Endless Innovation: The Role of Industrial Design in Maintaining the Relationship between Business & Society

Dominika Potuzakova, Nick Sturkenboom, Dirk Snelders –


There are many businesses on the market that cannot clearly see the strategic value of industrial design. Managers often see designers as a separate concern in a developmental process, namely to give a product or system a final look and shape. In this paper we would like to change this view, and stress that industrial design is of strategic value to companies, and should be implemented early and throughout the whole developmental process. The strategic value of industrial design is presented here as a capacity that creates and sustains a symbiotic relationship between business and society. By presenting this strategic capacity of design in a diagram and further explaining the various implications in the text we intend to promote the view of industrial design as a central capacity of innovation in business.


Many companies are hesitant to invest in a design department. On the one hand, they tend to see industrial design mainly as a capacity that helps shape the form of their products (thus stimulating sales) and that assists in limiting production costs (thus stimulating profits). On the other hand, they fail to see industrial design as a strategic capacity that is of value over individual development projects [1]. As a result, they underestimate the full value of a design department. As stated in Verganti‟s book, Design Driven Innovation [2] “Executives like Ernesto Gismondi, Alberto Alessi, and Steve Jobs did not invest in design on the basis of a financial analysis.”

A design department and its employees consisting of different types of designers can, however, hold the key for sustained profits to the company, from one new product to the next. Like Verganti, we believe that industrial designers are devoted and trained to initiate the radical innovations of meaning, and on the basis of that create products that side- steps the competition, and with life cycles significantly longer than that of the competition [2]. The focus of industrial design is broad, and can range from form expressiveness to interaction, mechanics, electronics, and technology processes. The meaning design instills in products can range from philosophical to socio-cultural, psychological, or even physiological. Each individual designer usually concentrates her focus on one or two of these areas of competence. However, it is important to stress that these professionals are devoted and trained to appreciate and develop most of these competencies to such a level that they can communicate concepts clearly to designers and other stakeholders such as experts and management. In this article we would therefore like to explore the role of industrial design within concept innovation processes. It is in conceptual design that the strategic value of designers becomes most apparent, and the least tainted by the direct project-related concerns of sales and cost. We would like to stress their strategic value of design in such processes, in that it facilitates the communication of the needs, desires and opportunities perceived by the involved stakeholders, and transforms this information into radical innovations of meaning. This role of design is expressed visually through a developed diagram that represents design as the conduit for a symbiotic relationship between business and society.


Concept Innovation Process

Innovation processes have been described many times in past, and in many different ways. However, most of these processes are represented as linear, describing innovation projects from a fuzzy start to a clear end. Here, we would like to give a new point of view to such processes. We have created a diagram that symbolizes the concept innovation process as being a part of a symbiotic cellular organism (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Symbiotic Relationship between Business & Society

The living organism represented by the diagram grows and shrinks according to influences stemming from businesses and society. The organism is maintained by a concept innovation process, which is a continuous cycling process (the purple arrowed lines), without a clear beginning or end. This cycle leads through various components that make up the symbiotic organism, which are focal areas for design:

  • Radical Meaning
  • Socio-cultural Influence
  • Human Refinement
  • Technology Influence
  • Technology Refinement
  • Concept Outcomes

These components are absorbing the contributions from society and businesses surrounding the whole cycle continuously, and each can be seen as a specialized process necessary for the maintenance of the symbiotic relation. Thus, one part of this symbiotic organism would not survive without the other, and the role of industrial design in the concept innovation process can thus be seen as a longer term (strategic) commitment to the betterment of business and society. Also note that all the components are influencing each other, although the intensity of the influence depends on the scope of the innovation, e.g. whether it is a more or less technology or socio-culturally driven innovation. The component where the technology-based and socio-cultural influence merges is critical for the concept innovation process. This is the place where the radical meaning of a concept is born, and where industrial designers play a key role.

Radical Meaning

Radical meaning is one of the most important components of the concept innovation process. This is the place where the socio-cultural and technology influences intertwine, and it is here the radical meaning of a concept emerges. This radical meaning corresponds to the evolution stemming from the technology and socio-cultural influences, and by doing so it can be seen as a new interpretation of the brand values of an innovative business. This „reframing‟ of brand values allows a company to sidestep competition, and dream up new markets. As known, consumers tend to attach, consciously and subconsciously, specific functional and symbolic qualities to the product and brand, thus deriving meaning out of them [3]. The entangled spot of technology and socio-cultural influence is the place where many industrial designers will be found. This is a community of industrial design professionals who individually focus on many different aspects of design. In this place designers communicate extensively with other stakeholders, including experts from different fields, as well as businesses and general audiences in society. It is here that they create concepts with radically new meaning.

Socio-Cultural Influence

Socio-cultural influence in this case symbolizes the socio- cultural research needed for concept innovation. This socio- cultural research can be imagined as studies in fields of the arts and humanities, and the social and life sciences. It is important for innovative companies to conduct such research continuously, in close cooperation with in-house and out-house experts, so that a prospective concept meaning can be derived out of them by industrial designers. However, the influence is two-way: industrial designers themselves play a key role in communicating new meaning within the innovation process to the involved stakeholders and experts in the socio-cultural fields.

Human Refinement

The human refinement component is a place where feedback related to concept outcomes and socio-cultural research is collected from all stakeholders involved in the innovation process, as well as external experts and users reviewing the concept. This feedback then serves for further refinement of a concept.

Technology Influence

Technology influence in the diagram more or less represents a technology research that influences the concept innovation process. The technology research can accommodate investigations into new electronic and mechanical findings as well as possibilities of incorporating new technology processes and exploration of advanced materials. Such technology research can be done in-house by the company itself or by cooperating with external research associations. Those can be ranged from established high-tech companies through small research consultancies to academic research. It is however important for an innovative company to invest and keep up with an extensive technology research, so that the socio-cultural inputs can be fitted with suggested technologies and translated by industrial designers into concepts with a meaning. The quicker the company responds to a potentially meaningful technology development the more successful the company can become [2].

Technology Refinement

Technology refinement component is a place where feedback related to technology research and concept outcomes is collected from all stakeholders as well as all experts involved in the innovation process. This feedback then serves to refine the concept.

Concept Outcomes

Concept outcomes represent envisioned concepts that are distributed to society and businesses. These concepts usually carry (or are planned for carrying) the radical meaning of the whole innovation.


Society in our diagram represents everyday living, acting and behavior of current and potential users. It is however important to point out that even a stakeholder from business who is involved in the concept innovation process can become a potential user very easily.


This part of the symbiotic organism can be seen as any organization that is searching for potential markets to establish new radical meanings. These businesses also carry out socio-cultural and technology research so the newly created radical meanings can fall into the context of the business.

It should be understood that Society and Business components can float freely in the symbiotic cell representing our diagram. That means they can freely intervene more or less anywhere within the whole cycling process. The whole diagram should be seen as one living creature that implies continuous dynamic changes of the symbiotic relationship between business and society.

Role of Industrial Designers in the Concept Innovation Process

We believe that an industrial designer is a creative professional with strong communication skills at several different levels. Such a designer can recognize and communicate clearly technology and socio-cultural influences. He is able to initially listen to different stakeholders involved in the innovation processes as well as thoroughly observe the society [4]. He interprets these inputs derives from them the radical meaning of an innovation. This meaning is then transformed into the initial concept innovations, which can be communicated to all involved stakeholders. These can be representatives from all sort of different fields ranging from laboratory researchers, technology professionals, specialists in soft skills to marketing and sales persons, and potential users. The industrial designers then derive a feedback out of their reactions and synthesize a refinement of the concept within a business context. By re-considering all of the influential elements in the diagram the concept outcomes are acquired, which will then have their own influence on further innovations in meaning. In this cycle of concept innovation there is no clear beginning or end, and the cycle is strategic in that it may instigate and set directions for product development projects at particularly opportune moments.


Reviewing the diagram, we see as its main value that it can serve as a tentative model for endless conceptual innovation. As such the model can serve to empower managers and designers to communicate and assess radical meaning and radical new concepts. By appreciating the importance of in and outputs of both business and society, the model also calls for a carefully planned strategy and the management of multi-modal teams and networks. This diagram could help both managers and industrial designers on how designers can be positioned within teams and networks, and provide a sense of continuity when relating new concepts to the vision of higher management. It is within this sense that we believe that managers can realize the value of industrial designers other than cost optimization and generation of aesthetically pleasing and coherent products within their business. Thus our model should bring the two groups closer and enable management to derive business value out of the radical new meaning for concepts, and thus support circles of multi modal teams and networks.


The authors would like to thank to the following people for their contribution and great discussions throughout the Strategic Value of Design learning module at Technology University Eindhoven (TU/e): Gerda Gemser and Oscar Person from Delft University of Technology; Jeroen Keijzers from TU/e; Kees de Man from MUNDRIO and Andre Rotte from Designlink.


  1. Bohemia, E. (2002). Designer as integrator: Reality or rhetoric? The Design Journal, 5 (2), 23-34.
  2. Verganti R., Design-Driven Innovation, Harvard Business Press (2009).
  3. Karjalainen, T. (2007). It looks like a Toyota: Educational Approaches to Designing for Visual Brand Recognition. International Journal of Design (1) 67-80 (67)
  4. Gornick, N. (2006). Convergence: New management imperatives and their effect on design activity, Design Management Review, 12, 10-14.

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