Designers Versus Inventors
IBM Corporate Archives
Published: April 21, 2013
LONDON — What’s the difference between design and invention? It’s one of the commonest questions that I am asked about design, and it is easy to see why, because the two words are so often confused.
Take the AK-47, the deadly Soviet assault rifle that transformed modern warfare and determined the outcome of many conflicts. It was not the first gun of its type, but was radically different from its predecessors. Sometimes it is described as having been designed, and sometimes as having been invented. Which is correct?
Or take something less gruesome, the Post-it Note. Unlike the AK-47, there was nothing quite like that scrap of sticky paper when it was introduced by the U.S. conglomerate 3M in 1980. Is it the product of design, invention or both?
The words “design” and “invention” are rooted in Latin ones, “designare” and “inventionem” respectively. Each word was introduced to the French language and then to English. Their earliest references in the Oxford English Dictionary originated in the first half of the 16th century, but then the confusion began.
The OED’s first definition of invention is dated 1509: “the action of coming upon or finding; discovery.” The word has had more or less the same meaning ever since, and has also retained its charm. Unlike “innovation,” invention has escaped being stereotyped by management theorists, and still conjures cheerful images of idealistic boffins and amateur inventors showing off their contraptions at Maker Faires.
Not so design, whose oldest reference in the OED is from 1548 as a verb meaning to “indicate, designate,” only for it to appear as a noun in 1588. Having continued to acquire new meanings over the centuries, not all of which were compatible with the old ones, design has ended up conveying everything from finely calibrated technical specifications, to a snazzy phone, a sinister plan and an entire profession.
Yet in all of its multifarious guises, design has one recurring role as an agent of change. Whatever else it does or doesn’t do, design helps us to translate changes in other fields — scientific, political or whatever — into things that may be useful or enjoyable, ideally both. The same can be said of invention except that, in its case, the outcome must be new. The end-result of the design process can be new too, but not necessarily, because design can be equally useful in modifying something that already exists, ideally by improving on the original.
Back to the AK-47. The official version of its birth is that it was developed in the late 1940s by Senior Sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Soviet tank soldier who was wounded in World War II and worked on the rifle while convalescing. Not only was the finished weapon named after him — the AK stands for Avtomat (or automatic) Kalashnikova — he was showered with honors, as a self-taught designer and working class hero who had given his country the defining weapon of the era. The truth is more mundane. The wounded sergeant was undoubtedly involved with the development of his namesake rifle, but so were lots of other people. Like many mass-manufactured products of political importance, the AK-47 was devised by committee.
As to whether it was designed or invented, I’d plump for the former. The AK-47’s designers did not dream up the assault rifle from scratch, but devised a superior version of it. That said, they could claim to have invented some of the components that made their model so lethal.
The same applies to computers. The first version of the type of stored memory computer we use today was developed by a team of scientists at the University of Manchester in England during the late 1940s. They can be described as having invented the computer, but it required the work of the designers at IBM in the United States to transform an inscrutable labyrinth of wires and dials into a marketable machine that fulfilled a useful function. The result, the IBM 701, went on sale in 1952.
Even so, the 701 and other early computers were enormous, prone to over-heating and could only be operated by trained technicians. To this day, Apple, Samsung and other computer makers are still wrestling with the design challenge of making them ever smaller, safer and easier to operate, often deploying scientific inventions to do so.
But when it comes to the Post-it Note, the distinction between design and invention is more ambiguous. The catalyst for its development was the invention of a new type of sticky, but not too sticky glue by a 3M scientist Spencer Silver in the 1960s. 3M could not work out what to do with the glue, until another of its scientists, Arthur Fry, suggested using it to stick notes temporarily on to other sheets of paper.
Strictly speaking, he could claim to have invented the Post-it, as it was the first product of its type, but Mr. Fry can also be praised for having taken an inspired design decision to put 3M’s glue to such good use. Whichever interpretation you favor, the Post-it’s evolution is an unusually constructive example of the blurring of design and invention.
The boundaries between the two will become blurrier in future as 3-D printing and other digital production technologies enable consumers to participate in the design process in order to personalize the end-result, thereby transforming their relationship with designers and manufacturers.
If we can determine the final shape, size and color of an object, it could be unique, making it fair to say that we designed it, albeit in collaboration with the designers who wrote the software and the specified the basic form that we adapted.
Can we also claim to have invented the object, given that nothing else will be quite like it? Or is this going too far? After all, we won’t really have created anything new, but simply modified or embellished an existing product. Should we introduce a new category of “reinvention” or “customization,” or would that create even more confusion?