Is there a formula for design innovation?

What's the first thing you do when you receive a new design brief? If it involves sitting down with your team and bouncing initial ideas around, you're doing it wrong.

That's according to Todd Rovak, managing partner of Fahrenheit 212, who explained his ideas to a receptive audience on the last day of Goa-based design conference Kyoorius Designyatra 2014.

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Rovak believes that innovation is a discipline that can be transformed from a random event into a predictable, scalable exercise – and he has a track record to prove it. Since joining the firm in 2009, he's masterminded successful projects across a wide array of industries, including financial serves, consumer electronics, technology and retail, leading to him becoming the firm's youngest parter in 2011.

So what can designers learn from Rovak's innovation strategy? Well, it's all about simplifying the problem – and knowing what a good idea looks like. We took five with him at Designyatra to find out more…

Todd Rovak speaking at Kyoorius Designyatra 2014

Todd Rovak speaking at Kyoorius Designyatra 2014

Tell us more about innovation strategy. Can you really predict innovation?

Innovation strategy – that's the period before ideas. Most firms, most people, love to go into ideation and just start brainstorming and creating tons and tons of ideas. Later they figure out if it's good business.

Innovation strategy is an entire phase where we don't come up with ideas. We narrow the problem: we take a really big problem and we make it smaller.

Can you give us an example?

We were once asked to come up with an urban store format for a client. When you go into the innovation strategy phase, you go through the 'four Cs' – the consumer, category, company and channel – and you find out, hang on, people live in smaller units, so they have less space. They have mobility issues because they may not have a car, so they're not going back and forth; and they rent, so they don't control their space – and they don't want to help their landlord. They hate their landlord!

Space, mobility and control: those aren't the problems of urban. Those are the problems of density. So we came up with an innovation strategy that said: you know what? We're going to solve for density.

If you're solving for urban, then New York doesn't look anything like London, or LA – which is all spread out. But density you can solve for. And if you come up with a model that works for density, you can make it international.

Innovation strategy takes the idea of creating a store and gives a much smaller problem to share. Then you come up with ideas and go wide. We came up with a bunch of ideas that were deeply creative – that we knew were already on the money, that were already operationally viable, that were already a hit with consumers.

Where are designers going wrong?

Everybody is obsessed with going bigger, but most firms have no idea how to first go small. And going small is the key to innovation. At some point you get to ask: is this idea on strategy? But if you start by going wide, no one needs it.

People say: "Oh, there are no bad ideas." Of course there are bad ideas! What's important is to understand what a good idea looks like, so that when you start that ideation process you're focused. You're using your time well – you don't want to come up with a million ideas and then hope one of them is accurate.

Innovation doesn't need to be mystical, or unpredictable. Success only happens when two sets of needs – consumer and business – are satisfied. It's money and magic. Innovation is a discipline: you can train, practice and get better.

To find out more about Rovak's innovation strategy, head over to the Fahrenheit 212 website.

Want more?

Don't miss our exclusive 'Secrets of branding strategy' feature in issue 234 of Computer Arts magazine, on sale 13 November.

We've talked to some of the world's leading design practices – including Pentagram, SapientNitro and Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv to find out how they approach brand strategy and tackle the unique challenges of today's branding projects.

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Julia Sagar
Editor-in-chief retail

Julia is editor-in-chief, retail at Future Ltd, where she works in e-commerce across a number of consumer lifestyle brands. A former editor of design website Creative Bloq, she’s also worked on a variety of print titles, and was part of the team that launched consumer tech website TechRadar. She's been writing about art, design and technology for over 15 years.