Innovation Comes from Cross-Pollination: The Three Tiers of Successful Design

January 6, 2017 in Human-Centered Design
David Bishop
Director of Human Sciences, Chief Human Scientist

Banner Image Source: Richard Fahey
Often when talking about design, we’ll encounter two seemingly conflicting desires: the desire for a design to be innovative, and the desire for a design to be based on a wealth of experience. Sometimes this sounds downright contradictory, especially when people want designs to be unique and differentiated from their competition, but are concerned with how much experience designers have designing in a very specific domain. When the decision is between designing something innovative or hiring a design team with an experienced portfolio of a product or service you have in mind, it’s hard to commit to one or the other. Do you choose innovation or expertise?

As it turns out, this isn’t as contradictory as it seems. Yes, there’s a risk that designers who have worked on 12 similar projects will “cookie-cutter” the 13th and eliminate the chance for innovation. There’s also a risk that designing something new and unique won’t work because it’s ignoring experience and knowledge from previous instantiations. But that is not how design or innovation works. Innovation comes from cross-pollination. That is to say: as a designer, one does not have to have worked on 12 identical projects in order to have success. Instead, what’s important is being able to make connections, take note of similarities, and find inspiration across domains.

Tier 1: Make Connections from Experience

Experience from very similar or identical projects is useful; let’s call that a first tier of experience in design. Being able to see how one project can be influenced and informed by many other people in many other domains, is higher-order design and is where true innovation comes from.

Often, inspiration comes from nature; we call this biomimicry. (I recommend looking up Janine Benyus’ books and TED talks on biomimicry. She has been an advocate of this approach to innovation for years). Here, the value of a designer is not to use a large body of similar work as a basis. An experienced designer must be able to make connections based on past experiences and have the capacity to use a large body of (what seems like, but really isn’t) dissimilar work as a basis.


Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains use biomimicry by mimicking the kingfisher’s bill shape to reduce noise and drag. Image Source: hitachiota

Tier 2: Cross Boundaries for a Solution

The Creative Matrix
A powerful brainstorming technique we use at MAYA and at LUMA Institute is the creative matrix. It generates innovative ideas that stems from cross-pollination and bring together ideas from different fields. I’ve seen this technique allow teams to discover hundreds of ideas worth exploring in under an hour. This wouldn’t work if we were using experience with working on similar projects as a basis; it works because we’re crossing boundaries from dissimilar projects.


A creative matrix is a tool for narrowing down broad topics and generating ideas with a team. It exposes individuals to different perspectives by using diverse teams with different experiences.

Using metaphors as a method of understanding is another example of boundary-crossing as a powerful tool. The best designers are always seeking to understand a problem, deeply, as a prerequisite to doing quality work. Metaphor, as a figure of speech, is applying a phrase to something seemingly not applicable. It is using a thing to be symbolic of something else, crossing domains in order to have deeper understanding. Great designers are adept at using metaphor to understand problems, and this is because they are adept at crossing domain boundaries. They are taking inspiration and making connections from a vast store of experience, not just the obvious local neighborhood of similar projects.

Tier 3: Build Interdisciplinary Teams

We have designed our project teams at MAYA so we can perform interdisciplinary work. Best practices of Human-Centered Design require interdisciplinary teams. We have designed our work space to maximize cross-pollination between people with different kinds of expertise and experience. We keep as much work as possible out in the open and encourage kibitzing and constant critique. This is all done because we know there’s far more value in taking inspiration from 12 different domains than 12 similar projects.


An interdisciplinary approach exposes your team to new ideas and different ways of thinking to arrive at the best solutions.

Final Thoughts

So when you are thinking about experience, design, and innovation, look for the the ability to cross-pollinate, and consider the power of interdisciplinary design. Expect new and different ideas to come from seemingly dissimilar work because, in the hands of a good designer, it can be applicable.

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