Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Professor Roberto Verganti, Politecnico di Milano & Copenhagen Business School

I was delighted to welcome Professor Roberto Verganti to the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design and Aston University on Monday 20th September.  Having been a keen follower of his work it was a pleasure to meet the Professor in person and be able to introduce him to some of the assembled guests who were also keen to hear his thoughts on design and innovation.  Professor Verganti was speaking at the first in our first Visiting Lecture series 'Design Built-In', jointly hosted by BIAD, the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, and Aston University, and supported by The Birmingham Post.

I have posted my notes of his lecture below with some very useful additional insights added from Charles Morgan, as he was also attending. We were delighted to welcome other business guests including representatives from Jaguar, Brintons Carpets and Triumph Motorcycles as well as representatives from other universities, together with our own lecturers and students. My thanks too to our Dean, Prof Chris O'Neil, BIAD and Dr Geoff Tansley Head of Group at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Aston, Sue Urwin and Christian McLening from Aston.

My blog of this lecture appears on the Birmingham Post Business Blog website at

The Secret of Design Classics that Sell
Prof Verganti is an electronic engineer by training.  He teaches the management of innovation. 

If Italy is good at design – why? 

Famous Alessi Tea Kettle with Bird
designed by architect Michael Graves
 Italy ranks somewhere in the last 6 or 7 for innovation in the EU.  In fact, most Italian design is not by Italian designers, so you could say that Italians are not good at design.  Most innovative companies in Italy launch products which are designed by foreigners – Starck, Graves, etc.  The famous ‘Tea Kettle with bird’ was in fact designed by Michael Graves, an American architect.
If Italy has been good at anything it has been the management of design...Because design can come from everywhere.
Italy has an approach to the management of design which is ‘quite peculiar’.  There is a strong connection with education involved – elementary and high school levels.  Italy is very strong in humanities, but weak in technologies. 
As a science student at school Prof Verganti studied Latin for 5 years and 3 years of Physics. 
People don’t buy products because they need them anymore, they buy them because they love them, e.g. Alessi.
This fact seems to escape the notice of a lot of the Business Schools – that you need to ‘fall in love with a product’ and to make people do this there is a different set of rules.
If people fall in love with a product then the chances are that they will stay in love with it, if not forever then for a long time.
e.g. Tea kettle with bird...How do you create a product like this?
1) What do you do?
2) How do you do this?
What sort of cluster approach?
1) What do you do?
Case Study: Wii
Released in 2006: competitors Playstation and xbox which Wii is outselling 2:1.  However before this Nintendo was losing ground to its competitors and Sony was the leading company.
Why is Nintendo winning?
1)      Not because of technology
Sony and Microsoft invested much more than Nintendo and were doing market analysis.  Teenagers were into ‘virtual reality worlds’ and wanting more and more realism in their experiences.  IBM developed a powerful integrated circuit board to deliver this – so powerful it was like a ‘radiator’!

2)      Nintendo Wii is not outselling the others based on its style which is ‘pedestrian’.
3)      Nintendo Wii – what is different is the experience – this is completely different.  They changed the meaning of that particular virtual reality experience of gaming. The Wii remote control has an ‘accelerometer’, so you play in the real world and as a result when you’re playing games you now socialise better, interacting with a depiction of the real actions on the screen. Wii ‘innovated the experience’ ensuring that it was not isolated in VR.
Creating things that are more meaningful makes more sense to people.  Companies that manage to do this will win sales.  Technology and style do not always have to be the key differentiators for success.
The ‘Etymology of Design’, the word comes from ‘Designare’ which means to make sense of things, to designate meaning. Signalling that something has more meaning, this is ‘radical innovation’.
How can companies innovate the meaning of things?
The product’s ‘meaning’ is the bit that makes people love your product.  Everything we do, see, we always give meaning to things in our lives. 
Services have meaning too.  An example is – Kenyan telecoms business – started a service for money transfer because telecoms businesses are ‘trusted’ in Kenya.  In 3 months from launch of service they had 6m subscriptions for a service that relied on fairly basic SMS technology.
Intuit, a US business producing accounting packages for small businesses,‘Quick Books’ was doing something 27 businesses were already doing, but Intuit sold these books to business people ‘who did not want to do accounting’ differentiating their product through clear meaning.
Their philosophy was to produce products that are ‘designed for delight’
This is an example of radical innovation.
This is what Alessi did in 1991.

A British psychologist, Donald Winnicott,
who highlighted the importance of transitional objects – for example the Teddy Bear, security blanket, objects that help children make the transition from toddlers to a more independent state, put simply a substitute for mum and essential for sleepovers! None of this came from user research.  Alessi was trying to transform the kitchenware into transitional objects linked to affection.  But if you invest in a product with extra meaning people tend to buy two, one for themselves and one for a friend!  Perhaps it’s also why people fall in love with objects and become passionate about other people buying one.
2)      How do you do this – change meaning?
Innovation books tend to look at two themes to do this –
1)      User-centred design
2)      Ideas needed for innovation

“By looking at what users do we learn how to design a better shopping cart.” David Kelly, IDEO

The process starts with users.
Books such as -
The Wisdom of Crowds’ James Surowiecki

Innovation Tournaments’ – Christian Terwiesch and Karl T Ulrick

Some companies make changes to products to suit different users, ie phones for girls, phones for businessmen, but it seems the iPhone suits everyone. Formerly successful companies tend to go into decline because they fail to come up with new products that change meanings (an example quoted was Bang & Olaffson, the electrical goods maker.)

What is the right direction ? 

The views of some Italian radical innovators....

“Market, what market, We do not look at the market.  We make proposals to people” Ernesto Gismondi, Artemide.

“Each object represents a tendency, a proposal and an indication of progress which has a more cultural resonance.” Alberto Alessi.

“We don’t use consumer focus groups.  We got a lot of feedback from developers.”

“A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

If you want radical innovation then you have to think about how you can change the meaning of the products/services that people will love.

To change the meaning of a product you need to do more than add technical features. Breakthroughs in technology can help achieve a great design but this is seldom enough for complete success or to give a product a new meaning with the massive sales and interest that follows.

A problem is that there are often many ways of changing the meaning of a product.  Creative designers tend to be rather good at spotting these different meanings.  Some of the uses they put objects to can often seem rather unreal. However there tends to be only one real change of meaning that hits the spot and therefore only one successful winner overall.

A way of changing the meaning of a product as well as creating success is...for designers to become great interpreters of meaning and to make proposals to companies of different changes of meaning but also the understand the need for research.

‘Interpreters’ have the big picture in their sights...

                                Cultural orgs       Anthropologists                                Media
                Artists                                   Marketers                                                           People


Pioneering                                            Firm/interpreter
Technologies                                                                                                     Retail and                                                                                                                                                                            Delivery              
                                Suppliers                                                             Designers
                                                                Firms in other

How can we make a person feel better?
Working with other businesses in different sectors can be surprisingly helpful at times – they may have insights into materials and what they mean for users enabling knowledge transfer.
Usually companies don’t realise that they have ‘Interpreters’ among them.  But they need a big network of interpreters to do radical change to see user-experience from a different perspective.
Alessi works with over 90 designers from all over the world.... Always trying to find the next talent that can take them ahead of the competition again in innovating the meaning.
They will try their proposals first with their colleagues and ask does this make you feel better?  Artemide (Italian lighting manufacturers wanted a light that made people feel better when they came home from work and switched it on. They made hundreds of prototypes and subjected them to ‘in house’ research!  They eventually made one of the most successful lamps in the world.
Famous designers tend to be great interpreters of meaning.  They have the ability to create products we did not think we needed but which become essential to our lives.  Famous designers also tend to get stuck in a rut after one great design or they keep being asked to repeat a previous success (Frank Gehry is constantly being asked to repeat the success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao and Richard Sapper has been very successful with Tizio, his famous design for Artemide, which has been re-worked.
You don’t always get something new by hiring the most famous designers around. 
How do you find Interpreters?
Instead of hiring from outside it might prove better to create the research environment for designers to try out their ideas. Good designers are typically pretty radical (tight trousers, pointy shoes, etc!) so they need a circle of differening talents to work with.  The inspiration often comes from designing in either a beautiful natural or stimulating fashionable environment or both (e.g. Lombardy, Florence, Malvern or London!)  A research laboratory is the ideal place where they can try out their ideas on their colleagues and collaborators.  Furthermore they should subject their proposals to as many collaborators in different fields as possible. 
Most radical people succeed when they are in ‘circles’, e.g. The Impressionists’ were shunned by mainstream art at that time so formed their own circle.  In the case of Ettore Sottsass - Ernesto Gismondi funded Ettore’s radical circle and imposed no conditions on their work but gave them the freedom to experiment and produce the products they needed to in order to radically innovate the meaning.
The radical designer who has the vision of the new meaning has to ask his colleagues to perform this practical research.  They then decide whether for them it changes the meaning of the product successfully and whether they fall in love with the new product.
The interaction between a circle of designers who are interpreters of meaning, respected collaborators and their peers who can think outside the box, will make for a great design school that should successfully discover new meaning for old products.
Radical innovators have a profound vision, to have this you need to do research.  Ettore did his research experimenting with product design.   Many artists get fixated on an area and experiment around that theme for ages – e.g. Raffaello and the ‘Virgin and Child’ theme which he took, in turn, from his master, Perugino. 
Below are some of the key differences listed by Prof Verganti as distinguishing Radical Design from incremental design.

Depth research
Robustness of Vision
No. and variety of ideas
Vision of Society
Culturally neutral
Attitude to
Challenging the dominant
Play with the existing

If you’re a designer you have a vision of reality.
Having ideas versus having a Vision – article March 10, 2010, Harvard Business Review:
3)      Clusters

Networks have lifecycles. Things are somewhat static in Milan at present, become a bit stale.
Entrepreneurs have aged and finding it hard to breathe in new life.
Furniture Fair every April and there are always the same names are there.  The trick is to find some new interpreters.
Alberto Alessi has already re-invented his business at least three times.

Lombardy when rated against other Design Clusters was weaker than them on many dimensions, except when it came to the quality of their network.  The best links between busineses were found there.  London was best for design. 

Some of the ‘Distinguishing features between Innovators and Imitators’ include –

% working with
External designers          
Avg number of
Design firms in portfolio               

% designers with degree
In architecture 
% designers with degree
In engineering                  
% designers with degree
In industrial design
% non Italian designers

Most innovative companies have a lot of networks.  They have collaborative strategies in design and knowledge diversity innovation based on long range planning.

Networks for innovation need to be larger to get quality and depth of feedback required to have real insights into products.
Don’t assume people know what they mean – propose a new meaning.
Develop meaningful scenarios working with interpreters.
Identify and attract interpreters from outside your normal network
Move outside of this network to gain different perspectives....New meaning and references – especially with regard to well trodden themes –e.g. sustainability,

Imitators have poor Identity because they do a bit of everything.   Strong companies ahve strong vision and have fewer products.

Professor Verganti has been consulting with a lot of companies and strong brand companies become very conservative.  They don't want to spoil the brand they’ve created or inherited and eventually they die out.  90% of products are in the market-pull category but when he works with businesses he asks them if they are creating their future.  You do need the right designer – no good just having any old designer.  Bit like a dentist we all have one, but do we have the right one for our needs.

Professor Roberto Verganti

Beverley Nielsen
22nd September 2010

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