The 8 qualities of the Innovator and the 7 characteristics of the Design Thinker

By Mauro Porcini
I have been working in the world of innovation and design for many years now. I have been analyzing, studying, dissecting the processes of innovation of many organizations, small and big, in many different industries, from chemistry to fashion, from CPG to automotive, all the way to consumer electronics, lighting, pharma, aerospace…. And more.

I have been talking with innovators and entrepreneurs from any corner of the planet, from Japan to Brazil, from the United States to Italy, from China to Egypt, and much more. I met and discussed with the most successful people, real innovators in their fields, from music to digital, from sport to finance, from entertainment to healthcare.

I have been lucky enough that two major corporations, in two completely different industries, have asked me to build entire organizations to drive innovation by design: I have been empowered to make it happen, to hire the best talents, to build the right processes, to collaborate with brilliant minds in R&D, in marketing, in manufacturing, in strategy and in many other areas to create something new, worth, valuable and unique.

And there is something I have noticed and discovered in this long journey. Many people - too many people - and many organizations, through books, publications, conversations, public speeches, refer to innovation as a process, as a flow of tasks, as a series of steps, as a succession of gates. Apply “Design for Six Sigma” to solve all your problems! Fit that process into your company to re-ignite innovation! Process, process, process…. Yes, you need process. The process is the framework in which to operate, in synch and with efficiency. The process is the common vocabulary that helps multiple people – from different disciplines, different functions and eventually different regions of the world – to talk the same language and to understand each other. The process is the lubricant in the machine, the wire that connects the parts, the field in which to play, with its set of rules, goals and boundaries.

But a process tough is JUST A TOOL. It’s like a pen or a brush. Now give that brush to Picasso or Andy Warhol, or give it to your kid or your grandpa (assuming you are not the unknown grandson of Warhol…) and you will have outputs radically different… Because what really drives that output is not that brush: it’s obviously the hand, the mind, the soul, the heart of whoever uses that brush… And the same happens within corporations, small enterprises and agencies: what really drives innovation is not the process, it’s the mind, the soul, the heart of whoever drives that process.

If that’s the case, to drive innovation in your organization, you need to apply the same scientific, maniacal, structured approach to find the best ever talents for your company that you apply in creating and defining your internal processes. Innovation is all about PEOPLE. Innovation is all about the RIGHT PEOPLE. And if that’s the case, you must be very clear with yourself and your company on what are the characteristics of those right people.

And that’s why in the past many years, step by step, hire by hire, person by person, success after success, failure after failure, I have analyzed and realized what were those characteristics that defined the real innovator, the real design thinker, the real entrepreneur. And I have translated them in briefs for our HR partners and our hiring managers, in speeches and articles, in conversations and interviews.

Here are the characteristics of the people that we search, the people that we need, the people that we love: those people that can drive innovation like nobody else can and that ultimately can do real miracles for your business.


Dear innovator, you need to:

Be curious. Be hungry. 
Hunt the world for insights, for information—and not just in relation to the project you are working on. Do it always! Hunt always for the new, for the different, for the exciting, for the unusual.

Love diversity.
Nurture yourself with diversity. Never be afraid of diversity!

Listen with humility. 
Open your ears and open your mind! Be a sponge! With age and promotions, we all risk listening less and less. How many times have I talked more than I listened, and in doing so lost the opportunity to learn from amazing people. Do not fall into the trap of arrogance because you will stop learning and you will become sterile.

Be confident.
Take decisions. Listening doesn’t mean not acting. Learn, and then act. Change, success, innovation—it is all about making confident decisions. The avoidance of decision-making acts like a cancer in an organization. I have failed in the past when I pushed to over-strategize and to collect every possible bit of information, thus delaying necessary action. I also failed by acting too fast. Finding the right balance is the hallmark of a good designer and of a good leader. Decide when to make decisions. And act on them!

Be resilient.
All of us find closed doors and difficulties. It’s part of the game! If you innovate and make changes, you will encounter resistance. It’s natural and you should expect it. If you don’t, you should wonder if you are truly producing something new. Stick to your vision. Resilience and persistence are necessary qualities for building something new, whether it’s a new culture of design inside a corporation or an attempt to produce an innovative solution before someone else does.

Be optimistic.
Optimism reduces the level of stress produced by complexity and increases the level of performance. The designer, called to deal with wicked and complex problems every day, should be the most optimistic creature on earth! The psychologist Tali Sharot has shared compelling scientific data about the role of optimism in leadership and success. Have a look at her 2012 TED speech. 

Go the extra mile.
Faced with a goal of 100, many will reach 90 or 95; a few will reach 100. You must go above and beyond. Always. Set 105, 110, or more as your personal goal, and if you reach it, then you will be the only one up there. 

Smile and have fun.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Life is a wonderful game we have been gifted with, and work should be just the same. Enjoy what you do and keep a smile on your lips. And by the way, the ability to face the world with a balanced dose of irony and fun is one of the highest proofs of a brilliant mind. 

All these qualities, all together, define the way of thinking and feeling of any innovator. I am a designer, and I build and lead design organizations that can drive innovation, but these characteristics are not unique to just our design world. These qualities are the common traits of the status of mind of any individual able to imagine, create and drive something new to the world.

Then for design thinkers in charge of driving innovation there are additional qualities, more directly linked to their mission and their work. It’s a set of additional skills that define our way of thinking in the act of driving innovation processes. They can be found also in individuals who are not designers, but they belong to our world: it’s the way designers are trained since school, it’s the way designers are measured and rewarded, it’s the way a designer can claim to be a real designer. If you hunt for this kind of talents, there is a high probability that you will find them in the design world.


Visionary and Synthetic.
The design thinker is able to envision the big picture immediately. He’s abductive and synthetic in his way of thinking. His visions are holistic: he spontaneously jumps back and forth from the weak signals he discovers in society all the way to the big vision, mixing analysis and intuition, building and rebuilding the path to that vision as a reality check, with an open mind, ready to steer that projection of a better condition on the base of the new feedbacks he finds on the road. The design thinker envisions solutions for people. And people are made of heart and mind, emotions and rationality, needs and wants. Focusing just on the pragmatic aspect of a problem, designing a merely functional solution, risks overlooking a fundamental aspect of the human being you design for. In any decision we make, even the most rational ones, our emotions play a fundamental role, because they are part of us. We cannot turn them off any more than we can turn off our brains or our normal bodily functions. Some people may argue that in the most pragmatic decisions emotions play only a very secondary role, but the reality is that they do have a key value in any situation, and in modern societies, which are driven more and more by the value of perceptions, this is even more true. When I speak of “emotion,” I mean more than emotions of joy and pleasure. I include feelings of reassurance, emotional safety, and psychological comfort, for example. Design thinkers look at people in a holistic, synthetic way!. 

In love.
Design thinkers are human-centered. They don’t care at all about customer satisfaction: they are in love with their customers. Try to translate this concept to your personal life: When you want to satisfy somebody, you do everything you can to fulfill all his needs. But when you love somebody—your spouse, your son, your mom—you do more: more than what they may expect. You surprise him or her; you enter the sacred field of the magic, of the extraordinary, of the memorable. That’s a design thinker: a professional in love with people. For the design thinker, the unexpected is a must in the approach to product development; for, say, product developers, the unexpected can be, perhaps, a nice to have. This is one of the key reasons that this kind of approach is associated with design—a discipline in which the magic, the unexpected, the surprising carries great weight in the creative and decision-making process.

Design thinkers are dialectical by definition: they smoothly jump from one field to the other, moving from marketing to technology, from anthropology to manufacturing, from communication to research, and this ambiguity is part of their very essence.

They are fully comfortable with the conflict between rationality and soul, between functionality and style, between process and intuition. In fact, they thrive in the middle of that storm! That’s their nature.

When searching for new solutions, design thinkers surf comfortably on the fine edge between the feasible and the unfeasible—because that’s the only geography where innovation likes to lie down and rest. That’s where they need to hunt. Consequently they are often singled out by non-design thinkers as individuals unable to define concrete and feasible solutions. The truth is that to craft real innovation, you need to challenge what’s possible; you need to make proposals more than you need to find solutions; you need to try and try and try until you get to the superior concept. The design process is like a scientific process: The only difference is that in the latter, proposals of potential solutions are called experiments—but in the former, in a non-design-driven culture, they are simply pointed out as mistakes.

Design thinkers are therefore tolerant of mistakes. The pathway to success is rich with them. Rather than fighting them, design thinkers manage them and eventually learn from them. Any project that doesn’t incur some mistakes risks being sterile

Design thinkers are elegant: in the process as well as in the solutions. Elegance, in our interpretation, is obviously not just about aesthetics or style. It’s at least that; in fact it’s much more! In terms of solutions, elegance refers to the magic balance among the minimum number of elements that enable a product or a service to be the most likely to deliver the highest level of experience expected by the target audience.  No more, no less.  Where the process is concerned, elegance describes the simplest path to solve even the most complex problem.

In general, design elegance is about what I like to call relative simplicity: a concept of simplicity that is always in relationship with the context and the end user, moderated by company culture and brand equity. Some users, for instance, require several layers of complexity in their interactions with the interface of a cellphone or a camera, as that’s what satisfies their need for feeling like an expert in the use of that product—or perhaps that’s the only way to keep them engaged over time, without boring them after the first use. Consider the function of some video games, which are designed with the goal in mind of challenging the player for several days at a time. For such products, the most elegant solution is very complicated, because that is what the consumer will expect and indeed welcome.

In short, elegance is not about being minimal; it is about developing a solution for a need or a want of a well identified user in a specified context in the simplest way.

Polyglot and storyteller.
Design thinkers are polyglot—they are able to speak different languages, moving smoothly from marketing to science, from design to anthropology, in order to deliver messages that are understandable and relevant to various target audiences inside and outside of the organization. Design thinkers are storytellers, able to translate those messages into compelling scenarios and visions, aiming to engage and inspire those targets.

They select and decide applying design filters.
Design thinkers, in quest of holistic solutions to articulated and unarticulated human needs and wants, recognize the importance of the emotional variables during any selection process when they scan information in the input phase as well as when they choose which solution to develop in the output phase. As such, for them emotional filters assume the same weight as do functional ones. The balanced mix of emotional and functional considerations aiming to craft solutions that can enable holistic fulfilling experiences is what we define as design filters.

Design thinkers do not run away from the magic of intuition. They recognize the role that the mysterious sparkle of a visceral idea, not deducible or evident, can play in the process of innovation. They nurture perception; they celebrate immediate cognition; they preserve the value of instinct. Intuition doesn’t find an easy life in corporate cultures driven by data and processes. Design thinkers fight hard to defend its value; they eventually control it inside the boundaries of processes that can protect it and give it the opportunity of being translated into ideas to be developed and executed.

Mauro Porcini

(Some sections of this article have been originally published in: A LOVE LETTER TO DESIGN, Mauro Porcini, DMI REVIEW, 2013 and YOUR DESIGN PROCESS IS NOT ENOUGH, HIRE DESIGN THINKERS, Mauro Porcini, DMI REVIEW, 2010)