I’ve been reading some of Roberto Verganti’s academic work. Like his recent book, they’re based strongly on his formulation of “product meanings”. It took me a while to find Verganti’s definition of “meanings” but it’s in his 2008 Journal of Product Innovation Management article, “Design, meanings and radical innovation: A meta-model and a research agenda.” (paywalled, here’s a pre-print)
Here’s Verganti on “meanings”:
Following the approach of many design theorists, our approach is that design deals with the meanings that people give to products, and with the messages and product languages that one can devise to convey that meaning. (emphasis in original)
Apart from styling, what matters to the user, in addition to the functionality of a product, is its emotional and symbolic value, i.e. its meaning.
Which is basically a semiotic argument. In Verganti’s words, a “meaning” is something that “people give to products” which can be conveyed by “messages and product languages”.
But, in the J Prod Inov Mgmt paper and elsewhere, Verganti argues against the idea that people, or users specifically, can give “radically innovative” meanings to products. The point of Verganti’s design driven innovation is that (only?) designers have a special position in a distributed network of actors which allows them to create radical innovations.
designers exploit their network position to move languages (and the meaning and values attached by people) across industries and socio-cultural worlds.
Building on the work, and terminology of others, Verganti says that designers are brokers, with special ability to move product languages across industries. [p35, jpim paper]
So, people (users, too) give products meanings. And designers can use product languages to create messages. The specific connection between messages and meanings is not clear (to me) in Verganti but that’s OK, I don’t expect him to have all the answers.
Verganti says that radical innovation comes from moving a language from one context to another, for example using the engineering of pipes and pressure to fix a congenitally defective aorta. Wait. Perhaps that’s a technological innovation, rather than a socio-cultural one. How can you tell? For me, this is where there’s a gap in Verganti’s thinking — the idea that there are clear and distinctive differences between a technical and a cultural innovation.