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Design Fundamentals

Tools and techniques to foster innovation.
April 1, 2011

Editor’s note: Today we open a new report in Business Impact at Technology Review: Design as a Business Strategy. We are exploring how successful products, services, and customer experiences are designed, and how technology is changing the way design is carried out.

Iterations of inspiration: This is a rendering of the VOVA Lamp designed by the Hines + Dibrova Studio in New York. To refine the design, the creators used open-source 3-D software known as Blender to examine the different ways the lamp’s structure could diffuse light.

From running shoes to car seats, from buildings to smart phones, from blockbuster movies to MRI machines, we live in a world that somebody imagined, designed, and created.

In recent years, the word “design” has entered the popular business lexicon. Major magazines feature design on their covers, some awarding yearly prizes and others providing daily blogs. No fewer than 40 books on design thinking have been published in North America in the past 18 months.

The reason: design can help businesses distinguish between new ideas that matter and ones that don’t. It can transform and shape them to fit into people’s lives in the most meaningful, stirring way. As such, design is a bridge between invention and innovation.

But “design” means remarkably different things to different people. It can be the way an object looks and performs. It can be a plan for action. It can be a finished product. Though these multiple meanings serve different functions, they can also confuse. While many managers claim to incorporate a design practice into their business, they often apply only one or two aspects. As a result, they exploit only a small portion of design’s deep potential.

This month’s package in Business Impact will explore design fundamentals. By understanding the fundamental processes of design while taking advantage of evolving design tools, companies can create better products, smarter services, more elegant solutions, and, ultimately, better businesses.


It’s natural for most managers to think of “design” as a noun. They focus on a product’s surface properties: the shape of the chair or the elements of a Web page. Traditionally, business schools have treated design as a static quality—the beautiful, functional, and sustainable aspects of a product that feel just right.

But think of “design” as a verb and instantly it takes on movement and purpose. To design is to envision, to plan, to clarify, to build, to enrich. As we shift our focus from noun to verb, design becomes dynamic—a vigorous approach to solving problems, identifying new opportunities, and creating great solutions.

Ask a designer to describe the steps it took to arrive at a winning solution and you’ll hear some core principles: conduct research to generate insight; envision solutions that embody unifying concepts, ideas, or stories; build prototypes, endless numbers of prototypes, while continually testing, refining, and improving them; clarify meaningful experiences people will have with the product; consider larger ecosystems and complete life cycles. Design is not a single activity; it is an organic collection of interconnected practices that create value.

Framing “design” as both a noun and a verb offers useful ways to apply design within the workplace. The noun provides teams with clear targets for success. And the verb propels individuals to coordinate their work in fresh ways. Good design-as an end as well as a means-can be taught. Individuals, teams, and organizations improve with shared vocabularies and activities.

Technology is transforming design in both senses of the word. As tools become cheaper, more accessible, and more sophisticated, they change how people work and what they can possibly create.


Design begins as a way of thinking—the trick of looking at the world with the intent to improve people’s experiences. A designer’s goal, then, is to seek insight, uncover deeper dynamics, reframe problems, and strive to find holistic, unexpected solutions.

Consider how Barry Sternlicht, CEO of Westin Hotels and Resorts, improved his guests’ experiences. Studying the full journey a guest makes during a hotel visit, from entering a property to checkout, Sternlicht realized that the guest spends 80 percent of that time in bed. Rather than focusing mainly on other customer “touch points,” he introduced the plush “Heavenly Bed,” a quality mattress graced with high-thread-count white sheets. Franchisees initially fought the innovation-after all, cheap beds and beige sheets were easier to manage. But the beds were a massive hit, accounting for increased market share, increased customer satisfaction, and global growth. Demand for “Heavenly Beds” was so intense that Westin sold them directly to guests, racking up $11 million in its first year.

Insight, like inspiration, favors the prepared mind, benefiting from time spent thinking and musing. Increasingly, the act of generating insight is becoming a facilitated process that involves mapping out intangibles of business.

Technology, particularly the wide range of Web-based collaboration tools, is rapidly extending the way managers can generate insight. Quantifying online behavior, mapping consumer experiences, and mashing customer data now reveal trends previously unimaginable. The beauty of insight is that one never knows where and when the next great idea will come from.


Design is a public process, not a personal event. Design is not just a matter of seeking random inspiration or generating ideas. Much of the creative process is about exercising critical judgment and testing ideas as they occur. Creative design involves a kind of constant dialogue between speculation and judgment. The designer asks: Is this right? Does this work? Does that feel right? Does it look right?

That intertwining of critical judgment with imaginative speculation is the DNA of the design process. It’s true in the arts, in the sciences, and certainly in business. Most of the things that are true about creativity are exemplified in the process of design.

Before Google revamped its Web site in May 2010, its design teams produced hundreds upon hundreds of sketches, creating alternatives that were “un-Google.” The point was to expand the range of possibilities and test assumptions. The act of making these options visible kept the design team focused and exploring. Continually sorting, refining, and ranking the pages on large physical studio boards helped the teams come to a critical insight and alignment. In a way, it’s ironic that the world’s largest digital company uses analog tools to help clarify its work. Large wall boards, which allow teams to see everyone’s ideas simultaneously, illustrate both big-picture ideas and details in a project. There is a reason why design studios accommodate many sketches, drawings, and illustrations: to ensure the iterative process of speculation remains open and full of momentum. Google’s design team saw a rich set of options that created parallel, structured conversations.

However, digital tools can also magnify and accelerate the iterative process by exposing alternatives, improvements, and refinements to a wider audience. Open-source software is a prime example of this principle at work.


Designers build to think-and think to build. Prototyping is the act of making ideas visible, tangible, and persistent. Whether sketched, drawn, tinkered with, or assembled, prototypes help teams think out loud with pictures and objects.

In a recent study of 500 manufacturers, companies were analyzed for their rate of growth and profitability. High-growth, highly profitable companies shared one trait: the relative number of prototypes they built.

High-value manufacturers-makers of cars, engines, boats, airplanes-build more prototypes than average or low-value manufacturers. They also bring their products to market 54 days sooner, at 10 percent lower cost, with fewer defects. And, not surprisingly, they win more design and innovation awards.

Building prototypes is a winning formula for manufactured goods. But it’s also crucial for the creation of software, services, and other solutions. Collectively, we become smarter when we have a public prototype to evaluate.

Technology may have its greatest impact on design by enabling digital prototypes. In virtually every industry, it is becoming possible and expected to create digital representations of objects before they are physically fabricated.

In architecture, the practice is called Building Information Modeling. BIM enables designers to create digital simulations of a house or commercial structure, large or small, and evaluate its properties-structural integrity, cost, speed to build, heating and cooling patterns-before ground is broken. In manufacturing, the practice is called digital prototyping; in cinema, virtual cinematography. In each instance, teams can make their mistakes up front and early, at low cost.


Design used to be associated with the creation of objects, but increasingly, its focus has shifted from object to experience. This evolution has been driven by the growing recognition that good design does not exist merely inside the three-dimensional envelope of a made object.

Experience design is not about the thing itself but about what happens when people interact and engage with that thing: What does the design make them think? How does it make them feel? Can it somehow improve or enrich their lives? Does it anticipate and respond to needs that may vary over time?

Designing an intangible experience can be more complex than designing a solid object. In fact, technically, it’s impossible: one cannot actually design an experience for others-experience happens inside each individual’s head. But designers can shape and orchestrate many elements to inform the experience of interacting with a product, digital medium, or service. When designers get all the bits and pieces of experience design just right, the results can amaze.

Consider the successful multiplayer role-playing game World of Warcraft. Designers create activities that satisfy players’ deep emotional needs. At times, the game provides a feeling of connection and camaraderie through “guilds,” in which players team up to accomplish goals. At other times, the game helps individuals stand out. World of Warcraft can provide a feeling of certainty at one moment and crushing tension at another. The game is addictive because its creators understood human psychology, how to create a sense of flow, and the pacing of anticipation and payoff.


Increasingly, professional designers are trained to be systems thinkers.  Approaching a design in the context of a larger ecosystem provides teams with new ways of approaching complex challenges.

Systems orientations are growing in popularity and diversity. “Biomimicry,” a term introduced by biologist Janine Benyius, has to do with interpreting a challenge as a biological process. Its results: creating paint that is self-cleaning, by mimicking the surface properties of beetle shells, and the production of propellers that are 40 percent more efficient because they copy the pattern of the flow of water spiraling through a drain.

Here too technology is propelling the act of design forward. Advances in modeling technologies can produce simulations of entire ecosystems and complex behaviors. The result is that digital tools will be able to prototype not just an object but the behavior of that object within a much larger environment. As computational power continues to expand, designers will be able to model entire cities on their desktops and optimize sophisticated supply chains, bringing sustainability and manufacturability together with profitability.


Design, as a way to solve problems, discover opportunities, and create new objects and experiences, is reaching more people and equipping them with remarkable tools.

Even as technology advances, good design remains a distinctly human endeavor—one that begins with the spark of creativity and is nurtured through a disciplined, iterative process.

The key to incorporating design into a business is the same as the key to incorporating any innovative practice. Establish a vocabulary, define goals that mean success, and steer behavior. Create the environments to enable teams to envision, plan, and prototype products and experiences that fit the needs of larger systems.

Good design isn’t limited to what we see in showrooms, glossy catalogs, and architecture magazines—those are limited, predictable views of the products of design. Rather, design is a powerful force in addressing business and social challenges. So while design is often treated as a “matter of taste,” the truth is, in this larger context, it can be clearly seen as a matter of prosperity, progress, and even survival.

Tom Wujec is a fellow at Autodesk, a maker of software used by architects, artists, and designers in manufacturing, engineering, and the entertainment industry.

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