Impact versus Innovation

They’re not the same.

“Impact” and “Innovation” are not the same things. “Innovation” refers to the creation of newness in some sector. “Impact” refers to “making change”. Of the two, impact strikes me as the more difficult.

Innovation requires time and space and resources to create. It’s wonderful! And definitely part of the generative design process. 1  But it carries no obligation to carry the innovation forward, to test it in the world, evolve it, or sustain it. Impact, on the other hand, carries these obligations. All innovations must be introduced to their audiences, evolved, and sustained in order to create impact. On the other hand, not all impact requires much innovation. You can create impact from what is already at hand, if the quality and the path to acceptance is there. 2 

Specifically in terms of design, quality is defined in terms of craft and content. Content is an obvious component of quality. If as designers we produce the hippest thing, or the easiest thing, or the most academically pristine thing, instead of the most applicable, most accessible, most expansive thing (or series of things) 3  within our problem space, then we lose the trust of participants in the design process. 4  and all the investment made in us. Craft is perhaps the most traditional expression of design as a discipline. In design practice, as in other generative disciplines like writing, teaching, and engineering, a series of technical abilities are non-negotiable for the achievement of excellence in practice. 5 

For these reasons, I find the Impact Equation a useful way to encapsulate my approach to design in complex spaces. By centering on desired impact as an end goal, supported by the two components of quality and acceptance, designers and their partners can see real success. In the absence of either of those components, great work can be done, but meaningful, systems-level impact will not be achieved.

  1. For more on this, please see the On Complexity
  2. For more on this, please see Creativity and Resilience.
  3. As above, for more on this, see On Complexity
  4. For more on participants and why I use this term, please see the Purpose of this Guide section of the HCD Design Phase Concept Guide
  5. For more on this, please see the CVEBs project.