Design-thinking for innovation management

Neil van Es & Christoph Lukkien – Using the powers of design particularly in small- and medium sized business to illuminate a broader and more strategic range of innovation processes.

The established meaning of design in industry is still largely considered as product aesthetics. However, over the past decades the design profession has been rapidly evolving (Borja de Mozota 2003), from product aesthetics, to designing brands in the 1980’s, to design as a subprocess of new product development (Perks et al., 2005).

We propose a new role of the designer in business: using the value and quality of design-thinking as a mindset in management, particularly in SME for more effectively dealing with the complexity and uncertainty of innovation processes.

For this, we first explain what we mean by innovation management and processes and the qualities of design thinking. Next, we use examples to demonstrate how these qualities are used in business and can lead to valuable results. Finally, we explain the value that may be added by design-thinking in companies and why this is suitable for managing the innovation process.

Innovation management

The goal of innovation management is to guarantee the innovation ability of an enterprise. It is defined as the ability of an enterprise to generate new ideas by using new knowledge or market understanding, and to succesfully put them on the market (Eversheim et al., 1999).

Innovation processes

As Roberto Verganti explains in his book ‘Design-driven innovation’, Innovation processes can be divided into three categories, each with a different strategy:

  1. Market-pull innovation: This starts with an analysis of the user needs and then searches for technologies that can better satisfy them, or updates product languages to respond to existing trends. A type of market-pull innovation is user centered innovation. It aims not to question and redefine dominant meanings but rather to better understand and satisfy them. Because user-centered innovation is more effective than traditional market-pull approaches, if reinforces the existing sociocultural regime even more powerfully.
  2. Technology-push innovation: This type of innovation reflects the dynamics of advanced technological research. For example, the invention of transistors made it possible to develop smaller sized and more durable computers, making them user friendly and affordable for the customer.
  3. Design-driven innovation: This type of product innovation is not necessarily about changing it’s technology or filling in a gap in the existing market, but changes what the product means to its audience.

Design Thinking

Design thinking encompasses three major qualities of thinking and design. Our dictionaries distinguish three kinds of thinking: thinking of, thinking about and thinking through, as this model explains.

three types of design thinking

Building on common definitions, to think of design means to imagine, visualize and dream up new understandings, new roles for design, new practices and new applications (Cooper et al., 2010).

Thinking about design allows us to reflect on questions of “who can design?” and “what can be designed?”. In this reflective mode, design thinking offers us ways to study the perceptions, expectations and capabilities associated with and assigned to the theories and practices of designing (Cooper et al., 2010).

Thinking through design is a relatively new path to develop and acquire design skills. This involves the ability to quickly visualize problems and concepts, the development of emphatic scenarios and the design of business strategies based on design research methods. In this way, thinking through design allows businesses to use design methods and principles to help them navigate the uncertainties and complexity they now face (Cooper et al., 2010).

The skills of thinking through design

Research has been done about the skills necessary for thinking through design. (Calabretta, et al. 2012; Cross, 2001; Clark, et al. 2012;), Based on these studies we analyzed and summarized these skills, dividing them into five different categories:

Connections Connecting: The ability to make connections between different situations that can offer new solutions or improvements for existing or new problems.
Creativity Creativity: The skill to find and judge creative ideas that can offer solution, based on insight and experience, and the ability to make these ideas concrete and communicable.
Procedural Procedural knowledge: Being able to structure the process of product development and production.
Reframing Reframing: The ability to quickly get a clear picture of the problem/situation and to take on an ‘helicopter view’, to view it from different perspectives, making it possible to come up with solutions that haven’t been thought of before.
Vision Vision implementation: The experience to understand the company’s vision and product’s meaning and the skill to implement this vision with coherence during the innovation process.

To give a better idea on how these skills are applied in business, we explain two cases.

Case 1: Ben, the emphatic telecom provider

Creativity Connections Vision Reframing

In 1999 design agency ‘Kessels & Kramer’ was approached by a new telecom provider, Brucop (a consortium of Belgacom and Tele Danmark, derived from Brussels and Copenhagen), to design their branding.

Brucop valued entrepreneurship but believed one should use their influence to do something good. But Brucop aimed to just provide regular telephone services, like Libertel and KPN at the time.

To express their core value, Kessels & Kramer designed a telecom provider as a person, an emphatic company of ‘flesh and blood’.

Most of us remember Brucop, but none remember it as being Brucop. Because the brand designed around this company would from the very start be known as ‘Ben’. Ben already showed its social value upon introduction. Mobile phones were, back in those days, reserved to business people and were quite a pricy status symbol. Ben strived to make mobile phones accessible to the public, everybody should have the right to call on the go.


Brucop allowed Kessels & Kramer to influence their product and service portfolio, and more importantly their brand by thinking trough design: using design methods and principles to address their complexity and uncertainty of starting as a totally new telecom provider.

By giving Kessels & Kramer this freedom to operate and Brucop being able to adapt to the design mindset, Ben was able to appeal to many customers. In very limited time Ben became considerable competition for established companies like KPN and Libertel with very limited resources and budget. It become that much of a competitor that T-Mobile International bought 50% -1 of Ben’s stocks in 2002 for the number of 1.7 billion euros to establish its marketshare within the Netherlands (, 2002).

Connections Kessels & Kramer had design experience in other industries, where characters were often used in the appearance of products and services to make it more personal. They came up to implement this in Brucop.

Creativity The insight and creativity of Kessels & Kramer were necessary to come up with the brand name and appearance of the company.

Reframing The insight and creativity of Kessels & Kramer were necessary to come up with the brand name and appearance of the company.

Vision Kessels & Kramer were able to obtain a clear understanding of the vision of the company and to implement this vision with coherence along the process, resulting into a service that breathes trust and personality.

Case 2: Freitag, how graphic designers became global entrepreneurs

Creativity Connections Vision Procedural

In 1993, two brothers, Markus and Daniel, study graphic design in Switzerland. The oldest of the two, Markus, hired a room near the freeway, the only area in which he could afford to rent a property. Each day he had to cycle from his home to his school. The Freitag brothers, back in the day, had to carry a substantial amount of books and work, and struggled to find a bag that allowed them to transport their books and work every single day. During this year, this annoyance leads to them stating:

“We need a bag with which we can ride the bicycle in any weather conditions and things stay dry.” (Daniel & Markus Freitag, 1993)

Markus, living in plain sight of the highway, is inspired by the truck tarps, protecting the precious cargo of many trucks day in, day out, regardless the weather. At that time, the two brothers start asking the question:

“How about cutting up used truck tarpaulins and turn them into recycled messenger bags?” (Daniel & Markus Freitag, 1993)

Using this kind of knowledge brokering in order to solve their own problem, they start building an enterprise that would become big in the manufacturing of ‘upcycled’ and individual products. They start building a factory on top of known procedures and techniques and adapt it to suit the heavy-duty tarps and customizable products. These days they sell a wide variety of products – from laptop sleeves and wallets to their trusty messenger bags – which all have the durable and individual character this company breathes. Both brothers are extremely capable of making the company aware of its core values – durability, sustainability and individuality – and thereby achieving a very coherent implementation of these values in their products, services, marketing and even their production process.


In less than 20 years they have established a company that employs over a 150 people and transforms 440 tons of truck tarps (a queue of trucks a 110km long) into products each year. Their products can be obtained from a total of 450 retail partners, 9 of the companies own branded stores and an online webshop. (, 2013)

Connections The Freitag brothers imagined that truck tarps are not only very valuable in protecting cargo, but are also a great material for messenger-bags.

Vision Markus and Daniel are experts in expressing their core values. By adding additional materials besides the tarps – like bicycle tyres and seat belts – they are able of carrying out a durable, sustainable and ‘upcycled’ image apparently from their products.

Procedural Within the Freitag company, procedures on how to individualize products and produce them on a large factory line have been merged to offer customers custom designed messenger bags (service provided till 2010).

Creativity The creative discipline has a prominent role within Freitag, allowing them to adapt their production facilities to new insights and products.

Value added by design thinking

Considering the above mentioned cases, we can see that the skills associated with design-thinking add value to the companies in three different ways(Borja de Mozota, 2002):

design powers

  • By integration: the Freitag brothers use their design skills as a resource that improves their NPD-Process and favors a modular and platform architecture throughout their product lines, brand and internal company-culture.
  • By differentiation: Ben was able to bring competitive advantage to their investors through brand equity and building customer loyalty by addressing a new audience.
  • By transformation: both Kessels & Kramer and Freitag used their design-thinking to interpret the current market. By this, they were able to generate new business opportunities by establishing a change in what their products meant to their audience. In the case of Freitag, the brothers have been holding the crucial role in the development of new products, thereby gaining substantial market share.


It is evident that design-thinking at company management level can lead to valuable results in the market. As we discussed, the value that design-thinking can add value to company through differentiation, inegration and transformation. By applying the different skill categories of design-thinking, complex and uncertain matters can be transformed into valuable results. Therefore, design-thinking can be a suitable skill for the management of innovation processes.

We imagine the role of a design thinker within a company as one that brings an entrepreneurial spirit, gets a grasp of the companies – and consumers – values and has the strength and capabilities to coherently implement them into the company-culture, processes and results.


  • (2002), ‘T-Mobile neemt BEN over’ (accessed 27/2/2013),;
  • Borja de Mozota, Brigitte (2002), ‘Design and competitive edge: A model for design management excellence in european SME’s’, DMI Academic Review 2;
  • Borja de Mozota, Brigitte (2003), ‘Design Management’, page 43;
  • Borja de Mozota, Brigitte (2010), ‘The four powers of design: a value model in design management’, Design Thinking: integrating innovation, customer experience and brand value;
  • Calabretta, G., Gemser, G., Wijnberg, N., Hekkert, P. (2012), Collaborating with Design Consultancy Firms for Effective Strategic Decision-Making in New Product Development;
  • Clark, K., Smith, R. (2012), Unleashing the Power of Design Thinking;
  • Cooper, Rachel, Junginger, Sabine (2010), ‘Design thinking and design management: a research and practice perspective’, Design Thinking: integrating innovation, customer experience and brand value;
  • Cross, N. (2001), Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline versus design science;
  • Eversheim, W., Klocke, F., Pfeifer, T., Weck, M. (Editor) (1999), ‘AWK Aachener Werkzeugmaschinen-Kolloquium’;
  • (2013), ‘The history of the unique Freitag bag’ (accessed 28/2/2013),;
  • Kessels, Erik (2012), ‘Ben betrokken bij de wereld’, Een Idee A.U.B.;
  • Lockwood, Thomas (2010), ‘Design thinking as innovation and business transformation’, Design Thinking: integrating innovation, customer experience and brand value;
  • Perks, H., Cooper, R., Jones, C. (2005), ‘Characterizing the Role of Design in New Product Development: An empirically derived taxonomy’;
  • Verganti, R (2009), ‘Design-driven innovation’, page 55-56;

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