When innovating, use the language and frame the context precisely. (Episode 17)

Interview with Hung-Hsiang Chen, Global Design Head at Lily Design Lab at Eli Lily.


Why is it so crucial to speak precisely when talking about innovation and design?

That was the topic of my discussion with Hung-Hsiang Chen recently. Hung-Hsiang Chen loves design. No wonder, it has been his focus for over 20 years working in leading design positions for companies like Novo Nordisk in Denmark, Asus Computer in Singapore and Taiwan and now as Global Design Head at Lilly Design Lab at Eli Lilly. Eli Lilly is a 144 years old company that employs more than 33,000 around the world. At Eli Lilly, he leads a team of industrial designers, UX designers, and visual communication designers working on FDA regulated medical products. Mr. Chen has been assigned to build four design departments from scratch in his career with various jobs.

Now when you read the word “design” just now, what MEANING did you assign to the word?

Did you think of it as the first definition in the dictionary? As “a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other objects before it is made.”? As in: “he has just unveiled his design for the new museum”.

Or did you think of design as the second meaning in the dictionary? As “a decorative pattern”? Like: “pottery with a lovely blue and white design.”

Or did you perhaps think of it as the third meaning in the dictionary? As in: “purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object.” As in: “the appearance of design in the universe”?

Depending on the definition that you applied to the word “design,” you apply a totally different meaning to what Mr. Chen’s design department does.

And THAT is the problem with the word “design”.

Someone says: “Let’s talk about the design,” and some people think that means “let’s talk about the plan.” Some people think it means: “Let’s talk about how it looks visually.” And some people think it means “Let’s talk about the underlying purpose” of what we are discussing.

All three think they are talking about design, but they are talking about totally different things.

As Global Design Head Hung-Hsiang thinks about “design” primarily from the third definition. As the “purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object.” And so do I. If you ask me, that should be the FIRST definition in the dictionary…

The problem is that many other people in business look at design more like the second definition: as if “design” is just “how things look.” With this definition, they missed an opportunity to leverage the designer’s superpower.

Hung-Hsiang explained to me how though his career people have come to him and asked: “Since you are a designer, can you help me pick between “red” and “green” for Product X?”

Hung-Hsiang Chen the have to explain that before a color can be picked, he has to understand the purpose of the product, the landscape where the product should be used, who the user is, and what they know and a million other questions. Design is never about “picking a beautiful color.” But many people think so.

And the misunderstandings happen because the word “design” means so many different things. No wonder people are confused.

Hung-Hsiang shared to me that a great designer needs to be more than just a designer. He, or she, has to be a good educator too – a person who can explain why something needs to be done in a certain way to people who have very different knowledge levels of design.

It is almost like design is a language.

People speak the language of design on different levels, but almost everyone thinks they can speak it at at least some level. People tend to think they have a sense of design. But it is not enough to be “design literate”. To be literate, literally just means to be “able to read and write”.

And while many people talk about wanting their staff to be “design literate,” it is actually not enough. Better to aim for them to be “fluent in design” – as in “able to express oneself easily and articulately.”

But we also have to acknowledge that people who work in the design are often “native in design.” And when you are native in a language, you understand all the subtle nuances that make it possible to master the language. Someone can be fluent in a language and still miss why a joke is funny for example. They understand the language – they just do not understand the context.

And just as people who are native in a language have to understand that that can actually be a problem when they speak to other people who are just fluent, or literate, it is equally important that people who are native in design understand that people who are not as well versed in the language of design might not understand what the designer is talking about.

Hung-Hsiang explained to me that one way you can see how much value a company puts on design is to see to whom the design department reports. Is design just a sub-set of some marketing or engineering department, or is it a key strategic function in the company?

When a design department is at the center of the operations, they can work on getting the whole company – and even its other stakeholders – to speak design as in the third definition of the dictionary – and to speak it at a more advanced level. Think about how Jony Ive worked closely with Steve Jobs. And when they do the company is not only centered around design, it is also well-positioned to educate all stakeholders about what design is, how the company should think about it, and how to best use it for the benefit of its’ customers and the company.

And when a company masters design, they will master innovation and business creativity.

That is my lesson learned from talking design with Hung-Hsiang, Global Design Head at Lilly Design Lab at Eli Lilly.

I would love to hear what your lesson is.




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