The innovation opportunity for in-house designers

There’s a new design challenge in town: innovation. We sat with Julie Anixter, the executive director of AIGA, to find out how in-designers can tap into their unique interdisciplinary skills to lead company-wide change from within.

What does innovation mean for in-house designers?

In one word: opportunity. Opportunity to grow, stretch, contribute, give form to and be accountable for business growth of your organization.

Of course the term innovation is used in many different ways. Some people hate the word because they think it’s a meaningless buzzword. I love it because for me it signals permission to reinvent, reimagine, and invest in experiments and new ideas. It’s an area that’s exploding with potential. As Dartmouth professor Chris Trimble said, “Innovation is as big a business as anything today.”

So what makes designers uniquely equipped to lead the charge?

In-house designers are deeply involved in the development of new brands, products, services, and sometimes, like at P&G or IBM, new business models. In these roles, I see two ways innovation can further expand their impact:

First, great product or service experiences require interdisciplinary solutions. As designers continue to move fluidly across boundaries, they can bring all of their capabilities and curiosity to bear in this work as researchers, strategists, and business leaders.

I remember when I was at a general manager’s office at P&G, showing him some concepts when he pointed to one, saying, “we should just start making that today.” Through that experience, I saw how designers could take an idea and do the research, create the product, and even write the business plans! Designers have more interdisciplinary chops than our corporate colleagues sometimes realize.

Second, great product or service experiences require great interfaces—digital and physical. There’s no better person than a designer to steward an experience—even the ones they’re not responsible for directly creating.

How can in-house designers jumpstart innovations at their company?

First, be bold! Richard Saul Wurman, TED founder, recently said, “Designers can move horizontally into new domains using their power of understanding and curiosity.” If you’re not actively involved in your organization’s innovation efforts, get involved! If your organization doesn’t have a formal program, you’re in luck. You can help start one.

If you look at enlightened brands, many have incorporated designers on part-time or full-time innovation teams, which can include developers, marketers, researchers, manufacturing and supply chain, and clients. Some companies will embed designers in new product launch teams that operate as startups outside the core business. For example, I had the thrill of being part of a cross-functional team that partnered with P&G for an 18-month project that resulted in the Tide Dry Cleaners. The team had four separate design agencies all orchestrated by a P&G designer who served as a strategic lead.

In terms of tools, I recommend Adobe's new XD because it works seamlessly with all your Creative Cloud assets and allows you to design and prototype new UI’s iteratively all in a single, end-to-end app. No exporting, no syncing to other apps—everything can be done right in XD. Remember, she with the best fast prototype wins.

Finally, I would recommend that all in-house designers become familiar with two resources: Ten Types of Innovation and the Business Model Canvas. They have both shaped the discourse of design-led innovation.

What are some ways members can tap into AIGA for help?

Innovation is a language that in-house designers must learn to speak if they want to be true business partners within the organization—but each company has its own language. If you can’t find a great place to begin understanding your organization’s unique vision, our partners are unparalleled in their R&D and design innovation.

If you’re a hands-on learner, email to sign up for AIGA HP Innovation Lab, a series of workshops in 2018 that focus on bridging physical and digital customer/brand engagement. To see what that bridging looks like, try creating a personalized Tasty Cookbook, made possible by HP’s Indigo. Or check out our own takeaway from the workshop: our branded pop-up booth at the 2017 AIGA Design Conference.

To hear from innovation role models, tune into our videos of 2017 AIGA Design Conference speakers Tea Uglow of Google and film designer Annie Atkins, known best for her work in Wes Anderson’s films. Now may you go forth and conquer in-house innovation!

aiga booth conference 2017
Branded pop-up booth at the 2017 AIGA Design Conference