On innovation Back to Discussion

9, June 2021

Published by
Lee Parkinson

Much has already been said by many (including myself), about 2020, the year that was.

In my earlier essay, I spoke about the impact that the year of COVID19 had on design in Aotearoa. We saw a changing of attitudes, cultural shifts, an emerging interest in regenerative design, more focus upon inclusivity for all, and actions towards doing less harm.

For this discussion, I won’t go over previous ground except to say that 2020 also introduced new ways of working and a whole new vocabulary to most people. One such word within this new lexicon was ‘pivot’.

While I’m not a fan of how ‘pivoting’ became yet another part of the business world’s need to ‘jargon-ise’ everything, it is significant in this discussion about innovation in design.

To ‘pivot’ is to fundamentally change the direction of a business or the products you make and sell when you realize that your current products or services aren't meeting the needs of the market, or in the case of tourism, travel, and hospitality, where those markets have (temporarily) disappeared.

In a business sense pivoting could be viewed as agile innovation - by necessity.

So, let’s be clear about what innovation is, as opposed to Invention.

Simply put, when you’re creating something completely new or novel, that is an invention, while an innovation is improving upon something that is already there.

Lee Parkinson illustration 2000x3000px

But what of innovation in design? Did the hardships and new realities of life in a Covid 19 world herald a new crop of innovative ideas and provide new ways to improve on what has gone before, or is ‘innovation in design’ a part of the DNA of all designers? Is innovation hard-baked into everything designers do?

Well, innovation is a broad church, as this year’s honorees have shown.

The creators and curators of Katoitoi describe 3 categories of innovations in the following way:

  • Technical (work that is innovative or experimental in its production)⠀
  • Methodological (work that deviates from the routine design process)⠀
  • Philosophical (work that challenges expected ideas, work that deviates from the normal design thinking or that might signal a shift in the way we think about things)

However, what pulls these together is a clear understanding of the problem each entry is attempting to solve - through improvement, not invention.

Technical innovation

Work that is innovative or experimental in its production.

Nowadays, any discussion about technical innovation will lean heavily toward digital design and technology. We can see many examples of this around us in everything we do - however, in this essay we are discussing technical innovation in the widest way, not just technological innovation, because technical innovation is present in many ‘non-digital’ projects.

We should never be seduced by ‘tech for the sake of tech’, instead, we need to look at technical innovation in the widest possible way, and its role in improving upon an existing idea.

In effect, doing something better than what came before.

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Kupu - this is a powerful example of a usable tool designed to help people understand Te Reo Māori. Indigenous languages are declining all over the world.

The increase in global connectivity enabled by smartphones contributes to this decline. So, it was decided to put the technology to work to help people explore and learn our native language. Rather than a mere dictionary, the user can use the Kupu app to take a photo of any object around them and Kupu will translate the name of the object into Te Reo Māori, both visually and audibly.

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My Hooman website

My hooman - this is not only a great piece of technical innovation, it is also a great demonstration of an understanding of human behaviour, and of cognitive biases - framing being one such bias.


Making sure that the human is right for the dog has, until now, not really been part of the adoption equation, and yet getting this right means the relationship should mean a successful adoption, and a friend for life.

BEST AWARDS Island Gin 2

Island Gin - this is just exquisite.

An example of technical Innovation in bottle design, the recycled glass bottle was directly inspired by the kina shell - and how the bottle itself when viewed from above talks of the seashore and marine life. The technique used to create the colour within the glass just adds to the translucent beauty of the bottle. I’m sure the gin itself is up to the mark, but the bottle is in its own right an artefact, a design piece of pure beauty.

Image 1

Voxel Printed images - In my mind there is no more appropriate kaupapa than technical innovation for this design project.

It is experimental in production and this exploration attempts to improve upon the traditional 2D photography and print approach to showing artworks.

I am unfamiliar with voxel printing. However, I read the project description and then the in-depth interview with Joseph Coddington to understand more fully what he achieved.

Image 3

This was another project beset with issues due to the COVID19 lockdown, meaning that Joseph had to push on without access to the technology. So, Joseph pivoted and pushed on with developing the concept of voxel printed images, with no prototyping!

The outputs, far from just being ‘novelty’ ask some questions and in part answered what role is there for the production of 3D printed images

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The arts, craft, design and research debate has gone on for a century now, and this work aims to present a solution that binds all those disciplines into one unified body of work.

It will be fascinating to see Joseph’s works in real life as it is hard to fully appreciate them through viewing 2d photos of 3D images on the archive page.

Methodological Innovation

Work that deviates from the expected/normal/routine design process.⠀

Design projects that begin with a well-written brief, and follow the principles of design thinking tend to be tested and researched at every step. This iterative process ensures the outcome of the project is most likely to solve the problem it was set up to do.

Hero Image

Nest - Financial well-being. New Zealanders are notorious for making unwise financial decisions.

This became an even more significant issue for people as the COVID 19 pandemic took hold around the world. This difficult time opened up new discussions about how, in times of economic volatility, we handle money, as we faced the prospect of mass unemployment.

The brief, if well researched, should carry an insight, something that is not only interesting and relevant, but that can in itself create an avenue for exploration, and shine a light upon the real problem to be addressed. An example of this is the insight posed in the project overview;

In times of uncertainty, it can be challenging to navigate the complex financial systems when one is plagued with guilt for not having managed one's money in the past”

Unfortunately, guilt rarely changes people’s behaviour. Instead, they tend to opt out and carry on the way they have always done.

Work 1

The goal of this student project is to help young New Zealanders create good financial habits that will help them to achieve their financial goals and ultimately, to promote financial well-being.

One of the research conclusions of this design project challenged the conventional norm that financial literacy should be the standard,and instead moved towards a greater focus on what people actually do, rather than what people know.

Usability research and UX testing techniques were conducted to get feedback and guide the decision-making process and design of the mobile application at each stage of the journey.

This is an excellent piece of design driven by a methodological approach based on sound research, and if any bank or financial services organisation is reading this and looking for a new tool to help young New Zealanders into financial wellbeing, I’m sure that the curators of this archive would be happy to connect you.

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Kātoitoi x ONE Round Theory PACKAGING3
Tāmata Reo Pangahono 1

Tāmata Reo -This example of methodological innovation demonstrates how the past, present and future are intertwined - Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua

'I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past'.

Innovation can include looking over our shoulders and using elements of the past to move forward. Taking the old block shadow board puzzles as inspiration, the aim of the project is an educational tool designed to revitalise Māori language through art and design. The outcome was a puzzle, helping with word recognition through shape recognition, concentration and problem solving.

Philosophical Innovation

Work that challenges expected ideas, work that deviates from the normal design thinking or that might signal a shift in the way we think about things.

There were seven accepted submissions in this Kaupapa. Each deserved to be there, however I have picked just three to provide a flavour of what philosophical innovation in design looked like in 2021. They are each very different, but they all carry a strong thread of reflection and craft.


This is a prime example of philosophical innovation in design. The exploration of something architecturally designed and built for one purpose, but finding a new use as the inspiration for a unique series of graphic patterns and motifs to help create a new visual language.

Sam Fraser Covid 19 5


Wow. Not a particularly scholarly response to a design project, but this project really evoked a response in me.

Design? Yes. Art? Yes.

This is an immersive exploration of a time in our history designed in the recognisable format of a diary or journal.It provides a strong narrative and powerful typographical interpretation of key moments in the life of Kiwis in Aotearoa, and the wider world during the pandemic.

2020 is a time that future anthropologists will study in great detail, and this mahi will add much to that study.

The observation that we have been increasingly subjected to numbers as a main method of communication and compliance (Lockdown levels) for the last 12 months, and how we are becoming numb to the sheer magnitude of some of those numbers (cases and deaths) has been used to add emotion and a cause to reflect for those who interact with this powerful work.

It is a shame that this is only a physical artifact, a ‘snapshot’ in time because the story and tragedy are still unfolding, those numbers continue to grow and the narrative continues to unfold.

Matariki Katoitoi 8

Ngā Mata A Te Ariki A Tāwhirimātea - A beautiful project, especially as it was a spiritual response to how we felt after the COVID 19 lockdown and the uncertainty we were now facing.

The need for a reset coincided with the sign of the Māori new year, Matariki. And this mahi celebrated Matariki by speaking of traditional themes of renewal, reflection and reconnection.

A design project crafted for print and digital media, a beautiful outcome weaving together art, craft, artifact and gift, a chance for those exposed to elements of the project to learn and explore an astronomical event that is not only of huge importance to Māori everywhere, but as we continue on our bicultural journey, a chance for us all to learn.

In my opening comments I wondered whether the hardships and new realities of life in a Covid 19 world had created a new crop of innovative ideas, providing new ways to improve on what has gone before, or whether ‘innovation in design’ is a key part of the DNA of all designers?

Without doubt, some of the mahi in this kaupapa (innovation) have been driven by, or were in direct response to the events and upheaval of 2020, but there was more happening than that.

The work and context discussed here seem to demonstrate that innovation is ‘hard-baked’ into the DNA of our designers and others in the creative industries, and that we rely upon them to rise up in times of uncertainty and change.

This essay by Lee Parkinson and illustration by Carol Green is part of a commissioned series of essays, interviews and artworks commissioned by Creative New Zealand for our 2020 pilot of the Aotearoa Design Archive.

Creative NZ