Last month I was invited by Patrick Whitney, director of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, to participate in a symposium on the "'creative corporation' and the adoption of design by business leaders." Naturally, I said yes, quoting Lance, the drug dealer in Pulp Fiction, who, when asked by Vincent Vega what will happen after he gives Marcellus Wallace's wife an adrenalin injection to the heart, answers "I'm curious about that myself."
It turned out that the operant word at the symposium wasn't design but innovation. Yes, innovation. Everyone wanted to know about it. Everyone wanted to talk about it. One of the panelists was Business Week's legendary design advocate Bruce Nussbaum. "When I talk to my editors about design, I have trouble keeping them interested," he confessed. "But there's a tremendous interest in innovation." The lesson to me seemed clear. If we want the business world to pay attention to us, we need to purge the d-word from our vocabularies. That's right: we are all innovators now.
A recent email provides proof of the timeliness of this approach. "Empower Yourself to Innovate," the DMI urges me, sounding suspiciously like Stuart Smalley. A visit to the DMI's website for their upcoming conference, "Empowered Innovation," confirms that the organization has already gotten with the program in a big way. The word "design" is nowhere to be found in the main description of the conference. It finally makes its appearance halfway through a list of conference topics that include "Innovation within an Organizational Context," "Experimentation Matters: New Opportunities for Innovation" and "Culture-Driven Innovation." It turns out that Magdalena De Gasperi from Braun GmbH will be speaking on "The Impact of Innovation and Design on Brand Equity." Design, it appears, is welcome only when properly escorted...by Innovation! And it's no surprise that the organization officially known as the Design Management Institute is using its acronym more and more and letting its formal name wither quietly away, just like KFC did as it sought to distance itself from the greasy brand equity of the words Fried Chicken. I suppose I hardly need to add that the DMI has a blog called — care to guess? — that's right, the Innovation Blog.
This mania for innovation, or at least for endlessly repeating the word "innovation," is just the latest in a long line of fads that have swept the business world for years. In the mid-eighties, Motorola developed a seemingly effective quality management program based on a sophisticated statistical model called Six Sigma, which involved attempting to reduce the number of defects in their business processes to less than 3.4 per million. Within a few years, managers everywhere were demanding that their organizations begin "implementing Six Sigma principles." The mystical invocation of the Greek letter; the unnerving specificity of 3.4 per million (as opposed to the presumably unacceptable 3.5 per million); the talismanic power of the bell curve diagram that was often used to "illustrate" the theory: all of this arcana was meant to instill awe in employees who would shrug off a homelier directive like "measure twice, cut once."
It's not hard to see why innovation is becoming the design world's favorite euphemism. Design sounds cosmetic and ephemeral; innovation sounds energetic and essential. Design conjures images of androgynous figures in black turtlenecks wielding clove cigarettes; innovators are forthright fellows with their shirtsleeves rolled up, covering whiteboards with vigorous magic-markered diagrams, arrows pointing to words like "Results!" But best of all, the cult of innovation neatly sidesteps the problem that has befuddled the business case for design from the beginning. Thomas Watson Jr.'s famous dictum "good design is good business" implies that there's good design and there's bad design; what he doesn't reveal is how to reliably tell one from the other. Neither has anyone else. It's taken for granted that innovation, however, is always good.
Everyone wins on the innovation bandwagon. A recalcitrant client may cheerfully admit to having no taste, but no one wants to stand accused of opposing innovation. And a growing number of firms stand ready to lead the innovation charge; a much-talked-about article in Business Week last August, "Get Creative! How to Build Innovative Companies," singled out Doblin, Design Continuum, Ziba, and IDEO. In fact, if anyone deserves the credit for inventing the don't-think-of-it-as-design-think-of-it-as-innovation meme, it's IDEO. "Innovation at IDEO," visitors are assured on their website, "is grounded in a collaborative methodology that simultaneously examines user desirability, technical feasibility, and business viability." No idle sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike at IDEO! Skeptics requiring further persuasion will find it in The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation, two books that IDEO's general manager Tom Kelley has written on the subject.
I was surprised to learn, however, that although innovation is always good, it isn't always effective. "We all know that reliable methods of innovation are becoming important to business as they realize that 96% of all innovation attempts fail to meet their financial goals," read the invitation to the Institute of Design symposium, a figure derived from research by Doblin. Now, I suppose you could do worse than failing 24 out of every 25 tries, but this sounds suspiciously like Albert Einstein's famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. But thank goodness, a solution is at hand: "Business leaders are increasingly looking to design to not just help, but lead their innovation processes." So we come full circle. Don't say design, say innovation, and when innovation doesn't work, make sure you saved some of that design stuff, because you're going to need it.
With this new vision of design-as-innovation identified — somewhat chillingly, if you ask me — in Business Week as "the Next Big Thing after Six Sigma" (the ironically-intended capitalization is theirs), perhaps a new golden age of respect for designers — or innovators, or whatever you want to call us — is upon us at last. Or maybe it simply announces the availability of a turbo-charged version of the kind of frantic rationalizations that we've always deployed in our desperation to put our ideas across. Either way, I'm reminded of something Charles Eames used to say: innovate as a last resort. Have we run out of options at last?