How do we develop new product ideas? In recent years new methods have been proposed. As part of the Creative Steps new product idea innovation programme in the west of Ireland, FabLab Manorhamiton facilitated workshops for a creative momentum project on ideation and prototyping. Co-founder of FabLab Manorhamiton, designer Leo Scarff took Creative Steps participants through the ‘design thinking’ process, as well as exploring broader theories and techniques that can be applied at different stages. In this article, we’ve condensed some of the key learnings and resources explored by Leo at this workshop. We’ve also included some links to videos and wider information to further explore these concepts.
Empathise, define and ideate
Rather than firstly focusing on the core idea you wish to develop, a design thinking approach advocates taking a step back. The process can start not by brainstorming new ideas, but with generating questions around the broad idea you want to explore. This promotes ‘divergent thinking’, where you start with a broad idea or problem as your focus, and then develop as many questions around this to stimulate new ideas. Techniques such as mind mapping can be used to unlock thoughts and explore various avenues. Another approach is Leigh Thompson’s ‘Brainwriting’ where generating ideas starts with people individually writing their ideas down. More traditional ‘brainstorming’ can mean dominant voices and ideas have disproportionate influence.
Otto Scharmer’s ‘U Theory’ follows this broad approach to opening up your thinking. It is premised around that fact that we understand physical things in the world around us better than the motivations behind them. Following this approach, we should start ideation by for example exploring the past, listening to client needs and working to observe reality in a more open, flexible way.
At this stage you’ve now generated a lot of information, but how do you start to interpret and make sense of it? It’s now time to turn to a convergent mode of thinking where all the information generated is evaluated and condensed. The refined idea that will be experimented with, mocked-up and prototyped emerges at this stage.
Exploring particular design methods can help with the experimentation stage. How will form and function be balanced in your new product? Form doesn’t have to follow function, there can be a middle ground. Designer Victor Papanek developed the six-sided function matrix. Papanek proposed effective design for the real world must consider all elements of this matrix: method, association, aesthetics, need, consequences and use.
Another design method is ‘The Golden Ratio’. Every physical thing on earth, human, plant and animal, incorporates the golden ratio. Applying this method is said to produce products with an aesthetic of perfectly beautiful proportions. Closely aligned with this method is the idea of ‘biomimicry’. This is the process of imitating models, systems and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. Product designer Ross Lovegrove applied this method in his work.
Thinking about your product’s lifecycle is also important. Products progress sequentially through four main stages of existence, from growth to end of life. Newer thinking, such as advocates of the circular economy, argue this should not be a linear process, but rather one that keeps raw materials in circulation, as opposed to creating waste.
A prototype doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical model. Some new products are not physical (e.g. process or service) and need to use other ways to present an idea. There are many tools and techniques you can use to protoype your new product idea:
Photos: Use your camera phone to document particular aspects of your idea (e.g. shape, form, colour, size, scale, functions). This allows you to create something similar to a mood board. A further way to use photos is mock-up photo studies. If you’re not inclined towards sketching or drawing, use readily available materials to mock-up your product idea and photograph this.
Sketches and drawings: Sketching can be a critical design tool to get ideas down on paper. Sketching can also be used to capture how a product can function, such as a chair and how it can be used in different poses. More animated drawings or sketches can also illustrate use.
Paper/card mock-ups: Cardboard mock-ups are used by leading companies such as Dyson and Layer. Laser-cutting can be helpful when creating these types of mock-ups.
Orthographic drawing: If you need to create a product in physical form these drawings can present different 2-D views of the product, such as front and side view.
Video: Useful to demonstrate how something works, or a compilation of videos can demonstrate different aspects of how a product functions.
Want to learn more?
If you’re keen to further explore these methods, there’s information and resources online such as through Discover Design and IDEO (also see the related websites section). Or check out local talks and courses, such as through FabLab Manorhamilton.