101 Design Methods

"Innovation has arrived, and it has made a huge splash in the world of business.  Except that it hasn’t."

- 101 Design Methods, page 1

Business leaders and the business media have been declaring the importance of innovation since at least the early 1990s.  You’d think all that attention would produce thousands of examples of successful innovation and that it would now be commonplace. Well, according to Vijay Kumar, the truth is that neither is the case.

In the introduction to 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization, Kumar tells us that less than 4% of innovation projects undertaken by businesses are proven successful.  Fear not, however, because Kumar’s book is not simply a criticism and analysis of organizations that have failed to innovate.  Instead, his book is meant to show readers how to innovate – again and again.

Kumar tells us that companies that manage to innovate consistently do so because they follow four core principles: they build innovations around experiences, they think of innovations as systems, they cultivate innovation cultures, and they adopt a disciplined innovation process. And he doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to share a disciplined process that utilizes seven modes of activity that, if followed, make innovation reliable, realizable, and repeatable.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The Seven Modes of Design Innovation

"...innovation planning’ is not an oxymoron.  Successful innovation can and should be planned and managed like any other organizational function."
- 101 Design Methods, page 7

How do you “plan” for successful innovation?  By managing through these seven modes of design innovation through the stages of research (R), analysis (A), synthesis (S) and realization (Real):

1. (R) Sense intent – in this mode our focus is on figuring out where to start. We know we want to innovate, but need to pause and consider all the changes occurring in business, technology, society, culture, policy and the like.

2. (R) Know context – this mode is about understanding the circumstances or events that affect the environment in which our innovation offerings (products, services, experiences, brands, etc.) exist or could exist.

3. R) Know people — in this mode we further our investigation by strengthening our understanding of the end users and other stakeholders of the innovation we are planning.

4. (A) Frame insights – in this mode we bring structure to what we’ve found in the previous three research oriented modes.

5. (S) Explore concepts – the next step is to use the insights and principles framed in the earlier modes as a place to generate ideas and concepts.

6. (S) Frame solutions – in this mode we build on the large sets of concepts resulting from the previous mode and combine them to form systems of concepts, or solutions.

7. (Real) Realize offerings – this mode is about testing prototypes, evaluating them, and then moving them to implementation.

Before listing the various tools and methods useful for each mode, Kumar discusses mindsets that will increase the probability that we will address the mode thoroughly.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Adopt 5 Useful Mindsets

"The mindset for Explore Concepts is to be creative and open to new, perhaps radical ideas and ways of thinking; but at the same time, keeping sight of human-centered and context-driven principles for success that were identified in earlier modes."
- 101 Design Methods, page 196

Each mode of the design innovation process has five mindsets associated with it.  Ideally, if you’re involved in an innovation project, you will engage in all of the mindsets.  Below are the five mindsets of the “explore concepts” mode:

  • Challenging Assumptions
  • Standing in the Future
  • Exploring Concepts at the Fringes
  • Seeking Clearly Added Value
  • Narrating Stories about the Future

While the time constraints of innovation projects would make it impossible for you to adopt every mindset Kumar lists, an awareness of mindsets will help you choose from methods of research, analysis, synthesis and realization more wisely.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

There's More than One Way to Skin a Cat

"Just as a master carpenter will expertly select a different set of tools depending whether he is building a house or a chair, the master innovator needs to be familiar with a variety of methods in order to choose them effectively for a given project."
- 101 Design Methods, page 13

One of the best things about Kumar’s book is that it provides so many methods to choose from.  In a previous summary I wrote for Actionable Books, I committed to learning more techniques for generating ideas.  To this end, Kumar’s book has proven extremely helpful.

For each of the seven modes of his design innovation process, Kumar provides 9 to 20 methods, from which a skillful innovator will choose to explore possibilities, generate ideas, promote ideas and see an innovation through to implementation and adoption.  Each of the methods is presented on a two-page spread with an example of how the method was used in a real project on the left-side page and a detailed account of what the method accomplishes, how it works, and the steps involved on the right-side page. As an example, below are short descriptions of two methods from the “explore concepts” modes that I look forward to trying:

  • Persona Definition:  The first step is to write a list of potential users of the innovation.  Then create a list of attributes for the potential users (e.g. demographic, psychographic, or behavioral attributes.)  After choosing a manageable number of user types from your list, use a combination of the attributes for each user type in creating personas (e.g. Miguel, the safety manager, 28 years old, art enthusiast, avid reader of history).  Finally, build a visual profile for each persona.
  • Concept Metaphors and Analogies:  The first step is to choose a starting place for using a metaphor or analogy (for example, the design principles that might have been generated in the “frame insights” mode.) In the second step you make comparison questions to generate metaphors or analogies.  For example, “could a portable computing device act like a secretary?”  or “could a barbecue grill act like a babysitter?”  For each metaphor or analogy uncovered, the last step involves generating concepts around the possibilities they elicit.  This can be done, for example, by answering “what if” or “how” questions (e.g. “how can a portable computing device be used as a secretary?”or “how might a barbecue grill be used as a babysitter?”)


Like many others, I have often wondered exactly how to respond when business leaders tell us to innovate.  For me, Kumar provides clear guidance in 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization.  Now, not only do I have a deeper understanding of innovation, I have 101 practical methods that will help me successfully achieve it!

I now have over 101 tools in my innovation tool kit.  How many are in yours?

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Art Bingham

ABOUT Art Bingham

WHO ARE YOU? I am a learning and development professional with over 20 years experience in leadership, team, and organizational development; corporate training; and corporate coaching...
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