What Do We Mean By “Innovation,” “Collaboration,” or “Design”?

How a look into design’s past helps us see into its future.

What Do We Mean By “Innovation,” “Collaboration,” or “Design”?

If you work in design, you are probably sick of hearing the words “innovation,” ‘collaboration,’ and even the word “design.” They’re used so often that they’ve almost lost all meaning. But sometimes we can be surprised by those things that have been right in front of us. Thinking about the etymology of these words made me think about exactly why we, as designers, were originally inspired by these ideas.


“Innovation,” the word, was first seen in the 1540s. It comes from the Latin word innovatus, which means ‘to renew or change’ and is made up of two words: in which means “into” and novus which means “new.” So, to innovate is to go into the new.

This definition helps give a better context to our primary purpose: It’s our job as designers to go into the new. It’s our job to break existing patterns. That’s our goal. And it helps remind us of our responsibilities?we certainly want to help our partners find success, but if pattern makers make money, it’s fair to say that it’s the pattern breakers who make history.

“Collaboration” made its first appearance in 1871. Deriving from the Latin word collaborare, the word is made up of com which means ‘with’ and “labore” which means “to work?. And ?to work with” is, really, the brutally simple meaning of the word. It’s about laboring together.

Design is about mapping out a distinct future.

Work means applied effort, and effort implies a push against some form of resistance. Work isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be. But the results are worthwhile. I really agree with Bruce Mau when he writes in the Incomplete Manifesto for Growth that “The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.”

There was a great article in the New York Times Magazine in December 2010 on the subject of cities. The author, Jonah Lehrer, describes the unique capacity of cities for innovation, describing how research suggests that cities, because they have a higher degree of “human friction,” are better positioned to solve their own problems. When you get diverse points of view and ideas into a concentrated area, bumping into one another, innovation happens.

That is the heart of collaboration.


We love the history at the heart of this word. The word “design,” first heard in the 1540s, means ‘to mark out,’ from de, which means “out” and signare, which means “to mark.” It’s a fascinating definition–one that speaks simultaneously to a physical act and a strategic act.

The best designers make tangible (or ?mark out?) ideas that fulfill a strategic intent. And that’s why you need more than process to make great design. You need talented people to mark out (and choose) the best way forward.

So how does it all add up?
Innovation is about finding a new way forward. Collaboration is the way to get to innovation. And design is about mapping out a distinct future.

When you put the words together, you begin to see what we believe to be the goal of great design: To work together in setting out a new and better way forward.

[Top image by Bethany L. King]

About the author

Paddy Harrington is the founder of Frontier, a creative exploration company consisting of a magazine, ventures group and design studio based in Toronto, Canada. He was formerly the SVP Design Innovation and Digital Creative Director at Indigo Books and, prior to that, the Executive Creative Director at Bruce Mau Design.