Innovation happens in hindsight

Our class recently read a series of articles that dealt with the relationship between creativity, knowledge, sensemaking, and strategy in design. As I went through the articles, a theme kept jumping out at me: Innovation happens in hindsight.

More accurately, I should say we recognize innovation and consider the design solution to be logical and straightforward (or as an obscure failure) when we look back. In Serious Creativity, deBono writes that if an idea does not appear logical in hindsight, we won’t appreciate it. However, he argues that this post-hoc reasoning means we place too much emphasis on logic and not enough on lateral thinking and creativity as the way to develop new design solutions.

In Discovering Design, Nigel Cross writes that, in contrast to fields like logic and science, “design initiates novel forms” through abductive leaps. The “solutions” a designer proposes don’t necessarily answer the “problem” in an expected, straightforward way. Good design is often surprising.

I wanted to create a simple visualization to process my thoughts around the place of hindsight, surprise, and logic when it comes to designing product ecosystems. I’ve mapped out the current state of a number of products and services in Google’s ecosystem in the current state, but many of these products have moved down the Y-axis since their initial launch as the surprise factor wears off. I could see using this kind of tool on my own projects in the future to evaluate components of a product system–and to remind myself that time judges innovation.

Innovative design solutions often come through surprising leaps of reason and make logical sense only in hindsight. Over time, the surprise factor drops as solutions either fade into obscurity or become more ubiquitous and utilitarian.