European Commission: Design as a driver of user-centred innovation

Jan over at The Hot Strudel pointed this out. Thanks, Jan.

As a term and concept in business, “design thinking” has been around for a while. See for instance Victor Lombardi’s collection of design thinking-related materials. In the Spring of 2008, the Harvard Business Review finally picked up on the topic. Tim Brown wrote an excellent article simply entitled “Design Thinking”. He writes:

“Historically, design has been treated as a downstream step in the development process—the point where designers, who have played no earlier role in the substantive work of innovation, come along and put a beautiful wrapper around the idea. To be sure, this approach has stimulated market growth in many areas by making new products and technologies aesthetically attractive and therefore more desirable to consumers or by enhancing brand perception through smart, evocative advertising and communication strategies. During the latter half of the twentieth century design became an increasingly valuable competitive asset in, for example, the consumer electronics, automotive, and consumer packaged goods industries. But in most others it remained a late-stage add-on.

Now, however, rather than asking designers to make an already developed idea more attractive to consumers, companies are asking them to create ideas that better meet consumers’ needs and desires. The former role is tactical, and results in limited value creation; the latter is strategic, and leads to dramatic new forms of value.

Moreover, as economies in the developed world shift from industrial manufacturing to knowledge work and service delivery, innovation’s terrain is expanding. Its objectives are no longer just physical products; they are new sorts of processes, services, IT-powered interactions, entertainments, and ways of communicating and collaborating—exactly the kinds of human-centered activities in which design thinking can make a decisive difference.”

Seems someone in the European Commission might have read Tim’s HBR article, or at least the literature around the connection between design and innovation. The EC is currently working on a document called “Design as a driver of user-centred innovation,” which provides an analysis of the rationale for making design an integral part of European innovation policy.


“The results are compelling: companies that invest in design tend to be more innovative, more profitable and grow faster than those who do not. At a macro-economic level, there is a strong positive correlation between the use of design and national competitiveness.

Although often associated with aesthetics and the ‘looks’ of products only, the application of design is in reality much broader. User needs, aspirations and abilities are the starting point and focus of design activities. With a potential to integrate for example environmental, safety and accessibility considerations — in addition to economic — into products, services and systems, design is an area which deserves public attention.

Design as a driver and enabler of innovation complements more traditional innovation activities such as research. In the current economic climate, where resources for innovation are scarce, design and other non-technological innovation drivers, such as organisational development, employee-involvement and branding, become particularly relevant. They often are less capital intensive and have shorter pay-back periods than for example technological research, but still have the potential to drive competitiveness.

Potential barriers exist to better use of design for innovation in Europe. Design as a tool for innovation has developed rapidly in recent years, resulting notably in concepts such as strategic design, design management and design thinking. Innovation policy and support, as well as education systems, have not yet caught up with these developments. Companies that lack experience of design — particularly SMEs, low-tech companies and companies not located in big cities where design businesses tend to concentrate — often do not know where to turn for professional help in the area of design. Design businesses are generally very small, a factor affecting their marketing and influencing powers.”

It’s good to see design and design thinking being taken seriously by large, influential organizations like the EC.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


  1. Actually, they’re not just thinking about it. The EU Commission is consulting and asking for input with a survey aimed at finding out” whether more should be done at EU level in the area of design and if so, what.”
    Surveys at

  2. Pingback: Follow-up Post – European Commission: Design as a driver of user-centred innovation II « Experiencing Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: