Design, Meanings, and Radical Innovation: A Metamodel and a Research Agenda


  • *This paper is the result of a decade of research on design-driven innovation, which benefited from collaborations and interactions with several scholars. For their insightful inspirations and comments, I gratefully thank Tommaso Buganza, Claudio Dell'Era, and Alessio Marchesi (at the School of Management of Politecnico di Milano); Ezio Manzini, Francesco Zurlo, Giuliano Simonelli, and Francois Jegou (at the School of Design of Politecnico); Jim Utterback, Bengt-Arne Vedin, Eduardo Alvarez, Sten Ekman, Susan Sanderson, and Bruce Tether (of the DFPI project); Alan MacCormack, Rob Austin, Douglas Holt, Gianfranco Zaccai, the participants to the Lisbon conference “Bridging Operations and Marketing: New Product Development,” and all manufacturers interviewed in these years, especially Alberto Alessi, Gloria Barcellini, Carlotta De Bevilacqua, and Ernesto Gismondi. Financial support from the FIRB fund “ART DECO—Adaptive InfRasTructures for DECentralized Organizations” is also gratefully acknowledged.

Address correspondence to: Roberto Verganti, Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Piazza L. da Vinci 32, 20133 Milano, Italy. Tel.: +39 02 2399 2770. Fax: +39 02 2399 2720. E-mail:


Recent studies on design management have helped us to better comprehend how companies can apply design to get closer to users and to better understand their needs; this is an approach usually referred to as user-centered design. Yet analysis of design-intensive manufacturers such as Alessi, Artemide, and other leading Italian firms shows that their innovation process hardly starts from a close observation of user needs and requirements. Rather, they follow a different strategy called design-driven innovation in this paper. This strategy aims at radically change the emotional and symbolic content of products (i.e., their meanings and languages) through a deep understanding of broader changes in society, culture, and technology. Rather than being pulled by user requirements, design-driven innovation is pushed by a firm's vision about possible new product meanings and languages that could diffuse in society. Design-driven innovation, which plays such a crucial role in the innovation strategy of design intensive firms, has still remained largely unexplored. This paper aims at providing a possible direction to fill this empty spot in innovation management literature. In particular, first it proposes a metamodel for investigating design-driven innovation in which a manufacturer's ability to understand, anticipate, and influence emergence of new product meanings is built by relying on external interpreters (e.g., designers, firms in other industries, suppliers, schools, artists, the media) that share its same problem: to understand the evolution of sociocultural models and to propose new visions and meanings. Managing design-driven innovation therefore implies managing the interaction with these interpreters to access, share, and internalize knowledge on product languages and to influence shifts in sociocultural models. Second, the paper proposes a possible direction to scientifically investigate the management of this networked and collective research process. In particular, it shows that the process of creating breakthrough innovations of meanings partially mirrors the process of creating breakthrough technological innovations. Studies of design-driven innovation may therefore benefit significantly from the existing body of theories in the field of technology management. The analysis of the analogies between these two types of radical innovations (i.e., meanings and technologies) allows a research agenda to be set for exploration of design-driven innovation, a relevant as well as underinvestigated phenomenon.