The New Design: Business Tool for Innovation

Guest Blog by Cheryl Heller

Partner, CommonWise,Chair; MFA Design for Social Innovation, SVA

The traditional purview of design in business is the making of objects and other artifacts. The traditional view of designers is as talented but narrow experts who are guided by their own personal vision when determining (dictating when they can) what the world, or the company, needs next.

Now there’s a new design emerging that works from inside a community and at a systems level, impacting human relationships instead of things. It emerges from the new discipline of design for social innovation, in which the discipline is applied to re-imagining and reinvigorating human resources. This new design, applied to business, can shift cultures, instill broad creativity, and ignite the kind of transformational opportunities we need most right now.

Bucky Fuller, one of the preeminent design scientists and philosophers of the last century, defined design as the intentional rearrangement of resources.  The proclivity of business is to focus on the “resources” in this definition, because that’s what we tend to measure and value. But the real magic of design lies not in the resources used, but in the rearranging – juxtaposing elements and ideas in ways that surprise, delight, transform, and change the nature of each other by being connected. As quantum physics teaches us, it is the relationship between things that defines the nature of the things themselves. This has particular relevance to business, because business is nothing more than a series of relationships. Regardless of size, industry, history, a business is only it’s relationships, with employees, customers, partners, investors.

Likewise, design in business is largely understood either to be the creation of products, graphics and communication, web and interaction design, or the increasingly popular design thinking, a formula for problem solving sweeping business schools and corporations. None of these, on its own, has the potential to work at a systems level – to create the kind of transformational opportunities that business, and all citizens, need right now.

Until now, the designers who have made history are individual creators. Bucky Fuller is a perfect example, as are Yves Behar, Frank Lloyd Wright or Paul Rand, each with their own singular vision for what the world needs, whether it knows it or not. Experts play this role in many fields – engineers, scientists, academics, inventors like Henry Ford, Margaret Mead, E.O.Wilson or Steve Jobs.

While this individual visionary role will always be important, we have reached the point where the power of single individuals to solve the complex problems we face, regardless of how brilliant they are, is unrealistic. To make cities vibrant places for all citizens, to help multi-national corporations become resilient, broadly innovative rather than sporadically and in silos, to create new businesses built on principles for a sustainable future requires expanding and adapting the tools of experts to the transformation of complex systems at massive scale.

An emerging design practice has grown from the efforts of a relative handful of pioneering designers working in social impact design. It “scales up” the principles and processes of design to work at a systems level – creating the conditions, relationships, engagement and access to wisdom that shift cultures and ignite creative potential. This new design, developed through working in the social sector, requires skills and knowledge incremental to the core visual and technical skills that designers are currently taught: skills for mapping, storytelling, ethnographic research, analysis, facilitation, collaboration and persuasion. These new skills open the creative process to collective participation, engaging a culture in imagining and realizing it’s own future. And that is the heart of this powerful new tool for business.

Below is an overview of the roles this new design can play in the creation of a new future for business.

Research as listening and conversation. Ethnographic research is not new - but the integration of listening, watching and dialog is; helping communities to see themselves and understand themselves more deeply.

Seeing/mapping. Making invisible systems visible, illustrating dynamics and relationships in an organization that facilitate or restrict forward momentum. This map of a corporate culture used verbatim quotes from employees to illustrate the roots of a divisive culture, and the futility of creating a strategy for the future founded on current conditions.

Cross disciplinary problem solving. Design is a method for recognizing patterns, seeing across boundaries to make connections that people inside silos cannot see. When this ability to see emerging patterns is facilitated with diverse participants, new learning occurs and potential expands exponentially.

Co-creation, collaboration. The new design creates with a community rather than for, and teaches the habits of creativity so it can be carried on and built on by the members.  

Education, knowledge sharing, storytelling. Science continues to confirm that facts do not change people, that intellect alone is not enough to incite a culture to greatness. Capturing the heart of issues, simplifying complexity, communicating through visual language that presents information in the way that people learn, using storytelling to engage and shift thinking are key benefits of the new design, and ways in which learning is shared.

Persuasion. Regardless of context or scale, beauty and elegance continue to make ideas and choices compelling. 

To learn more about the new design, please visit or contact