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Innovation & Design

Pushing the Boundaries of Design

Innovation often arises out of crossing disciplines and combining technologies. That's the focus of our look at ten cutting-edge designers

The Frisbee. The escalator. Reinforced concrete. These very different inventions share one thing in common: They weren't invented exactly—each was borrowed from an unrelated field. The flying toy was inspired by the metal pie tins of the Frisbie Baking Company that college students of yore tossed for fun. The escalator was originally conceived as a Coney Island amusement ride. And reinforced concrete was first patented in 1848 by a French gardener trying to develop a better flowerpot.

These stories of productive serendipity sound almost unbelievable—the urban legends of the inventing world. Even if they are true, you might think they're nothing more than dumb luck—as relevant to business strategy as a winning lottery ticket. Yet such examples are less rare than you might think. In his 2005 book The Ten Faces of Innovation, Ideo general manager Tom Kelley gathered these examples and more recent ones in a chapter on "cross-pollinators," those who "create something new and better through the unexpected juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts."

In the new book, Sketching User Experience (see, 5/18/07, "Why Products Fail"), Microsoft (MSFT) researcher Bill Buxton also hits the theme of cross-pollination, arguing that the field of industrial design was actually established by people who "transferred skills from established disciplines, and adapted them to the demands of product design." He cites Walter Dorwin Teague, founder of the eponymous Seattle-based firm, who was trained as a graphic designer, and Raymond Loewy, whose famous Coca-Cola (KO) bottle followed an early career in fashion illustration and window displays. Both men were key figures in the birth of the field.

Liddle's Recycling

Then, as now, the most exciting work in design happened at the intersection of two or more disciplines, where knowledge from one finds relevance in another. Many designers might say, quite rightly, that they always work at the nexus of disciplines—synthesizing the demands of engineering, business, and human factors, not to mention style. Yet some designers still push beyond the expectations of their profession, breaking down more boundaries.

In the work of Richard Liddle, founder of the British Cohda Design, recycling melts, quite literally, into furniture. At New York's recent International Contemporary Furniture Fair (see, 5/23/07, "Tomorrow's Furniture Today at ICFF"), the designer showed his new RD4 chair, a seat formed of old plastic bottles.

The combining of traditional furniture or industrial design with advanced technologies or manufacturing processes is a fruitful one. A team of product designers and engineers at the San Francisco-based Lunar Design pushed that boundary in its design of the Novint Falcon, a video game controller based on haptic (tactile) technologies, allowing players to experience the sense of touch—and also turning the video game peripheral into a training tool for medical students.

Networking for the Public Good

Similarly, Hilmar Janusson, a vice-president of research and development at prosthetics maker Ossur and lead designer of the company's motion-sensing Proprio Foot, draws on artificial intelligence in the design of Ossur's bionic products. And although he works in a very different medium, Web designer Jeffrey Zeldman's efforts at the forefront of the standards-based design movement—which has pushed for the use of common protocols that make Web sites far more usable—similarly interweaves graphic design and software code.

Recently, many designers have been drawing design into the realm of the public good. A design activist of sorts, John Thackara spearheads multidisciplinary projects such as Design of the Times (DOTT), a yearlong festival of social innovation and design taking place throughout Britain. Also in the realm of the public good, Cameron Sinclair's Open Architecture Network builds on architecture and open-source technology to create a global design platform that introduces a new intellectual property framework to the architecture world. And, the new venture of Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar, sits at the cusp of networking technologies and transportation design—and has the potential to transform our cities' urban planning.

Such aggressive cross-category experimentation is also true of nondesign fields, and what was once regarded as dumb luck is coming to be seen as smart strategy. Today, Procter & Gamble (PG) actively cross-pollinates among traditionally divided business units, with results like Crest Whitestrips—a dental product based on the laundry division's knowledge of whitening agents.

Tomorrow's Frisbee

Smaller companies that don't have such diverse expertise in-house are often turning to open-source innovation networks such as NineSigma and InnoCentive, companies whose business is based on the idea that a solution won't necessarily be found within the walls of the internal R&D department. (See, 6/11/07, "NineSigma: Nurturing 'Open Innovation'".)

In scouring the design scene for this year's 10 cutting-edge designers, we passed over established product designers like Jonathan Ive and Ross Lovegrove as well as talented, up-and-coming furniture makers such as Patricia Urquiola and the Campana brothers. And we considered designers from a wide variety of fields, such as Aimee Weber, who creates digital retail spaces and products for companies like Warner Brothers within the virtual world of Second Life, or the architectural firm Cook + Fox, the designers behind the soon-to-be-completed super-green Bank of America (BAC) building in New York and pioneers of eco-friendly corporate tower design.

All of them have raised the design bar in their use of new technologies and materials. But instead, we focused on designers pushing the edges of the field, and borrowing tools or techniques from other disciplines to create new solutions and greater possibilities. We looked, in other words, for the designers of tomorrow's Frisbee.

An edited version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2007 issue of BusinessWeek.

View profiles of all ten featured designers.

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