fairly quickly. Secondly, innovation is what changes the world—it changes our interests, it changes our government and it changes the way we move in the future. Some products are for a time period, even some categorically innovative ones. But it takes that quality to be continuously visited in order for the product to remain relevant. You don’t just update features, but you update how it works, how it interacts and what it looks like. For example, the Nintendo GameBoy at every stage in its life (from the bulky handheld to the slim two-screen), hasn’t just simply added a feature, it changed the way you played handheld games. Not only did other copycat companies have to keep up, but game developers had to do the same, as did mobile phone makers and full gaming consoles. Nintendo has always been an innovator in the game console arena.
Companies that spring up just to copy off another company won’t make it. Even as designers, if we are trying to design like our favorite and follow the same path, we aren’t going to make it. You have to be different. You have to want to change something. The longevity of a company is in question when their main purpose is to copy every move of another company. Think about two companies that have broken the mold of typical companies; for example Starbucks, Apple, and PayPal just to name a few. Now think of the companies that came to be because they felt like “they could do that too”. The innovators mindset is not “I can do that, too”, but rather “anything you can do, I can do better.”
We must also keep in mind that innovation is not just directly related to products and commercialism. There are ways available to innovate in society through economics, laws and much much more. It is the propeller for all things linked to progressive movement. Innovators have to keep in mind that they have an opportunity to change the lives of 6+ billion people. It isn’t all about products and consumerism, but it is definitely about raising the bar for everyone.
How can you be innovative?
As a freelance designer who has clients, you’re probably not thinking you have to be innovative. That’s just the job of your clients and you follow suit. But as previously stated, any business knows that they must be innovative in order to prosper and be successful. Don’t you want that for yourself?
You already have the upper-hand because if you’re a good and mature designer, you know that graphic design is about visually solving a problem. You have a client that wants to use their website to sell their product; how would you do it? Your client needs a flyer for an event that people have to RSVP for; how do you do it? If you can answer these questions, you are already a problem solver of sorts and have no issues thinking in that mind frame.
The thing about innovation, however, is not just what you’re going to use to carry out your tasks but how you’re going to do it. See, innovation for a designer can present itself in several different ways. Do you find yourself and others in the same situation often, so you want to try to invent an app to take care of something? Do you want to change the way people look and see design, so you create the difference? Or perhaps you just want to change and better the process of graphic design all together, so you want to organize things differently.
Many innovators have mastered the task of paying attention. If there is a problem that needs to be solved, you must pay attention to the solutions already out there and you must also pay attention to the way consumers have reacted to the solution. Figure out what works and what doesn’t work and come up with something new. The trick to creating that new thing, though, is creating it so that it is used intuitively by your audience. If a solution or process is outdated or doesn’t work, flip it around and look at it from all angles. Try to figure out what works.
In order for innovation to take place, of course you need some creativity and you need some entrepreneurship capabilities, and you need an excellent relation between both. But you must know how to make things intuitive. Products and services are used when they make sense for people without the use of training and such. You must know how to find the bigger picture and act on and solve that.
You also want to make your self as susceptible to innovative thoughts as possible. It really begins when you attempt to think outside the box. It sounds cliche and boring, but the truth is a lot of people have issues thinking outside the box. Many of us our cultured into believing certain things and in some systems, that when one thinks against it, you automatically get scared. As a musician, I run into a lot of other musicians who are looking for fame and fortune. If anyone knows anything about the music industry, it isn’t doing so well. These musicians want to catch their big break while they are still running through the dying techniques of the industry, and when they have an out of the box idea, they shy away from it because it’s “too different.”
If you want to be innovative and move forward, you have to abandon the thought that all different ideas are bad ideas. Keeping an open mind and paying attention to your surroundings are some of the best things to do in order to be innovative. Innovators look for unique ways to solve problems. There’s no better way to think uniquely than to be open, daring, and bold; don’t be afraid of your creativity. Taking risks and not being afraid to break down barriers and walls will take someone further than playing it safe. There’s nothing wrong with being different, especially if you can bottle it up in a product that people will love.
The definition and thoughts on innovation will always vary, but there’s never any real question of those who are innovative. Innovation doesn’t have to be this thing you put on a pedestal or fear but it should definitely be something you strive for and try to welcome. It comes in many different scales and in many different situations, you just have to open your eyes to it.
Is there a difference between the person who creates his own new innovative idea or the guy who borrows an idea and makes it better? Not really, as long as both things work and are accepted as such. Is there a difference between the guy who invents something but it’s deemed unusable for the public and the guy who takes that invention and flips it so that it is usable for the public? Absolutely—the latter person is an innovator.
You don’t have to invent the newest, shiniest technology, but you do want to bring something different to the table. If you find a consistent problem in some sort of process, turn it upside down and see if it still works. If it does, use it. If it doesn’t, try some other amazing idea. Innovation doesn’t require you to reinvent the wheel, but it does challenge you to look at that wheel differently.