Two areas can be addressed in the context of personal design innovation. The first is design for individuals, for persons. Design is seen and used by a person. The second is how we design for ourselves--what personal gain comes from either our finished design or our work process. We need to consider both of these areas, as they are both important and need to be reconciled for everyone to be happy.
It often seems easier (and makes sense) to design in an evolutionary manner based on past innovative work that was successful and appealing. Two different examples of this are Russel Wright's American Modern and melamine dinnerware, and the animated title sequences of Saul Bass. The innovative and iconic work of both of these designers can be seen echoed again and again as other designers use them as inspiration. These "looks" or "forms" are tried and true. A person likes what is 1) well done, and 2) has familiarity. It is usually easier to evolve what is already accepted than to produce completely innovative work. At the same time, interest in new objects and spectacles is a force that draws an individual to novel designs. However, the newness of a design (especially products and interfaces) must not only provide interest on a personal level, but must also function really well. If it looks interesting, functions well, and does both in a new and different way, personal satisfaction is apt to be high. When balancing these components, what should have the priority--a different and appealing appearance or a function that meets the user's needs in a new, better way? In an essay, design editor Jan van Rossem mentions the huge profits a company such as Alessi can make from selling unusually shaped products, which is fine, "provided the consumer apparently doesn't care if...that most famous of all useless juicers, Philippe Starck's "Juicy Salif", squirts juice everywhere - a small amount of which even makes its way into the waiting glass." (1) He goes on to state that design should enhance quality of life, that originality needs a story (see the next paragraph), and that designers have to be inventors.
The other side of this subject is how we, as designers, go about our work from a personal perspective. We want our work to be accepted by users and viewers, but we also need the creation of that work to be personally satisfying to us (at least we should need that). Luckily, innovation and personal satisfaction are quite compatible, as we can feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment upon seeing our new ideas manifested. If we weren't happy being innovative, then we probably wouldn't be going into design. So how can we create designs that are both personally fulfilling (or have personal touches) and connect with users? One way to do this is to think about incorporating aspects of storytelling into our work. The book Universal Principles of Design directs us to "use storytelling to engage an audience in a design, evoke a specific emotional response, or provide a rich context to enhance learning. When successfully employed, an audience will experience and recall the events of the story in a personal way--it becomes a part of them. This is a phenomenon unique to storytelling." (2) Designer and author Anthony Dunne discusses this idea regarding electronic objects:
"Conventional roles for design include addressing problems set by industry, designing interfaces that seduce the user into cybernetic communication with the corporate cultural values embodied in the emerging environment of digital objects, and finding novel applications for new technology. But design could also develop new attitudes to electronic technology. To do this, designers could become more like authors, drawing from the narrative space of electronic object misuse and abuse to create alternative contexts of use and need." (3)
Having a personal investment in a creation that works well and communicates with the individual user is sure to have a new, lasting, positive presence.
Using the "quality of life" approach, one could say that design is about making people happy. Then, on a personal level, any particular innovative design should 1) make the individual using it happy, and 2) bring happiness to the person who is making it. The financial post will add complexity to these ideas, but for now this seems like a great methodology.
1) Rossem, Jan van. "The Balancing Act of Design: Originality, Individualism, Mass Production". Entry Paradise: New Worlds of Design. Birkhauser, 2006.
2) Lidwell, William et al. Universal Principles of Design. Rockport Publishers, 2003.
3) Dunne, Anthony. Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. The MIT Press, 2005.