I recently paid a visit to the university where I graduated and then taught for a number of years.

The occasion was a twenty year celebration of a program teaching design, and I was invited to speculate as to how it could become more conducive to innovation moving forward.

I’m not very good at predicting the future and I also find that the students of this program – many of whom I’ve employed over the years – are already extraordinary. Nevertheless I felt obliged to give the question my best shot, so spent numerous long walks thinking about the nature of innovation and how it relates to design.

Starting with innovation. I see it as a process rather than a product, a verb rather than a noun. It’s an exploratory activity, a movement that happens in one of two directions. Either starting as an invention seeking its purpose, or as a problem looking for a solution. It involves either getting out of, or into the lab. In both instances, it means tinkering with tech, as well as interacting with individuals.

Design on the other hand, is a lot harder to pin down.

It can be seen as a *mode*. Much like athleticism, photography or motorcycle maintenance, it’s both something you do, and something which represents a body of knowledge, a particular way of seeing the world.

To artists and craftsmen, design tends to revolve around taste, whereas a more analytical perspective prevails when the discipline is studied in academia.

In the lucrative middle ground, we find the professionals at design agencies.

Out of this industry, grew a body of knowledge known as Design Thinking.It provides a framework for iterative re-evaluation of a specific problem. It’s also optimised for arriving at a good enough solution within a given budget and / or time frame.

What it doesn’t do is help you think “outside of the box”. The reason for that is simple: it was created exactly to operate optimally within the box provided by a paying customer.

Outside of the proverbial box is the wide open design space where you’re neither told what problems to solve nor what technological avenues to pursue. It’s where the fundamental assumptions are spawned which will later be fed into the (boxed) validation process. However efficient that process is, the value of its outcome will always be limited by the quality of its input. Or to say it rudely: shit in, shit out.

So the question becomes: how can we train people to get better at seeing what problems are worth solving? In order to answer, let’s look at the current ideals when it comes to design education.

The perfect design practitioner is said to be “T-shaped”. What that means is she’s got a basic understanding of a broad range of subjects, combined with a deep expertise in one particular area.

I’ve written before about the challenge with making T-shaped people work well together. It can be summed up as so: the deeper their vertical expertise, the thinner their horizontal knowledge tends to be. And since the horizontal axis affects our capacity for playing nice with others, that means collaboration gets harder.

(The post referred to above takes DeepMind as an example, I’ve since then written two posts about how competence is seen and valued when recruiting astronauts (and also spies)).


One merit of the idea with T-shaped competencies, is so obvious it tends to escape our observation: It’s an image, an analogy meant to help us understand the world.

So I ask myself what another image could be. One that doesn’t necessarily replace the T, but can complement it. What I come up with, is the sponge.


A sponge is an example of a form factor maximising surface area to build capacity for absorption.

Absorbing the world such as it is, both its problems and its potentials, is key to being able to create innovation that matters, in my opinion. So helping future design students cultivate their capacity for absorption would probably be a good idea, but how could it be done?

First of all a sponge can only absorb when it’s wrung out. By that analogy, we need to get good at emptying our minds of preconceived ideas about the world. To create what zen Buddhists refer to as a beginner’s mind.

To quote the great Robert M. Pirsig:

There’s an old analogy to a cup of tea. If you want to drink new tea you have to get rid of the old tea that’s in your cup, otherwise your cup just overflows and you get a wet mess. Your head is like that cup. It has a limited capacity and if you want to learn something about the world you should keep your head empty in order to learn it. It’s very easy to spend your whole life swishing old tea around in your cup thinking it’s great stuff because you’ve never really tried anything new, because you could never get it in, because the old stuff prevented its entry because you were so sure the old stuff was so good, because you never really tried anything new… on an on in an endless circular pattern.

Lila, An Inquiry Into Morals

Immersion comes next.

Stop here and ask yourself: when was the last time you left the comfort of your keyboard and initiated direct verbal contact with someone outside of your immediate social circle? If you’re anything like most people, it’s probably been a while.

Yet we *know* that good design – and relevant innovation – can only happen when we break through the barrier of the bubble which defines our current view of the world, and there’s nothing like interacting with strangers to make that happen.

Contrary to popular belief, the capacity for immersion has little to do with whether you’re born an extrovert or not. It’s a skill that can be acquired, and nowhere is that skill better honed than when practicing journalism.

The way to be a reporter differs much from what we think of as normal behaviour.

Given the sheer volume and variety of people you’re forced to interact with, there’s simply no room for the social anxieties that, to some extent, we’re all born with.

You soon realise, for example, that instead of stopping someone in the street with “Would it be ok if I asked you some questions…”, you simply ask them. Point blank. It’s going to feel slightly rude at first, but then you realise that it helps getting the job done and that most people won’t even have noticed that you had to step out of your comfort zone.

Apart from little tricks like that (of which there are many), a reporter also quickly learn the value of volume.

Starting out with a certain story in mind, the more people you talk to on your way to the deadline, the more you deviate from where you thought you were going, and the truer your story become. Which is to say: you learn to really listen, and not just to the voices that confirms your own view, but to lots of people.

I think designers would do well to take a page from journalists. If they did, we’d see more interesting problems being solved.