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1.8 Design, creativity, invention and innovation

Before proceeding further, it is worthwhile clarifying some of the terminology which surrounds the design process. The words given in the heading above are often used almost synonymously, and in this course we will try to be more specific.

Creativity is the ability to generate novel ideas.

To invent is the process of transforming a novel idea into reality, giving it a form such as a description, sketch or model for a new product, process or system.

An invention is a novel idea that has been transformed into reality and given a physical form such as a description, sketch or model conveying the essential principles of a new product, process or system.

To design is the process of converting generalised ideas and concepts into specific plans/drawings etc., which can enable the manufacture of products, processes or systems.

A design comprises specific plans, drawings and instructions to enable the manufacture of products, processes or systems. A design can also be a particular physical embodiment of a product or device.

To innovate is the process of translating an idea or invention into a new product, process or system on the market or in social use.

An innovation is a novel product, process or system at the point of first commercial introduction or use.

Although invention can be the starting point for designing, a study of design is less about invention and more about innovation and the innovation process from invention to acceptance among users (and competitors). Few products are radical departures from the norm. That is to say, most products belong to a family of similar products. Thus there may be hundreds of different makes and models of digital camera on the market but they broadly share the same technology. Some of the differences may be no more than styling changes to colour or form. Others may typify incremental innovation – a process of making small improvements over time. Most of the products of our mass manufacturing culture are variations or variant designs based on the same radical innovation.

There have been numerous books written about design and innovation. Many have attempted to demystify the process and to demonstrate something typical via studies of various successful innovations. However, there may be a significant flaw in this strategy. The point about successful innovations is that they are atypical. Very few innovations go on to become commercially successful. The vast majority fail, and so to study only the successful ones may not tell us much about the vast majority of innovation taking place. Be cautious if you plan to do any additional reading about innovation and innovators. We are encouraged to believe that successful innovations are the result of some special process or the application of processes by a special individual: the myth of the 'hero innovator'. An alternative viewpoint would suggest that innovation inevitably occurs when certain conditions prevail. However, it is somehow unsatisfying to say that jet engines were inevitably going to be developed in the 1940s because the world was full of innovators and the time was right, rather than to say that 'our' genius, Frank Whittle, invented the jet engine. Either we are all innovators, to a greater or lesser extent, and innovations are common events, usually failures, or there are great innovators who will succeed against all odds, time and time again, and by studying these special people we can hope to emulate them.