An innovation perspective on design: part 1

Michael Hobday, Anne Boddington, Andrew Grantham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper analyzes innovation and design from a management and economic perspective. The management sciences, innovation studies, economics, and the social sciences in general have, traditionally, paid little attention to design as a core creative industrial and economic activity. This situation is now changing as innovation and management studies increasingly recognize the technical and wider role of design in business and economic activity. Within the social sciences, including management studies, one might think that one of the natural “homes” of design research and teaching would be innovation studies—a well-established subject area that focuses on the role of research and development (R&D), engineering, science, and technology in the economy. However, with the exception of a stream of important product development and design management research, this expectation is not fulfilled. As this paper makes clear, within mainstream innovation studies, design has been largely absent from theory, teaching, textbooks, and research. The purpose of this paper is therefore to provide an “innovation studies” perspective on design, focusing on design in business and the economy. This approach can be seen as part of a broader question of where design could be positioned within the social sciences as the subject expands across an increasingly wide range of business and social activity. Design potentially might thrive in many areas within the social sciences, including strategy, entrepreneurship, and marketing in the business management area, as well as in sociological, organizational science, and economic fields. In this paper we argue that by developing an innovation perspective on design, and a design perspective on innovation, both fields stand to gain. The idea of the paper is to critically examine the role of design in business and the economy from an innovation viewpoint. First, we provide definitions and perspectives on the terms, “design” and “innovation,” helping to define the boundary conditions of both subjects. Second, we assess the treatment of design in innovation studies. More often than not, design is either treated in passing or entirely overlooked. This section also asks why this neglect happens, given the recognized importance of design in innovation. Finally, we assess the design discourse from an innovation and social science perspective, showing how design as a human-centered, core creative activity in business challenges the overly scientific, rational view of the firm and many of the standard intervention tools of innovation management. Part 2 of this paper (in an upcoming issue of Design Issues) builds on this analysis to illustrate the gains that can be achieved by bringing the fields of innovation studies and design/design thinking closer together.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-15
Number of pages11
JournalDesign Issues
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011

Bibliographical note

© 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This work has been supported by investment from the University of Brighton’s “Research Challenge” initiative designed to stimulate new and emerging fields of research.


  • Design
  • Design thinking
  • Innovation studies
  • Management


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