Jax Wechsler

Design Artefacts & Innovation

Here is a copy of an essay I recently write for a publication.

Scaffolding Innovation Through Design Artefacts

This short essay will reflect learnings from a case-study I am working on as part of my masters research. My thesis constitutes a practice-based research project about a specific human-centered design project for a large company which I worked on as an independent consultant. My research seeks to explore the potential for design artefacts (that is visual representations and models used within the process of design) for enabling cross-disciplinary collaboration, conversation and empathy for customers amongst diverse internal audience groups in order to enable innovation within the organisation.

Businesses and governments are turning to design as a way to facilitate sustainable economic, social and environmental innovation globally. Strategic design consultancies are popping up all over the world to help organisations innovate through design and the popular business press is reflecting this trend with an increasing number of related publications. There is an increasing demand for design professionals to fulfill an increasing number of emergent design roles such as that of the service designer, the design strategist and the experience designer to cater for this demand for strategic design capability. There is also growing discussion about customer-centricity, customer-experience, design-led innovation and human-centred design practices in both business and design publications and blogs.

In 1969 Simon put forward the notion that design is a process of transforming actual situations into preferred ones; and innovation, or rather the generation of novelty, is considered an inherent aspect of the profession of design (Lawson, 2006). Innovation is a powerful shaping force for both the history and the future of human-kind. Essentially, innovation is concerned with change and in our current economic and environmental landscape many are putting forward the notion that, to borrow Tim Brown’s words, we need “change by design” (Brown 2009). Innovation involves continuous and iterative change and requires on-going conversation and collaboration between multiple people with divergent perspectives, mental-models, motivations and affiliations. Innovation rests on ideas and their execution, both of which depend on people.

Designers can help to scaffold innovation through mediating cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration through the provision of well designed artefacts. A ‘scaffold’ can be defined as:

“A temporary platform, either supported from below or suspended from above, on which workers sit or stand when performing tasks at heights above the ground.” – The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2000)

The term ‘scaffolding’ is used in the title of this essay as it refers to organisational members being enabled to undertake work related tasks in order to create tangible structures. This paper will put forward the view that designers can help to scaffold innovation through the delivery of consciously crafted design artefacts which can be used by staff members to enable and facilitate service improvement initiatives i.e. incremental innovation (“doing better than what we already do” – Norman & Verganti 2012, p. 5).

Design is a social practice which can be described as an individual activity that takes place with-in a social context (e.g. Bucchiarelli 1994). Designers need to build consensus amongst a number of stakeholders and act as facilitators within the context of design-led innovation initiatives. Senge (1990) maintains that innovation stems from the ‘creative tension’ between current realities and future possibilities. For innovation to occur, future possibilities which compliment the values of its participants (i.e. both internal staff as well as customers) need to be defined, articulated, and communicated. Artefacts can play an important role in communicating this design knowledge and helping to enable collaboration and conversation across business units, which is extremely important given the notion that innovation stems from collaboration and knowledge sharing across organisational boundaries (Fagerberg, Mowery, & Nelson, 2005).

Design artefacts can be considered as mediating devices that can inform innovation initiatives within the organisation in various ways. These include; the provision of models and frameworks for collaboration and conversation between members of different functional groups within the organisation; as mechanisms to bring the perspective of the customer into the organisation; as well as the provision of visualisations that make complex non-tangible systems and services seem more tangible and discussable. By considering the environment in which a design artefact functions, its purpose and its qualities, artefacts can be created by designers to support and scaffold the innovation efforts of individuals and groups within organisational settings.

Where innovation is reliant on people and their ability to converse, collaborate and share knowledge and ideas, designers should consciously design their artefacts in ways that can effectively support these activities within organisations. A real opportunity exists for designers to help facilitate and support innovation initiatives within organisational contexts through the delivery of consciously crafted design artefacts.


Brown, T., 2009, Change by design: how design thinking transforms organisations inspires innovation, Harper Collins NY, USA.

Bucciarelli, L.L. 1994, Designing Engineers, MIT Press Cambridge MA, USA.

Fagerberg, J., Mowery, D.C., & Nelson, R.R(eds) 2005, The Oxford Handbook of Innovation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Lawson, B. R. 1990, How Designers Think, Butterworth Architecture, London,UK.

Norman, D. A., & Verganti, R. 2012, “Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research Versus Technology and Meaning Change” Accessed on 3rd May at 6:30pm at http://precipice-design.intuitwebsites.com/Norman___Verganti__Design_Research___Innovation-18_Mar_2012.pdf

Senge, P, 1990, The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday, NY, USA.

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