Deciphering the Patterns: Learning From Over a Billion Years of Innovation

In our crusade for the grail of design innovation, nature’s 4.6 billion years of (re) evolutionary design supplies us with the perfect template.

Design innovation isn’t just about having the “big idea” (more about that and the role of research in my next post) – it’s a process, a funnel that produces success equal only to the cumulative failure required to achieve it. Not clear on that? Let mother earth and arguably the most successful innovation of all time, you and me, bring it into focus. You’ll notice there seem to be rules, patterns actually, to producing innovation, and massively successful designs (like homo sapiens and the ubiquitous iPod) have harnessed that power.

Looking at the geological time line starting with the Hadeon Eon (when earth’s crust took form) to the modern day, cycles of creation exemplified by the Cambrian and Permian eras have ushered new life forms into existence only to be followed by periods of mass extinction that have wiped most of them from the face of the planet. Nature has provided us with a compelling template for distilling successful design practices that produce innovation – a powerful suggestion of patterns that make up what we can call the universes’ law of design. It reveals a design funnel and a set of basic guidelines that innovative organizations, like Apple, have embraced as their own.

Bill Buxton’s “Sketching User Experiences” provided a first look at a design funnel. The design funnel that overlays earth’s geological timeline and the creation of man, is essentially an extension of this and surfaces key insights into repeatable innovation design:
1. Innovation is the product of a refinement funnel – And that funnel starts wide and long, with and explosion of options that flow through cycles of reduction ultimately producing a single point of desirability and viability – the design solution. In a presentation at SXSW, Apple’s chief engineer Michael Lopp, explained how design flows through this funnel (that maps to Apple’s 10 to 3 to 1 design approach). As intense as it my seem, every Apple system feature is born in a set of 10 different detailed designs, all of which are genuinely valid options – not just those mock alternatives design firms typically push out to clients as a smoke screen to show “a lot of work and hard thinking”.
2. Each cycle is marked by detailed design – This may shock a community that is fully bought into a notion of high level or “conceptual design” where low fidelity sketches/wireframes are the prevailing means of vetting the desired direction. I’m not suggesting here that we get rid of them, only that detailed design is an essential ingredient of the conceptual stage. Very much the same way thousands of actual living organisms, and not just sketches of potential organisms, were needed to make effective evolutionary decisions.
3. Invest time up front – The era of modern man is only a spec on the grand scale of creation. Nature has clearly spent much more time and resources on the initial stages of design choosing to privileged detail and diversity over efficiency. This is clearly a tension for traditional design work. More often than not we find ourselves rushing through low fidelity conceptual designs to hone in on that one solution we push through to detailed design. Nature’s advice? Always give yourself more time for conceptual design and make sure you get the right amount of detail to support reductive decisions.
4. The coin for innovation is failure (read: learning) – The same way that explosion of life on earth was followed by extinction (by the end of the Permian era over 50% of all land creatures and 95% of all sea creatures had been wiped out), innovative design is also marked by creative spurts and a selection process that pushes aside the undesirable and unviable. Successful shortcuts are as rare as they are likely to succeed. That means you need to bank on going through the motions – if failing is not an option then you can’t be serious about innovating.
5. Innovation is expensive – Running the numbers on the resources required to generate thousands of life forms, most of which ultimately discarded by evolution, will show that true innovation has a price tag. The funnel can be long and mistakes need to be made. There is no way to sugar coat it, the bottom line is that real innovation requires resources and commitment. If it’s any solace though, the silver lining is the upside for return on innovative designs is tremendous.

Most user experience professionals learn early on that user centered design (UCD), or some variation thereof, is the go-to approach in the effort to generate usable, useful and joyful designs. I obviously don’t challenge the importance of the user and the need to make sure they are represented through out the design process (although I do admit an over zealous obsession with the end user has the potential to produce myopic design).

But we should consider evolving that approach to one that assumes user representation as a given, and more importantly, borrows from earth’s evolutionary heritage to articulate the design dynamics for achieving repeatable innovation. Call it Innovation Centered Design (ICD) – driving success for both you and your customers.