My Soapbox: Craig Vogel, University of Cincinnati

Machines that make frozen margaritas, a new packaging system for Alzheimer’s patient medication and ergonomically designed kitchen tools have two things in common, according to Craig Vogel:

Opportunity and innovation.

Vogel, associate dean and professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP), points to each as an example of how the needs of consumers drive innovative products as well as profits for individuals and industries.

Vogel’s knowledge can be a little intimidating and a lot infectious. He has devoted his career to innovation. The director of the Center for Design Research and Innovation at DAAP, Vogel is also a professor in the School of Design with an appointment in Industrial Design. He is a Fellow, Past President Elect and Chair of the Board of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA). 

He and colleague Jonathan Cagan, of Carnegie Mellon University, co-authored the second edition of Creating Breakthrough Products: Revealing the Secrets that Drive Global Innovation. The book focuses on “innovation, independent of where it originates, and provides a truly global perspective that reflects a changing world,” Vogel says. 
The new edition also includes analytical tools that address the most critical and difficult-to-get-right part of the development process – what Vogel calls “the fuzzy front end, the very early stage of product development, when you're really not sure where to start and what the end product will be. You're trying to assess the context and determine what the value opportunity is that will meet the needs and delight consumers.”

Vogel recently delighted Soapbox as he shared his thoughts on innovation, Cincinnati and what companies need to do to “get it right.” 

Q: What brought you to Cincinnati eight years ago from Carnegie Mellon?
A: I came to DAAP knowing it would be a chance to re-invent what I was doing, and as it turns out, to integrate two things: One is my interest in socially responsible design, with a focus on the issues of global aging; and the other is my concept on how to optimize early stages of innovation, which is what the book was about. 

Q: You helped create the Live Well Collaborative, an innovation incubator that partners private companies and students in various ways. What is that group and how does it work?
A: P&G was wrestling with how to create more effective products for aging consumers over 50. That became the core of the Live Well Collaborative. Then what become part of its success was creating a model that several companies could be part of—a 501-C6 nonprofit between P&G and UC, which was great. 

The thing that makes Live Well work so well is that our students are an amazing source of new innovation. They are able to come up with ideas for companies, and we’ve had over 30 projects in five years with several different companies. 

It’s been a wonderful opportunity to get students to come together from multiple disciplines [to tackle] very topical issues companies are addressing and to get their support and insight. It’s a like a third space between curriculum and co-ops, and one that the students do very well in. 

Q: What is the magic of DAAP? 
A: At DAAP the mindset is to explore the edges of everything to find where the new possibilities are. It is expected that every student is to be doing that in some way. 

So, once you open that door, then you have to create a curriculum to support it. I found that mindset for me to be refreshing.

You are given permission to think out of the box and are expected to. DAAP is the college of what-do-you-do-once-you-find-out-there-is-new-way-of-thinking about the world? How do you make the world better? That is what drives the whole college here. These are some of the most exciting environments to be in. 

Q: What are the steps to innovation?
A: There are four steps to early innovation. First you have to figure out if you have to a real opportunity. Social, economical and technical forces shift and throw out opportunities. So once you know you have a genuine opportunity, then you have to understand what the value issues are: What’s wrong with the current value in that -- but not just in cost alone. 

Then you go out and deal with what consumers are dealing with. You don’t get yes or no answers from them, you use cultural ethnography to get a deeper insight into what people’s needs are. 

And then the big trick is that you create this framework of knowledge of what is out there. In order for a product to be successful it’s got to solve these issues. So then you make the model, prototypes and ideas; and then you test it with consumers and special advisors.

Q: What aren’t companies doing well around innovation?
A: The challenge is stealing the right amount of time to understand the opportunity. Companies don’t take enough time to solve the issues early. If they are going to cheat, they are going to cheat in the understanding phase, and every time they do that, it comes back and bites them. 

Q: What’s an example of a company or product that understood an opportunity and seized on it?
A: Jimmy Buffet Parrotheads wanted a mixer that could make really good margaritas. They said: “If you can make a really good one, we would pay for it.” The company created a professional level mixer that while you may pay $300 to $500 for it, if you bought the professional model you would pay $5,000 for it. So they solved that problem. 

Most of the Jimmy Buffett Parrot heads are successful people who will pay for what they value. And now it is cascading out from that core group, which is what any really good innovation does.  

And the OXO Good Grips is the gift that keeps on giving. OXO is over 500 products now, based on the idea that if products are easy to hold and easy to use, people of all different ages and abilities can use them. OXO takes one thing after another and figures out how to make it easier to hold. 

Q: Who is doing innovation well nationally?
A: GE Health Care is doing some very interesting things. They are doing exciting things in helping their healthcare products be better integrated. Ziba Design in Portland, a design consultancy group, is doing some really great work. I think OXO continues to work very well under their core premise.

Q: Locally, who is doing innovation well?
A: I think you are beginning to see some interesting examples of emerging small things going on, especially in this whole world on Main Street, with young entrepreneurs starting to dedicate their lives at a very low income level to start their own innovations and entrepreneurships. 

The Losantiville Collective is doing some very interesting work. The Taste of Belgium waffle guy, who comes here as an immigrant and now has waffle places all over the city. How did he do that? 

Look at Blue Oven Bakery; they are a wonderful story. People stand in line at Findley Market to spend over $20 on loaves of bread that they are going to slice themselves and put in the freezer. They sell out in two hours. Talk about a value flip. 

Look at Jungle Jim’s. It is one of the most innovative solutions to retail anywhere. There really isn’t anyone who isn’t brought to their retail knees on just how imaginative that place is. I am always looking at local entrepreneurs. It’s wonderful.

Chris Graves is the assistant vice president of the Powers Agency.



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