Modeling the Origins of Innovation: The Design Ledger

Fig. 1 – Designers communicate with frameworks

Our pursuit for comprehensive, communicative design frameworks creates a gap in the nuanced process of innovation (fig. 1). The frameworks we use aim to model a section of the world and share that vision to a larger audience. For example, the business model canvas in business design communicates the structure of a business, while the Multi-Level Perspective (MLP) map in transition design aims to map the dynamics of change and transition within a socio-technical system(fig. 2). There is nothing wrong with these frameworks for modeling our world. They are comprehensive and are excellent at communicating complex information. However, during this past year working on my startup, I noticed these design frameworks (while effective in communicating a fully crafted idea), are lackluster in the generative stages of innovation.

Fig. 2 — Frameworks help model the world

While design frameworks are highly effective at communicating ideas, they are less functional for generating ideas. Generating ideas is the critical, yet difficult-to-define process of design. What happens between the time an idea is thought of, and matured into a concept fit for a design framework? Even when the design process is taught, defining the stages of innovation is left murky. Frequently, you will see a designer refer to this early stage of the design process simply as the “fuzzy front end” (fig. 3). This is an opportunity. There should be methods and tools in the designer’s toolbox to demystify the fuzzy front end of design.

Fig. 3 — What happens at the fuzzy front end of design?

During the generative stage of innovation, designers are wrapped in assumptions from their perceptions of the world [think of how wicked problems are defined] that directly affect the way they address these problems (fig. 4). With a plethora of inputs at this stage of design, tracking assumptions is vital for understanding the design process. For those in innovation circles looking to increase transparency of their process to adjacent stakeholders, designers need a new tool in their toolbox — the design ledger.

Fig. 4 — Everyone has a different perspective

The design ledger, while novel for the practice of design is not a new concept at all. For those with backgrounds in finance, the concept of a ledger is all too familiar. In financial modeling, all important financial documents (balance sheet, income statement, etc.) can be traced back to a financial ledger. The ledger is a raw sheet of all the financial transactions a business occurs during its operational existence. For finance people, to build grounded financial reports, they need a detailed financial ledger (Fig.5).

Fig. 5 — Finance people use general ledgers as the foundation for financial reports and models
Fig. 6 — What if we could make a design ledger?

Pivoting to design, designers will benefit from a similar dynamic. In design, design frameworks are akin to balance sheets and income statements (Fig. 6). However, there is nothing that operates as a design ledger (an argument can be made for working walls, but I don’t think that matches up well enough — I will explain later). The design ledger is not just a collection of the research you have completed for a project, but instead, it is a record of all the assumptions you are making while iterating on an idea (Fig. 7). This is a powerful tool for designers, but especially for those attempting to communicate nuanced information in the innovation space. Due to the novel way innovators see the world, communicating their vision can easily be misinterpreted or dismissed because the designer and their audience are likely operating under different worldviews. By having a record of your assumptions and how they evolve, innovators can better communicate their worldview, while shedding a light on the nuanced “fuzzy front end”.

Fig. 7 – a design ledger will contextualize each assumption a designer makes

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