Designing in the Dark: How to Create Innovative Products with Zero Referencesby@aseverino
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Designing in the Dark: How to Create Innovative Products with Zero References

by Angelina ★ SeverinoMarch 25th, 2024
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Unlock innovative product design strategies in Designing in the Dark by Angelina Severino. Embrace creativity from diverse sources for groundbreaking solutions.
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My name is Angelina Severino, I am a Design Lead focused on creating innovative tech products. With this article, I'm exploring the meaning of innovation when it comes to designing a new product in the market. How to find the sources of inspiration for a completely new product? How will the users experience something that they have never used before? And most importantly – how to create real value for both business and users with zero information as your starting point?

For more than 5 years I've been working in an innovative IoT SaaS company focused on Smart Home Automation. The new solution I'm working on is Home Alarm Wi-Fi Sensing powered by AI, which blends high-tech software with user-centric design. While developing the user interface for this unique new product, I couldn't help but ask myself – how do we create products that never existed before? And what practical tips and advice could help the designers who feel overwhelmed and simply lost in this unknownness? I've been writing down my observations and findings, and today I would like to share the 7 cornerstones distilled from my personal experience.

1. Get Inspired by Nature

Nature often provides innovative solutions that can inspire creative design. Explore the intricacies of the natural world: observe patterns, structures, and functionalities in plants, animals, and ecosystems.

Biomimicry, the practice of drawing inspiration from nature's designs and processes to solve human problems, offers a wealth of opportunities for innovation in technology design. One key aspect of biomimicry in tech design involves the observation and emulation of patterns found in nature. By analyzing intricate patterns observed in various natural phenomena, designers can uncover solutions that are not only visually captivating but also highly functional and efficient. Whether drawing inspiration from the Fibonacci sequence, hexagonal structures, or other natural patterns, the possibilities for creating compelling and impactful designs are endless.

For instance, the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical pattern commonly observed in plant growth, spiral shells, and even the arrangement of leaves on a stem, presents a compelling example. This sequence, characterized by each number being the sum of the two preceding ones (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.), results in a distinctive spiral pattern known as the Fibonacci spiral or golden spiral. Designers can leverage this pattern's aesthetic appeal and mathematical precision to inform the layout and arrangement of elements in user interfaces (UI) or user experience (UX) design. By applying the Fibonacci sequence, for instance, in the sizing and positioning of interface elements or in the distribution of content, designers can create visually pleasing and harmonious designs that resonate with users on a subconscious level. This way, even in the absence of direct references from similar products (because they simply don't exist) designers can be sure they are on the right track with their innovative solution.

2. Art and Creativity Hubs

By engaging in art and creativity hubs, designers can expand their creative horizons, challenge conventional thinking, and cultivate a multidimensional approach to innovation in tech product design. Drawing inspiration from various artistic forms, designers can infuse their projects with originality, emotion, and meaning, ultimately crafting products that not only fulfill user needs but also captivate users on an aesthetic and emotional level.

Visual Arts. Exploring paintings, sculptures, and other visual artworks can stimulate the imagination and ignite innovative thinking. Visual compositions, color schemes, and artistic techniques can cultivate novel design concepts and aesthetic elements in tech products. For example, the bold use of colors in a contemporary painting can influence the creation of a vibrant user interface design for a mobile app.

Music. It has the power to evoke emotions, create moods, and trigger memories. By listening to a diverse range of musical genres, designers can cultivate an understanding of rhythm, harmony, and composition, which can be translated into intuitive and engaging user experiences. The dynamic flow of a musical piece may inspire the fluid navigation and interaction design of a digital interface.

Literature. Reading exposes designers to diverse narratives, characters, and themes. Literary works often explore complex human experiences and societal issues, providing designers with perspectives on user needs, motivations, and aspirations. Themes of resilience and transformation in a novel can stimulate the development of innovative product features aimed at empowering users to overcome challenges.

Performance Arts. Participating in theater performances, dance shows, or live concerts can provide designers with a distinctive viewpoint on storytelling, movement, and expression. The immersive experience of live performances can prompt designers to develop interactive and compelling experiences that deeply connect with users. The choreography observed in a dance performance may influence the creation of fluid motion and gesture-based interactions within a virtual reality application.

3. Cross-Industry Insights

This is a strategic approach for designers aiming to bring innovation in tech product development. By expanding their scope beyond their own field of expertise and exploring innovations in unrelated industries, designers can uncover valuable eye-openers, concepts, and technologies that can be adapted and applied to their own novel creations. Here's how this approach can benefit designers in creating innovative tech products:

Diverse Perspective. By examining innovations across various industries, designers gain exposure to diverse perspectives and approaches to problem-solving. This can broaden their mindset and encourage them to think outside the box, promoting creativity and innovation in their own design processes.

Transferable Concepts. Many concepts and principles are transferable across different industries. By studying innovations in unrelated fields, designers can identify concepts, methodologies, or design principles that can be adapted to their own projects. For example, the concept of user-centered design, commonly applied in the software industry, can also be relevant in the design of physical products.

Technological Advancements. Technological advancements in one industry often have implications and applications in others. By staying informed of innovations in unrelated sectors, designers can discover emerging technologies or cutting-edge solutions that can be leveraged to enhance their own products. For instance, advancements in materials science may have implications for product durability or functionality.

Inspiration for Unique Solutions. Innovations in unrelated industries can motivate designers to think creatively and envision unique solutions to challenges in their own field. By drawing parallels between seemingly disparate domains, designers can generate innovative ideas and approaches that set their products apart in the market.

Disruption and Differentiation. Cross-industry insights enable designers to anticipate disruptive trends and identify opportunities for differentiation. By borrowing ideas or strategies from unconventional sources, designers can create products that challenge existing norms and offer unique value propositions to users.

Collaboration Opportunities. Exploring innovations in unrelated industries can also facilitate collaboration and knowledge exchange across disciplines. By connecting with experts from different fields, designers can gain fresh perspectives, access specialized expertise, and facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration that fuels innovation.

4. Futurism and Science Fiction

Exploring futurism and science fiction can also provide invaluable inspiration for designing user interfaces that are intuitive, immersive, and forward-thinking. By analyzing the user interfaces depicted in futuristic settings, such as those found in sci-fi films or speculative literature, designers can get new ideas from innovative interaction patterns, visual aesthetics, and user experience principles.

These fictional interfaces often showcase imaginative and unconventional design elements that challenge traditional notions of usability and functionality. By studying these futuristic UIs, designers can identify novel ways to streamline interactions, leverage emerging technologies, and enhance the overall user experience.

Furthermore, futurism and science fiction offer a glimpse into potential advancements in technology and human-computer interaction. By envisioning how users might interact with cutting-edge technologies in the future, designers can anticipate trends and design interfaces that are not only visually striking but also aligned with users' evolving needs and expectations.

Incorporating elements of futurism and science fiction into UI/UX design encourages designers to think beyond current conventions and imagine possibilities that push the boundaries of what is considered feasible. It ignites creativity and innovation, empowering designers to create interfaces that captivate users' imaginations while also delivering seamless functionality and usability.

5. Hackathons and Design Challenges

Participating in hackathons, design challenges, and innovation competitions can be an invaluable source of inspiration for designing interfaces and user experiences for innovative products. These events offer a unique opportunity for designers to immerse themselves in a collaborative and competitive environment where creativity thrives and boundaries are pushed.

Hackathons, in particular, are intensive events where teams come together to rapidly prototype and develop solutions to specific challenges within a limited time frame. This fast-paced and high-pressure setting encourages participants to think creatively and experiment with unconventional ideas. It pushes designers to break free from conventional thinking and explore innovative approaches to solving problems.

Similarly, design challenges and innovation competitions provide designers with specific prompts or problem statements to tackle. These prompts often require participants to devise novel solutions that address emerging needs or technological advancements. By participating in such challenges, designers are prompted to think critically about user needs, technological capabilities, and market trends, inspiring them to design interfaces and user experiences that are not only innovative but also practical and impactful.

Moreover, these events cultivate a spirit of collaboration, allowing designers to work closely with individuals from diverse backgrounds, including developers, engineers, and business professionals. This interdisciplinary collaboration often leads to the cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives, offering new angles and approaches to design problems.

And finally, the competitive aspect of these events motivates designers to strive for excellence and push the boundaries of what is possible. It encourages participants to continuously iterate and refine their designs, aiming for solutions that are not just good but truly groundbreaking.

6. Academic Research Journals

Engaging with academic research journals can serve as a rich source of inspiration for "designing in the dark". These journals offer a wealth of knowledge and ideas from cutting-edge research in fields relevant to a designer's project, ranging from human-computer interaction to emerging technologies.

By diving into academic research, designers can keep up-to-date with the latest advancements and trends in their field. This exposure to state-of-the-art technologies, methodologies, and theories can stimulate new ideas and innovative approaches to designing interfaces and user experiences. For example, researchers might explore novel interaction techniques, new design paradigms, or emerging technologies like virtual reality or artificial intelligence, all of which can inspire innovative design concepts.

Also, academic research often uncovers unexpected facts about user behavior, preferences, and needs. By studying user studies, experiments, and surveys published in research journals, designers can gain a deeper understanding of their target audience and design interfaces that are not only intuitive but also tailored to users' specific needs and preferences.

Furthermore, academic research journals provide opportunities for potential collaboration. Designers may come across researchers whose work aligns with their project goals, offering opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. By partnering with researchers, designers can leverage their expertise and discoveries to develop more innovative and impactful solutions.

7. Random Stimuli Exercises

Participating in random stimuli exercises can be a powerful method for designing for innovation. These exercises involve engaging in activities that introduce unpredictability, such as brainstorming sessions, word associations, or image collages. By embracing randomness and allowing for unexpected connections to emerge, designers can unlock new sources of inspiration and creativity.

Brainstorming sessions are a common form of random stimuli exercise where participants generate ideas spontaneously without judgment or restraint. By encouraging free-flowing ideation and exploring diverse perspectives, designers can uncover novel concepts and approaches to interface design. This process of ideation can lead to innovative solutions that would not have been considered otherwise.

Similarly, word associations involve linking words or phrases together based on their analogues or similarities. By exploring these linguistic connections, designers can stimulate creative thinking and uncover unique links that can inform the design process. For example, associating words with emotions, sensations, or experiences can stimulate the creation of interfaces that evoke specific responses or resonate with users on a deeper level.

Image collages involve compiling a collection of images or visuals that evoke certain emotions, themes, or concepts relevant to the design project. By assembling these disparate visuals into a cohesive collage, designers can explore visual metaphors, patterns, and themes that can inspire the design of interfaces and user experiences. This process can spark creative connections and provide designers with fresh perspectives on how to approach their design challenges.


When it comes to creating something new, it's very comforting to remind yourself that nothing in the world is totally brand-new. There are always many things you can look at for inspiration, even if they are from a totally different area. This concept isn't about copying; it's about adapting and transforming. It's very similar to a curated treasure hunt, where each discovery from different domains contributes to a richer, more nuanced creative solution.

Drawing inspiration from nature's patterns and structures, engaging with diverse artistic forms, and seeking insights from unrelated industries offer avenues for creativity. Imagining future scenarios from speculative fiction, participating in collaborative events like hackathons, and staying well-informed of cutting-edge research provide further inspiration. Exploring unpredictability through activities like brainstorming and image collages stimulates creative connections and fresh ideas.

Here is to all the brave people who embrace the unknown, knowing that it's within the uncharted territories that true innovation awaits, ready to shape the future of design!

Text by Angelina Severino

Unsplash images credits: David Clode, Sergio Rota, ThisisEngineering RAEng, Aideal Hwa, UX Indonesia, National Cancer Institute, Jazmin Quaynor