For that reason, according to Sutton, it is important to create, create and create, so that some ideas will actually make it to the end. Communication plays a central role in the development of successful innovation – success meaning that which can be implemented. The creation of a mutual understanding of interests, motivations, fears and objections from all the disciplines involved in the innovation process is certainly a key issue in developing successful projects.

Finding a common language that is able to glue together all the parties may be the key to what Renée Mauborgne, Distinguished Fellow and Affiliate Professor of Strategy and Management at INSEAD in Paris, once called the three potential innovation barriers: employees, consumers and society.

Mauborgne explained: “Employees may reject a new concept because they perceive it as a threat that may reduce available resources or change the power structures in a company.

"Consumers may reject a new idea through failure to understand what it can offer them or because they do not have the necessary supporting infrastructure. Society may reject innovation because it does not clearly understand what is being proposed or why, and because it fears the implications.”

Apart from being one of the players within the innovation process, design is, by its nature, also the linking element between the end user and the manufacturer: such a role as a ‘bridging element’ provides design with a cutting edge element that could make its language the common language for all innovation players.

Such design would not work according to the established approach of the division of roles (industrial designers create products, graphic designers make communications, interaction designers develop interfaces...).

Rather, it would use multi-disciplinary research and the innate capacity of design to create ‘languages’ for strategic purposes to be delivered within a company as innovation engine drivers.

It is not new to see design as a strategic element within companies, either as an internal factor or outsourced through consultancies. The wording, strategic design, only a few years ago quite unused, has now become a more widespread practise. 

But what is strategic design? We have tried to describe it by following the work of Total Tool, a small strategic design consultancy in rapid expansion, with offices in Italy (the original head office), Spain and Japan.

Immediately after its creation, in 1999, Total Tool made its objective very clear. They were not a design agency, one of those to which you can ask to develop a brochure or a new product. They were a strategic design consultancy. 

The courage of such statement can only be understood when positioned within the Italian context in which design is almost naturally perceived as synonymous with industrial design, and as the historical carrier of values such a good taste, styling, up-to-the-minute fashion.

Its importance within the economic frame-work of the country as reference point of the “Made in Italy” campaign has made it difficult for the design profession to enlarge its horizons. 

The design that Total Tool proposes helps companies to bridge their internal decision making processes and the social, cultural, and economic evolution. Such design is very much a ‘creation process’, a way of thinking, fostering a relationship whose purpose is to help the company create value rather than selling a pre-packaged idea.

Designers here are consultants at 360 degrees, whose work is embedded in that of their clients, rather than superimposing itself as an add-on.

“We do not sell an aesthetic language but an approach, a philosophy, an outlook on things,” says Giulio Ceppi, Total Tool’s founder and Managing Director.

The starting point for the creation of such strategic design is the negation of the traditional split amongst the disciplines that make up the design profession.

“Strategic design is first of all a paradox,” says Giulio Ceppi. “It starts by denying to the traditional design disciplines (such as architecture, design, communications) their specific value – what they can offer as stand-alone disciplines.

At times we need to diminish what we could offer with one of our services to communicate the extremely higher value of the combined solution. In other words, we have to try to develop projects, rather than design products.”

Ceppi likes to describe the strategic designer as an ancient alchemist: someone who explores elective affinities amongst the different disciplines; someone who is at the same time architect, graphic designer, industrial designer, and researcher. 

The backbone to the creation process at Total Tool is a structured, value-based approach to branding. Such an approach is structured around four core values that become ‘lighthouses’ within the creation process, providing direction for all its activities – uniqueness, recognition, coherence, innovation.

The actual creation process, then, embeds a cultural framework (provided by technology and cultural trends), and aims at envisioning new solutions, working in parallel in the areas of communication, environment creation and design. 

An example of how this approach has been successfully applied is the project Light Lighting (2001). Total Tool’s clients 3M and VLM (providers of lighting technologies) were looking for possible applications for their LED and optical fibre based micro-components.

Addressing the four values, Total Tool proposed to its clients to look at the issue from a wider perspective. A technology provider often runs the risk of disappearing behind the applications that it proposes, which, very often, are marketed by another company and brand. The Total Tool strategic approach aimed at carving a space for the technology providers as well as at generating new possible applications for the technologies.

First of all, they defined areas of potential application for the technologies, and they matched such findings through their cultural trends research. What emerged was that in the area of safety and security, LED technologies and optical fibres could truly play a role, and that there was a lot of potential within the areas of personal protection, comfort and communication.

Rather than addressing immediately the creation of new solutions within the areas identified, Total Tool contacted companies that could potentially become partners of 3M and VLM in the development of the new applications.

These ranged from safety equipment producers for high performance sports, to public security signalling companies, from highend furniture companies to car manufacturers, from personal accessories to bathroom decorators and fitters.

They also put together an impressive group of designers (amongst which Fabio Novembre and Vico Magistretti) who worked on a large number of ideas, all of which used the LED and optical fibres technologies with the aim of security within the domains that were represented by the potential partnering companies. 

The driving force for Total Tool was to create a joint platform (coherence) that could be actively communicated (recognition): 3M and VLM had to be the stagers of a communicable experience in which the selected new concepts (innovation) were the main protagonists. It was decided to create an exhibit, to be publicly presented at the Milan INTEL Fair in 2001, with the title Light Lighting.

Together with the exhibition, Total Tool provided a cultural backbone through the organisation of a congress that looked at the issue of new lighting technologies from very different angles, each one analysed by an expert of its own field: from architects to sociologists, from technologists to businessmen.

A project like Light Lighting provides a clear example of the added value that a strategic approach to design can provide. A design that is focused on the values that make up the brand experience provides companies with an all-embracing approach that addresses product innovation, business partnering, communication and branding. Through such an approach, design gains a strategic dimension and becomes a ‘total tool’, a tool for innovation.

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