Transformation as a deep metaphor for design

Larry Irons · January 8, 2009 · Short URL:

Thinking about innovation and change

Bruce Nussbaum recently declared Innovation is Dead, initiating a lively discussion around the issue of whether one term for change is better than another.

Before listing out Bruce's key points, it is important to recognize that he isn't saying that innovation is unimportant. Rather, he is pointing to the necessity of approaching meaningful change as a transformation of relationships between people and institutions, not just innovation at the edges through altering the systems allowing us to manage products and services. Following his initial post, Bruce summarized his thinking in succinct form.

1- Our institutions aren’t working. They are broken. Corporations, investment banks, health care, schools, universities, Congress, transportation. The current crisis is accelerating the breakdown in the major institutions of our lives that began in the 90s.

2- Digital technology is disintermediating every organization, eroding the role of all middle men and women, from ad agencies to college professors, from newspaper editors to hospital administrators, from political parties to savings banks. The shape of all our institutions is radically changing.

3- The power to create and participate is moving to the masses. Digital technology is giving everyone the tools to tinker again, to design and shape their learning, their working, their play. Craft is back in newly significant ways that we are just beginning to understand.

4- “Innovation” is inadequate as a concept to deal with these changes. You have “game-changing” innovation, which is big but rare and incremental innovation which is small but common. “Innovation” implies changing what is. “Transformation” implies creating what’s new. That’s what we need today, a huge amount of totally “new.”

5- Design is the answer. I use the term “transformation” to capture the immensity of the task ahead of us and to guide us in the magnitude of that task, but the actual tools, methodologies and, yes, philosophy of that mission is found within the space of design and design thinking.

I think Bruce is pretty much on target in his assessment of the overall significance of the forces currently at work, and correct that the term innovation doesn't quite capture the importance of the changes occurring. Terms do make a difference and making distinctions between terms is a meaningful exercise in thinking. In other words, the points made by Nussbaum are not only about semantics. To understand why this is the case, it is important to note that transformation is as much a way of thinking as it is a result. Transformation is one of the seven deep metaphors of human experience available to inform design. As I noted in a previous post on the approach of Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman to deep metaphor in design,

Deep metaphors underlie the way people understand the context of problems they face in their everyday lives...The Zaltmans contend three levels exist for metaphorical expression: surface, thematic, and deep. They point to the fact that everyday, mundane conversation is replete with metaphors. In the interest of accuracy it is also important to note that their approach to metaphor includes a range of figures of speech, i.e. tropes.

Without reviewing the differences among tropes, the Zaltmans distinguish between surface level metaphor, such as "I am drowning in debt", and metaphorical thinking at the thematic level, such as "Money is like water", and further to thinking at the deep metaphorical level linked to the emotions that the other levels use to support the pattern of thought involved.

The Zaltmans note that nearly all products and services either promise transformation, or promise to impede it. The deep metaphor of transformation implies a change in state. It implies a change in being, positive or negative, for individuals as well as organizations. People tend to think of change most often at the surface level of metaphor. So, even though we may say out with the old, in with the new, or let's shake things up, bring in new blood, or get a new lease on life. We also realize that, the more things change, the more they stay the same, or the only constant is change. Innovation is a thematic level metaphor for change, implying that changes resulting in new relationships between people/products/services are amenable to design (don't go with the flow, think outside the box, treat customers the way they want you to treat them). However, transformation works at a deep metaphorical level to evoke emotions that support the patterns of thought involved in designing for the experience of meaningful change.
Transformation may be the most pervasive deep metaphor among consumers. Nearly all goods and services are intended to facilitate or retard passage from one state to another...Moreover, transformations that seem to be unique to the mind, body, or society often spill over into other aspects of life (Marketing Metaphoria).

The Zaltmans provide a range of examples for how this works at the design level for products and services, and their insights merit attention as influentials like Nussbaum advance our thinking on transformation as a deeper level of innovation.


Larry writes the blog Skilful Minds.


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