• 08.22.11

IBM VP’s Three Essentials For Creating Innovative Products

Lee Green provides a road map for generating disruptive technologies, objects, and experiences.

IBM VP’s Three Essentials For Creating Innovative Products

No matter the forum or platform, designers, executives, and consumers love to discuss (and use) products and services that seem to break the mold. These ideas are disruptive, creative, and often counterintuitive. A decade ago, who could have predicted that mobile phones would take the place of digital cameras, for both still and video images, in the minds and hands of consumers? Or that serious chefs would consider food-truck businesses, once the domain of low-end services but now a trendy, fast, and cost-effective way to open a “restaurant”?


Onlookers often think that such marketplace and marketing successes are products of one-off “aha” moments of inspiration or unique research methods. But there are actual strategies that designers and businesses can follow to create such disruptive technologies, objects, and experiences. Here are my three tried-and-true tactics:

1. Support what is likely to fail.

By this I don’t mean prioritize experiments and concepts that look like they might not sell; I mean consider technology and designs that might not seem to work for their intended purposes. This is the approach of James Dyson, the British engineer and vacuum entrepreneur, and the company that bears his name. While developing breakthrough products, such as the energy-saving hand-drying machine known as the Airblade, Dyson and his team take note of what ideas and prototypes aren’t achieving their goals and then find new uses for them.

Dyson takes note of prototypes that aren’t working and finds new uses for them.

When Dyson’s engineers were working on early designs for the Airblade hand drier, they realized a prototype was creating strange aerodynamic effects. Rather than ignore these, they examined them, looking for new applications. The engineers eventually developed the technology that would lead to the successful Airblade hand drier, but they also retained the failed Airblade prototype and brainstormed ways to turn the design that trapped air into another device. In doing so, they ended up inventing a totally new product: the Air Multiplier, a novel, critically acclaimed fan that Dyson released in 2009. The media lauded its safe design, which relies on carefully trapped and directed air instead of the dangerous rotating blades of typical fans. The product line for Dyson has since expanded its offerings based on the success of the first Air Multiplier. Dyson has admitted that his company had never intended on selling fans. But by paying attention to what didn’t succeed in the lab, he and his colleagues were able to invent something new. Building a “library” of failed experiments, as Dyson has called this approach, can result in a library of successes, too.

2. Do the painfully obvious.

Often when innovation is the goal, there’s pressure to create an original product with an unusual name. But sometimes following a completely obvious path is an effective, albeit counterintuitive, way to achieve a design that is easy to use and ultimately popular. Take, for instance, Facebook’s design approach. On, which will likely soon have one billion global users, all of the company’s successful features — “Photos,” the “Like” button — have names that are less about clever and more about direct, descriptive utility.

And doing the obvious is not just what Facebook does in the arena of naming and branding. The company has been working on bringing real-world human actions and interactions in an online social context. People share photos in real life. They tell their friends what they like. They share information. Facebook is simply creating software and interface design that replicate these aspects and then naming them in the clearest way possible, almost to the point of where they don’t seem named at all. The result is proven usability and immense popularity.


Take the ”Like” button alone. The company says that 30 billion pieces of content are shared monthly using the “Like” button, and major retailers, from eBay to Zappos, feature it as a way to illustrate and track what consumers like and to drive attention toward goods for sale.

3. Stay true to your design principles.

For decades, this philosophy has been pervasive at IBM. When Elliot Noyes was hired by Thomas Watson, Jr. in 1956, he (along with other designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Rand, Isamu Noguchi, and Eero Saarinen) brought a holistic approach to designing everything from products and exhibits to architecture and graphics. Noyes He believed that nothing exists in isolation: “Everything goes with everything,” he taught. As a result, he thought not just about the product but the office (and even the building) in which it would be used. He also felt that great design was coupled with innovation, which he displayed in his design for the IBM Selectric typewriter. This tenet has guided the design of more recent IBM design consultants like Richard Sapper and his design for the IBM ThinkPad.

It has also served as the foundation for today’s approach to the design of physical spaces at IBM. I’ll give you a recent example of a counterintuitive design strategy we’ve used to create a new space for client meetings at IBM’s former world headquarters at 590 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Traditionally, companies would hold meetings in a typical conference room, with seats pointed toward a podium where an executive would make a presentation. Or they would hold it in a boardroom sitting around one large, static table. We realize that many of our clients are looking for a different type of engagement — a less formal, more collaborative experience.

So while the new client center design still retains some traditional meeting space, it also features areas that are far more laid-back, including a THINK Lab, where furniture and walls move and small casual seating is incorporated into the space.


We’ve also added wall screens with white boards and multimedia equipment so that everyone in the room can share and contribute ideas. The goal was to encourage IBMers to learn from clients, too, rather than just present to and pitch our offerings and services to them. Clients have told us that just entering the space signals to them that the day will be a much different experience than the traditional briefings they have come to expect. The result has proven so successful in terms of client engagement that we’re now looking to this type of design for other IBM centers around the world.

These philosophies and this approach to purposeful design influence not only designers and engineers but also marketing and sales teams, as well as clients and customers, to think and act in new ways. And these methods can be replicated again and again. Design challenges can be quite diverse. Understanding the unarticulated needs of a product user, anyone interacting with a service, or even a team that converges in a space to collaborate and solve problems, enables solutions that inspire, surprise, and surpass expectations.

[Top image, of a hidden Easter Egg, by David Goehring]