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The novelty of design: design is an intellectual activity to explore, examine, and critically compare different ways of achieving a desirable goal and so choose the actions to be taken.

Design is a complex activity and can be characterised in many ways. It can be argued that the ability to design is a fundamental human attribute. It is applicable to a wide range of activities, including some where it is not always recognised as design.

General definitions of design are inevitably too broad to give much insight into specific situations. As a result, divisions have grown up and different aspects of design are often described in ways that make comparison difficult. It can therefore be instructive to look at design in ways that cut across the divisions. Design, almost by definition, should produce some novelty, but new products are not always commercially viable. Novelty alone is insufficient to guarantee market success.


In recent years, 'innovation' has become a popular concept in management and politics, yet it is clear that few in those fields fully appreciate what it means. Innovation implies more than simple novelty. Any design work, apart from a decision to produce a simple copy of something that has gone before, produces novelty. To call something an innovation suggests far more; a novelty step change, which has far reaching consequences. In this article, I want to look at design in terms of levels of novelty.

Tailored design

Most design, probably at least 85-90% in most industries, is produced by combining known, familiar component solutions in a way that meets the customer requirements. Using combinations of existing functional and manufacturing technologies with features and characteristics appropriate to the market, a perfectly acceptable, even award winning design can be produced. Software has been developed, with extensive databases of known technologies, which can help choose between existing potential options to generate appropriate design solutions to the functional requirements. The additional features, which make the product more desirable, can generate increased market viability.

Tailored design may be 'off-the-peg' or 'bespoke'. Off-the-peg products are the ones you can buy from a shop or order from a catalogue. They are usually mass produced, and the immediate customer may be a large manufacturer or distributor/retailer, although it is the end user's satisfaction that decides the success of the product. They are often linked to marketing activities to make them more attractive than any competing choices. For some markets, an off-the-peg solution may be modified with additional features for a specific purpose. This gains some of the cost advantages of the basic product, while still producing an individual solution.

Bespoke solutions are specific designs for particular purposes and are usually single unique products or batch-produced for a specific market (perhaps several near identical bridges for a stretch of motorway). The customer often has the status of a 'client', with an appropriate contract, and may directly contribute by sanctioning the design as it progresses. (Continuing the tailoring metaphor, there may be 'fitting' sessions to check progress and gain customer approval.) The bespoke design process may generate an inspiration for something radically different.


In a tailored design the novelty factor lies in the combination of tried and tested solutions in new ways. Its great advantage is that analysis models usually exist for the known components. However, if the new use has more extreme characteristics than has been done before, there is a danger that the analytical models available are not applicable to those extremes. Unanticipated failures can result, which may eventually lead to improvements to the analysis, but can be costly to rectify at the time or even dangerous.


Inspired design

Occasionally designers will bring something unusual to the discussion: a technology not usually associated with this type of product; a new colour scheme or layout that produces a design advantage; a different way of manufacturing or assembling the product, which makes it viable to add features not previously available; a new material that opens up a range of different possibilities. There may be a valid reasoning behind this change, or it may be simply whimsy, or even promoted as 'art'. The novelty lies in being something unusual, which may give it potential as a desirable, even fashionable, item. There is a risk that a change for its own sake may invoke the law of unintended consequences, producing a product which is actually not as good as the product it replaces in an unexplored way. Alternatively, it may produce a new line, which changes a whole product type significantly.


Adaptive design

In many cases, a new design is an adapted version of an existing product from another market. For example, engine parts developed for high-performance race use can be modified for more rugged road use in cars or trucks, and then modified again, perhaps some years later, for ship propulsion or electrical power generation. The initial novelty here lies in the insight that the technology is transferable. It may lead to a major change through a new line of evolutionary design.

Evolutionary design

Often new technical developments result in a novel basic design, which can then be developed into a family of products. The classic case is the Ford Transit van. A basic design was created with a series of engines, wheelbase lengths and body types. Over the years, various door and window positions, roof heights, more advanced engine and transmission configurations, and other options have been added, giving several million possible variations, all of which are recognised as Ford Transits. If designers have these evolutionary possibilities in mind from the beginning, interfaces can be simplified and standardised to aid modularity, thus allowing new modules to be developed separately and added to the family. With hindsight, the evolutionary path may seem inevitable, but that is a result of the initial novel idea.

Innovative design (revolutionary design)

Very rarely, some totally new factor, perhaps a genuine invention, the applicable result of research, a new material or manufacturing technique, or a different user interface produces a step change in an existing product type, or even a completely new type of product. If this is acceptable to its market, or creates a new one and is financially viable, it can be regarded as a true innovation. This is a high level of novelty, which will make other products in its market look old fashioned. (History can reveal chains of innovation. Rush lights were replaced by oil lamps and candles, which were in turn replaced by gas lights, then filament bulbs and now gas discharge bulbs and LEDs.) It may trigger related changes in a range of similar markets. In today's world of complex products, a series of advances, perhaps in unrelated markets, will occasionally be brought together as components of a whole new field of products.


Sometimes, a new technological development will fail initially to find a viable market only to reappear some years later when another development, perhaps in materials or manufacture, makes it a winner. (The zip fastener was invented several times prior to the First World War, but it was the observation of machinery for making machine-gun belts that showed how it could be made economically.)

Levels of novelty

The categories I have described above have fuzzy boundaries and changes which initially seem to be one type may develop into something different. What we can say is that true innovation is rare, often relying on a chance link being made between some new technological development and a potential market opportunity. Even when such links are made, there is no guarantee that they will develop into a true innovation or convince investors to supply the necessary support.

The management challenge

An occasional one-off innovative idea can arise when someone has an inspiration at the right time and place for it to be accepted and acted upon. Fostering an environment where innovation is more common requires a more radical approach. An examination of situations where successful innovation has often occurred may give some pointers to organisations trying to improve their innovative performance.

Perhaps the most productive group, with a long record of finding innovative solutions to military hardware requirements, is the Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Programs, otherwise known as the 'Skunk Works'. This was started in June 1943 by Clarence 'Kelly' L Johnson. Their task was to produce a jet fighter aircraft ahead of any German project. Work began immediately even though the contract was not finalised until the October. The XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter was designed and built in 143 days, seven days ahead of schedule. Johnson formulated 14 rules to work under, which remain the basis of their work to this day:

1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.

2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.

3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).

4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.

5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.

6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program.

7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.


8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don't duplicate so much inspection.

9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn't, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.

10. The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and the reasons why, is therefore highly recommended.

11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn't have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.

12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organisation and the contractor, with very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.

13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.

14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay, not based on the number of personnel supervised.


The Skunk Works operates in a military environment with a focus on a specific range of products, but the underlying principles apply to any defined market and particular group of products.

* Small groups of 'good people' should be allowed to work in relative privacy under a manager with a high level of authority and independence from the rest of the organisation.

* The desired goal must be clearly stated, but the teams must be free to stray a little if it seems appropriate.

* Budgets and time scales must be flexible and generous, but carefully monitored.

* The organisation must not get in the way and should have trust in the work of good people, even if results take time to evolve.

* Team managers should be responsible for monitoring progress and closing down pathways that have lost their direction.

* Responsibility for the results rests with those making the decisions and doing the work.

* Good work by teams and individuals must be well rewarded.

To set up such a system requires courage at a senior level of the organisation and a careful selection of the personnel involved, with imaginative team leaders having a role in finding their own teams. The organisation must be committed to long-term investment. Everyone involved must have the enthusiasm to carry on even when results are slow to come. A high proportion of projects will fail to meet their apparent initial potential. It must be acceptable to fail as part of the learning process leading to later success. Small start-up companies often have many of these characteristics, but without the investment level and access to facilities of a larger organisation.

The useful synergy of university based KTPs providing research back-up to SMEs is clearly supported by this line of thinking but needs much better access to funding. Larger organisations often have the capacity for this form of activity, but shareholders foster conservative thinking and rarely support this kind of long-term commitment. The Lockheed Martin example shows that big organisations must make a big commitment so that good results happen often enough to keep the shareholders, and the other stakeholders, happy.
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Title Annotation:Levels of Design
Author:Ledsome, Colin
Publication:Engineering Designer
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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