Design Foundations: strengthening innovation

Posted on 23 Dec 2016 by The Manufacturer

Innovate UK’s new Design Foundations programme helps fund and support early stage creativity.

People don’t buy technology; they buy what technology does for them. This was highlighted in a recent Innovate UK report advocating the wider adoption of excellent early stage design across all sectors of UK industry.

As manufacturers face a renewed push into global markets, the importance of understanding human motivations and behaviours in the adoption of new product or service innovations cannot be underestimated.

Barry Waddilove, Design and Innovation manager, The Knowledge Transfer Network.

In support of this mission, Innovate UK has just announced a new programme called Design Foundations. This £3m investment, supporting early stage design interventions, will encourage UK businesses to apply for competitive funding that supports design innovation projects up to a maximum value of £100,000. (See the Design Foundations grant fund section, which explains potential uses for funding)

The road to innovation

At the beginning of an innovation journey, how do manufacturers begin to gather insight into the market acceptance of an idea before it is fully formed – and how do they decide which idea to focus on?

Many designers propose a process of structured divergent and convergent thinking: divergent journeys of research and exploration followed by a convergent process of careful editing and selection to identify the best ideas and opportunities.

In the divergent phase, the objective is to multiply options and create choices. In the convergent phase, competing ideas are tested against one another in order to identify the best opportunities.

In a human-centred design approach, these early divergent explorations may be used to broaden the innovation team’s understanding of a challenge area through examination of individual user needs, user behaviour in social groups or wider market and environmental needs.

R&D Innovation Research Institute for Manufacturing
Often, these divergent and convergent explorations may be repeated two or three times before a strong idea (or portfolio of ideas) emerges.

As the convergent phase begins, it is often useful to test multiple ideas against each other. This process need not be expensive or time consuming. In fact, many design companies favour an agile approach to prototyping, with multiple teams competing against each other on a tight deadline to develop fast, low-investment simulations of a product or service.

Early in the innovation cycle, prototypes should only require as much time, effort and investment as is necessary to generate useful feedback and drive an idea forward.

An iterative approach

Often, these divergent and convergent explorations may be repeated two or three times before a strong idea (or portfolio of ideas) emerges. Sometimes activities of this type can also deliver a broad innovation roadmap that may highlight a number of key technologies that are expected to become significant to a business over time. In other cases, the design exploration may reveal a new process or business model.

Once these outcomes have been identified, it is useful to generate a compelling narrative that explains not only how the new ideas came about, but also why they are critical to the future of the company. Great storytelling plays an important role in convincing future investors and also inspires innovation teams to rally behind a powerful vision.

Along the journey, it may also be beneficial to consider how you can foster a design-led culture across your organisation. Design has the greatest positive impact on a business once it’s embedded within company culture.

Fortunately, the UK has a thriving design industry that is well placed to meet this growing demand for user-centred innovation.

The Design Foundations grant fund can help you:

Identify and tackle the right problems

Procure user-centred design to develop a broader understanding of the human experience in relation to your product or service. Take a wider view to consider who the significant stakeholders are across your company’s innovation ecosystem and explore what future market drivers your business may face in the next decade.

Explore more (and better) ideas with lower risk

Use an agile approach to quickly simulate and test new propositions with minimal investment. Investigate new routes to market, including cross-sector opportunities and generate one or multiple MVPs to test and retest with your key customers.

Get buy-in for your best innovation ideas

Enlist a designer to develop compelling language, visuals and insights that clearly communicate the unique customer benefits of a new technology to potential investors and future customers.

Boost design capability

Train your team to understand the power of early stage design thinking by experiencing the process first-hand, on a live innovation project. Embed lessons from the design programme into your organisation and help your team to evolve a faster, more effective innovation process.

The next step

If you would like to discuss how the Design Foundations programme could benefit your business, please contact the Knowledge Transfer Network, which can connect you to a wide variety of design experts:

For more information on the Design Foundations programme, visit: