Process, Creativity and Innovation – How do you fill the market white space?

Posted on Categories Thought Leadership

I’ve been reflecting on process, creativity, and innovation.  It’s a subject that is of great interest to me and to my graduate students at Northwestern University, where I am a professor and direct a program dedicated to graduate work in product design and development management.  I don’t reflect on the subject necessarily from an academic point of view but rather as a partner in Herbst Produkt, which is a Silicon Valley based award winning product design and innovation firm. I might add that I have approximately 125 patents, and most all have been reduced to commercial practice. The reduction to practice is the hard part, as the easy part is inventing.

When I touch on this subject to my students, especially my undergrads with no real world experience, the normal response generally has words in it like ‘Kickstarter’ or ‘Indigogo’. And the quick response from me questions the strategy following any on-line campaign.

I generally begin my teaching of the subject, by noting that very few products make it to market, let alone have standing, for more than one season.  I’m not alone in studying the subject and finding guidelines for teaching others.  The following are thoughts for those starting and might be a good reflection for those already ‘doing’.

Most any area one might be interested in has what I call ‘white space’. White space is a void in the market. And most anyplace one looks, one can find a void. They’re easy to plot, as one can develop a quadrant based on general variables. Variables could include style vs. price; or benefits vs. price; or ease of use vs. life style.

Here’s a simple example using a box cutter. Box cutters generally come in a common shape, have common parts, and have a price variance based on features.  Features are limited to colored handles vs. non-colored; or soft grip vs. hard grip; or folding blade vs. exposed blade. All have a common hand-held knife grip and all have a stainless steel replaceable blade that requires constant changing as the stainless blade dulls quickly.  If I develop a quadrant reviewing features and price I quickly find ‘white space’.  Which is not to indicate success, but rather opportunity.


As a designer, the quadrant allows one to explore the opportunity and recognize potential features.  The typical method would involve a user-centered research approach involving shadowing (or watching) heavy-duty users, being a user, and talking to heavy-duty users.

It doesn’t take long to recognize on the job blade changing is a pain, but must be done as the blades do not last long in an industrial use. And since the new blade is very sharp, accidents seem to be a norm. Add to the inherent sharpness of the blade, the point of the blade is lethal, allowing for lots of accidental ‘sticks’. Box cutting by it’s very nature often involves slicing open boxes that might have staples, and having an open knife grip design, can lead to shredded knuckles.

The review should culminate in finding the opportunistic white space. A blade that does not require constant changing, which is accomplished by using ceramic rather than stainless, and with a slightly rounded point to avoid accidental ‘sticks’ and a handle that protects rather than exposes the knuckles.


The ‘Slice’ ceramic bladed knife, fills the white space, allows for higher price points and higher margins, and the benefits are obvious to the user.

In reflecting on the subject I wanted to discuss, we have creativity, process and innovation. And remember you do not have innovation unless you have reduction to practice, real products (or services) in the field, not on the drawing board.


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About the Author

Walter B. Herbst

Walter Herbst is considered to be one of the “founding fathers “ of modern product design. Formed in 1962, Herbst grew the consultancy HLB to the largest independently owned product design firm in the U.S. before developing the Master of Product Design and Development Program at Northwestern University where he currently is the Director, as well as Clinical Professor with the Kellogg School of Management.