“For the past few years, innovation has been a big topic in conversation about business management. A small industry fuels that conversation with articles, books, and conferences.

Designers, too, are involved. Prominent product-design firms offer workshops and other services promising innovation. Leading design schools promote “design thinking” as a path to innovation.

But despite all the conversation, there is little consensus on what innovation is and how to achieve it.”

That is the opening of “Toward a Model of Innovation” by Hugh Dubberly in the current issue of Interactions. He further asks if innovation can be tamed. The article proposes a model of innovation (download pdf), not as an absolute, but as a starting point for further explanation and conversation.

While he is speaking about the innovation process, I draw very close parallels to the design process. “Of course, innovation processes are rarely linear,” the article states. This is the same for the design process, and why people with linear thought processes and a more scientific mindset have a difficult time with the design process. In my thesis, I argue that a better understanding of the thinking behind the design process will enable people to become better designers, and perhaps help the advancement of design as a discipline.

I am also looking at models of the design process to highlight the benefits and weaknesses of models in understanding and trying to practice design. The current slew of publications about innovation and the many links to design within them has me wondering about the effectiveness of the random article has in helping people learn and practice design. While I ascribe to the idea that everyone designs, I worry that there isn’t enough emphasis on the difficulty of producing good designs. Dubberly at least gives a nod to this regarding innovation: “Innovation remains messy, even dangerous. Luck and chance—being at the right place at the right time—still play a role.”

“Dangerous” is a provoking word choice. Design, or innovation, does not necessarily equal good. Many terrible products, movements, and societies have been designed for evil. Should we be worried about the design process increasing the generation of evil?

Another large factor in the design process and the innovation process (assuming a difference) is the role of the individual. The article recognizes this: “The map posits individuals as drivers of innovation—and the source of insight.” In my thesis, I argue that one of the missing pieces of design process models is the designer, who has extreme influence on the process. The designer actually designs the process each time, which makes each design process unique, and thus difficult to produce a single model.

Paul Pangaro, CyberneticLifestyles.com CTO, contributed to Dubberly’s model and raised some other good questions about modeling innovation:

“What parts of the process of innovation are messy, unpredictable, ineffable, mystical, magical, and intuitive? The more that innovation is those things, the less we can help the process and make a deliberate innovation; at one extreme, that phrase becomes an oxymoron. Conversely, what parts of innovation are predictable, likely, improvable, or even deterministic? We certainly resist the idea that the source of inspiration, the source of hypotheses, can be fully known, reduced to an algorithm.”

Good questions and consideration for design as well, I say.