Ten Ways To Innovate on a Budget

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You’d be hard-pressed to walk into any space full of creative people and not see, hear, or feel the power of innovative thinking.  While the notion of “innovation” can be applied to everything from food science development to urban expansion, the term seems to pop up most frequently in the world of product design and its various sub-industries. But what makes an end-user feel like a product is “innovative,” and most importantly, how did the product get there?

To understand what makes something innovative is to see beyond its physical properties and understand the thought process that went into its design.  As a designer, I try to take any given object I encounter during the course of the day and see it as the final manifestation of numerous ideas that went into a team’s “innovation machine” in an attempt to solve a particular problem. No matter the reason for something going into that innovation machine, it’s truly what your machine looks like inside that dictates how the final product will look and perform.

The common denominator in any well-oiled innovation machine consistently is the ability to create change while simultaneously embracing that change.  One of the best examples of this in the product design realm is Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007. Not only did Apple create change with the introduction of an affordable touchscreen phone, they also embraced how it would revolutionize the market of mobile devices as a whole, and thus, moved forward with better products and better experiences. This approach ultimately drove the iPhone to be an industry-defining product responsible for billions of dollars in sales across various global markets. While Apple has an R&D budget that few (if any) companies can match, their approach can serve as an inspiration for those with little or no budget.

So how do you create that change to help drive a more innovative culture at your own company, design office or personal workspace?  How do you keep the innovation machine well-oiled and ready to crunch any challenge that goes through it? And how do you drive that change on a budget?  Here are ten proven ways ideas will help create a more fertile ground for innovative thinking regardless of your company, project, or budget size:

1. Prepare for innovation and make room for failure

You’ve heard stories about people waking up in the middle of the night, or walking down the street to get coffee, and suddenly being struck by a world-changing idea. Prepare for these moments by keeping some way to take notes with you at all time—be it a simple notepad and pen or a note-taking app on your smartphone. Moments of inspiration rarely occur while sitting in front of a computer.

It’s important to prepare yourself mentally for bad ideas, because for every great idea, there may be dozens of bad ones leading up to it. Understanding what makes an idea bad and how you came to it is just as important as knowing what makes one great.

2. Use a cloud service to collect ideas

Services like Dropbox, Box.com, Google Docs make it easy to upload and access  data from any device at any time. You can upload something from your smartphone and retrieve it later from your office computer, and vice versa. Using one of these services is a great way to build a dedicated folder for pictures, articles, and videos that inspire you. Since we’re on a budget here, it’s important to consider which service has a plan that works with your budget, so do some research.

Once you picked your service, create a dedicated “innovation” folder and fill it with things that inspire you. Your brain can only process so much information at a time as you move from one idea or environment to the next, so consider this an anywhere, always-accessible extension of your brain; use it as a harbor for your favorite part lines, surface inspirations, brand languages, and so on. Chances are if something appeals to you, it will appeal to somebody else too.  Keep a record of these things because you will never remember them otherwise.

If you’ve ever seen the design process of a world-class character designer or concept artist (basically anybody who creates ‘fantasy’ out of nothingness), they always start with a strong handful of images that they’ve carefully curated over the years.  You can replicate this by creating a handful of sub-folders within your innovation folder and giving them themes (vintage robots, Japanese architecture, airplane interiors, 3D printing, etc).

A final note: never use your innovation folder for anything else. This means no backups of three-year-old RFPs, passport information or pictures from your family vacation in Mexico.  This is a special folder that is completely removed from all other aspects of your life.

3. Absorb and take as many images as possible

Now that you have your accessible-from-anywhere innovation folder in place, it’s time to fill it up. But don’t race to fill this folder with ideas—let them come to you organically.  You can, however, increase the chances of being inspired by strategically setting up ways for these moments to find you.

Start by following some people on Tumblr who regularly post on interesting design elements.  Here’s one to get you started.  Set up a Pinterest account and follow tags that speak to you, then check it frequently for new images.  Follow hashtags on Instagram.  Learn how to leverage these platforms as your own personal crowd-sourced inspiration feed.

Additionally, keep your favorite camera app handy on your smartphone’s home screen. Take pictures constantly throughout the day, then use that handy cloud service app to upload the pictures directly to your innovation folder. See where we’re going here?  Keep that folder full!

4. Read design blogs for 30 minutes a day

You may already do this, but if not, take some time to really absorb current trends that aren’t directly tied to your industry.  Many trade magazines (both online and print) tend to isolate their readers from things going on outside of their particular market, so don’t confine yourself. Learning about how the latest basketball shoes are manufactured may spark a new way of thinking about new ways your latest plastic mold design could be manufactured.

This is also an opportunity to keep your finger on the vanguard of industry activity, such as the latest Kickstarter projects or design events in your area.

5. Walk around the mall, or a forest, or a beach.

Get out into the world. Experience life. Be a sponge.

If your mission is to design a new digital camera housing, touch and hold every single camera on display at the local big box store.  Don’t even look at the prices or features—just absorb the materials, processes and user experiences that go into each and every product.  If it suits your budget, purchase objects that stick out to you. Take them apart, study how they were built, and re-assemble them. Then do it again. And again.

The same can be said about a natural environment. How can things from the natural world inspire the form factor for your camera body? Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you may find more success in a forest than a mall, but I’ve found success in both environments when gathering inspiration.  The key here is to observe things. How do these surfaces meet?  How does this weight feel?  Why is that over there?  Be a sponge.


6. Sketch daily

And not just what you’re currently working on.  Industrial Designer Spencer Nugent has made a name for himself with his Sketch A Day blog, where he posts a random industrial design-inspired sketch every day. You can follow Spencer’s lead by picking any object in a room—be it a coffee maker, a travel mug or a suitcase—and thinking about how you could make it better.

It’s important to understand that this isn’t simply about practicing your sketching abilities; it’s about changing how you think about the world around you. This could even be a good opportunity to put that innovation folder to good use and incorporate some of the surfaces, textures, and design styles that you’ve collected.  That picture you grabbed of an airplane window?  That form factor could be integrated into a carry-on suitcase design. The sky is the limit.

7.    Learn new ways of doing the same thing

It’s been said that those who learn how to become fluent in another language come back to their native language with a much more refined approach and delivery.  Don’t worry about creating something amazing at this point; the idea here is to learn a new way of thinking about something.  How can you communicate an idea through a different medium?

Don’t know where to start?  Pick up a watercolor brush and communicate the surfaces in your latest CAD model assembly.

8. Leave your technology at home

Sometimes you need to get away from your computer and phone as if you’re being paid good money to do it—because when it comes to innovation, you are.  Make a pact with a friend or significant other to occasionally leave your various devices at home and go on an adventure. Go to the beach for the weekend; go to a new restaurant; go for a bike ride; take a stroll through your city; simply just be outside.

No matter how technologically-advanced and comfortable we’ve gotten with touchscreens, virtual reality and the like, nothing can inspire you like actual life experiences. Fight to make sure that you get your daily quota.

9. Do Nothing

Yes, you’ve heard it before: meditation is good for you.  But meditation comes in many forms beyond just sitting in the lotus position on the floor of a zendo.

Meditation is the act of just being, whether it’s in the car on the way to work, walking back from lunch, or even doing the dishes at night.  The goal is to clear your mind so you can process that next round of juicy, innovation-driving information.

Besides being completely cost-free and possible at (almost) any given moment of any given day, meditation is extremely simple. Just focus on your breathing and nothing else; there’s no reason to get into anything more complicated at this point unless you’re seeking Nirvana.

Repeat daily.

10.  Learn How to Accept Change

This may be the most important item in this list.

Actively seek out new ways of doing things, from varying the route you take to work, to switching up the meals you eat each week, to adopting the suggestions in this list.  Once you have those new ways of doing things in place, the same thinking patterns will eventually spill out into your creative endeavors.

Albert Einstein once said “If you always do what you did, you will always get what you always got.” If you make innovation a part of your daily life, your innovation machine will always be well-oiled. Be the change. Embrace the change. Do this, and innovation will find you.  

Cliff Medling

Cliff Medling is a Senior Marketing Manager at SolidWorks and the host for the Born to Design Podcast.