Connecting Research and Innovation With Synthesis

Thinking about complicated, multifaceted problems

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This month Jon Kolko’s newest book ‘Exposing the Magic of Design’ will be released. It focuses on design synthesis: a way of thinking about complicated, multifaceted problems of this scale with a repeatable degree of success. In this article Jon shows us what it’s all about.

The Backstory

With the help of publications like Businessweek and Harvard Business Review, ethnographic research has become increasingly familiar to those in the business of innovation – generally, those engaged in new product development embrace research as a mechanism for arriving at a new product, system, or service. Not all agree on the power of the research in large-scale change, however, and the ever-provocative Don Norman stirred quite a controversy with his article Technology First, Needs Last . In this article, Don leads with the succinct: “I’ve come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs.” The response from Bruce Nussbaum – one of those responsible for bringing an awareness of design to a larger audience through the publication Businessweek – was vehement: “So it is within an intellectual spirit when I say that Don Norman draws erroneous conclusions from the weirdest atavistic analysis I’ve seen in a decade.”

A year later, I offer an observation to both Don and Bruce: as you assess where innovation comes from, you have both overlooked a critical element of the design process, one that fundamentally connects research to form-giving, and one that is repeatable, methodical, rigorous, and dependant on a reflective, immersive, and rich relationship with culture and society. Design Synthesis is where innovation comes from, and it has both a rich history of both theory and method. Unfortunately, neither the method or the theoretical underpinnings are commonly taught or discussed, and so most designers and only a very few engaged in business and technology have acquired a formal way of entering into synthesis, embracing the chaos inherent in the process, and then communicating the outputs of synthesis in a meaningful manner. I offer in this article a brief introduction to the process, with the shameless intent of bringing awareness to my new book that dives deeply into the connection between design research and innovation.

An Introduction to Synthesis

Synthesis in design involves the combination of two complicated entities: the designer and the design problem. During this process, the unique qualities of the designer (her experience, expertise, and the complexity of her design and personal experiences) and the unique qualities of the designer’s frame of the design problem (the inherent constraints and her mental model of the problem) engage in a dance of process, creativity, and often, conflict.

A brief consideration of synthesis reveals two main benefits to the reflective designer. First, synthesis acknowledges the complexity of the designer, and it begins to hint at what makes a “good” designer “good.” Through the designer’s experience, he has been able to develop knowledge that extends beyond the domain of a specific design sector (mobile, Web, pharmaceutical, retail) and into the actual process of design. With a fair degree of autonomy, an experienced designer can therefore understand, rationalize, and better frame a given design problem. The designer develops unique constraints that are not part of the original client brief and understands how these constraints directly contribute to his ability to solve the given problem. Secondly, synthesis acts as a foundation upon which the “magic” of design occurs. This is the cognitive rationale for why design happens. It explains why designers are able to take incomplete data, manipulate it in various ways, and invent things that are relevant, innovative, or appropriate.

In the generative stages of a design problem, designers often turn to pencil sketching on paper to think through the various nuances. For example, to visualize the appropriate form of a new touch-based cell phone, an industrial designer will sketch in three dimensions and in orthographic (or plan) view, often laying ideas on top of one another and switching between a stylistic approach to a more pragmatic, component-based investigation (looking at the actual elements that might need to be contained within the phone, such as a screen, a keypad, and so forth). At this ideation stage, the most high-level design problems have been defined, so the designer is problem solving. That is, the designer knows what he is creating—a phone, and not a toaster or a printer—and he knows the general constraints of the object (it has a certain-size touch screen and requires a certain-size battery to power it, and so forth).

But consider the previous stage, in which the high-level design problems are defined or identified. Why isn’t the designer creating a toaster, for example? It may be that the company in question has a high degree of competency and history in creating mobile phones. Or the company may have developed a new technological approach to building low-cost touch screens, so it is trying to find new applications for it. Or it may be that the company has identified, through research, a new opportunity for producing a touch-based phone.

Where do these discussions happen, and who has them? Typically, these types of considerations are made by directors of marketing and technology. These organizational structures control a big budget, which they (often independently) assign to whichever projects and programs they deem to be most strategic. Once they have made the decision, a product team is assembled. Eventually the product “trickles down” to the designer, who then begins to sketch what the item might look like.
But with the recent popularity of the phrases “design thinking” and “innovation,” designers have been asked to participate in these strategic conversations. Designers are increasingly expected to discuss not just how to solve a problem but also which problems to consider solving. They are increasingly pressured to speak with clarity about product launches, strategic product road mapping, competitive marketplace trends, short- and long-term revenue opportunities, partnerships and sponsorships, and other issues related to the business of design.

This presents a great opportunity for designers to move from a tactical role to a strategic role, where they are valued not only for their ability to produce but also for their ability to think and analyze. Yet even at these more fundamental levels of a design problem, there is an implicit expectation that the designer is designing—producing things that are visual and tangible, that trigger additional discussion and that evoke emotive responses. Essentially, if a designer is to enter the boardroom, she is expected to bring something unique to the boardroom discussions.

What are these unique things? What does the designer do or make while attempting to find and understand problems at a strategic level?

Design synthesis generally describes this aspect of design, where the designer is not yet solving a problem but is still doing, and making, in an attempt to understand complexity. Synthesis is an intellectual approach to creativity, and it can offer a rationalization for repeated business success and a set of tools for moving from research to specific and actionable design ideas. Because synthesis is tied to logical processes of managing complexity, it can be communicated throughout an organization and used to substantiate the seemingly “magical” world of design and design thinking.

A designer attempting to produce an innovative design will conduct research focusing on the experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture. This research will describe an opportunity—design research acts as problem finding. The research findings may be captured in PowerPoint presentations or described on a whiteboard. Either way, the research has allowed the design team to gather data within a constrained problem space.

Translation and Sensemaking

Design is that act of problem solving—of appropriating formal qualities into a new design idea that fulfills the stated criteria and adds value to the human condition. Design synthesis, then, will translate the opportunity into specific design criteria, or a set of elements that must be present to afford a cohesive and concrete design. The synthesis will describe the solution; design synthesis is the process of problem understanding. Although data gesture toward an opportunity, data are frequently thick and convoluted, overwhelming and incomplete. The data alone lack contextualized meaning, and so it is difficult to decode data in their “raw” state. Synthesis is a sensemaking process that helps the designer move from data to information, and from information to knowledge.

My new book ‘Exposing the Magic of Design‘ offers both theory and methods to better make sense of complicated situations and approach complex problems with a new and thorough approach. You will be able to bring rigor to what has traditionally been an “intuitive” and haphazard process, to rationalize and better substantiate design decisions, and to articulate that path succinctly. This is the link between research and innovation, and it is this link that connects ethnography and new product development. Research alone does not create an innovation, disruptive or otherwise. Through the culturally sensitive and flexible process of synthesis comes a rigorous and repeatable manner of driving towards powerful new products, systems and services.

Jon Kolko

Jon Kolko is the Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv, a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas. Jon is also the Founder and Director of Austin Center for Design, an educational institution teaching interaction design and social entrepreneurship. Prior to joining Thinktiv, Jon has held positions of Principal Designer and Associate Creative Director at frog design, a global innovation firm. He was also a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was instrumental in shaping the Interaction and Industrial Design undergraduate and graduate programs. Jon has also held the role of Director for the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), and Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine, published by the ACM.

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