Skip to content

Incremental vs. radical: What’s the future of product innovation?

Incremental vs. radical: What’s the future of product innovation?

13 October 2015 Written by By Peter Fullagar Head of Innovation, Kinneir Dufort

We recently announced the winners of our product innovation fund, Design Council Spark, so we thought it a good time to speak to Peter Fullagar, Head of Innovation at Kinneir Dufort and advisor to Design Council. Here he discusses the pros and cons of using both incremental and radical forms of product innovation.

Designers have a choice.  They can take existing tech and make current products incrementally better by enhancing everyday design - or take a radical approach and go for a complete overhaul of both concept and purpose.  Both forms of innovation have their advantages and disadvantages.


Finding big ideas in a crowded space

Looking at an existing market or product and finding an opportunity to make an improvement to the way it looks or works is the bread and butter of design. For market leaders, it’s a necessity to staying ahead, as design can be used to attract a new user group or differentiate a product by making it easier to use.

A really good example of a unique twist on an existing design is the Joseph Joseph Elevate collection. They have built an empire on clever, yet simply designed, kitchen products. Their adaptation of everyday kitchen utensils has resulted in not only one innovative new product, but a whole family of them.

The new Bouroullec Serif TV for Samsung, love it or hate it, also adds a new layer of desirability to an existing product, by turning a generic flat screen TV into a piece of furniture. 

And Ayca Dundar, a Design Council Spark finalist, has invented Pop Umbrella, a retake on the traditional umbrella design by being flexible and less likely to break.

The advantages of the incremental innovation process are threefold:  

1. Staying competitive 

Every next generation product needs to compete, it’s a must. Products need to evolve to allow competition with the previous generation to roll on.  

2. Ideas are easier to sell 

You are offering a recognisable product to an existing market, therefore it makes it so much easier to communicate and sell your big idea.

3. Affordability

The process of incremental production allows for affordable development. Products can be made better without breaking the bank.

Of course there are disadvantages to the smaller, more prudent design innovations - getting noticed in a crowded and noisy marketplace being the toughest. There is the challenge of creating a genuinely differentiated, improved offering – the question to ask is: how different is it really? Also, brands are never alone. The competition is also playing the same game, for the very same reasons.

The real opportunity in this process of innovation is for design to start with the need, not the solution. If you build your big ideas from the need, incremental innovations will follow.


Finding big ideas that make sense

This approach is larger scale - it disrupts both context and purpose. It is changing the way we think and this can lead to the creation of new markets and industries.

A great example of radical product innovation is the Pebble smart watch. Bursting onto the market via Kickstarter in 2012, the technology and its application created a whole new category long before Apple joined in with the launch of their Apple Watch, three years later. 

Another product innovator that follows the radical approach is Dyson. They have gone through the process of reinventing often overlooked categories of domestic appliances such as the vacuum and fan. They have delivered market disruption not only through technology, but also through their business model.

So, what’s the reward of radical innovation?

1. Bigger wins

The chance of getting a ‘bigger win’ is one of the main advantages of radical innovation. 

2. Ownability

With an entirely innovative idea comes the chance to create a whole new brand and market - a market so untapped that a single design could gain a monopoly.   

3. More open to new players

The radical model suits new players far better, as they have no incumbent history which can restrain the breadth of their innovative design – they have a blank, limitless canvas. With Kickstarter allowing new and exciting inventors to launch into a large marketplace, radicals will continue to wow the world with products we don’t even know we need yet.

However, timing is everything with radical product innovation. If timed well it can be the perfect fit, but if a product comes out too early then there is the chance people will just not get it, let alone want it yet. Technology is often underdeveloped, causing slow market adoption.

Another consideration is that to develop the technology to match the potential of the product, substantial investment must be made. Radical innovation, as impulsive as its sounds, is in fact the longer game to play in terms of return. Markets can be slow to grow – when time framing and exploring an idea, this needs thinking about.

Nonetheless, radical exploration and subversion of existing product categories that are often overlooked can result in huge success – who wouldn’t want to be the next Dyson?

The time has come. Designers have a choice to make – are you for the incremental approach, or are you a radical?

Subscribe to our newsletter

Want to keep up with the latest from the Design Council?

Sign up