Moving the innovation design needle with the MAYA Principle

What is the MAYA principle?

It is defined by its abbreviation — Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. This principle is attributed to by the famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy — designer the iconic Coca Cola bottle — who is considered to be the Father of Industrial Design.

His extensive work is reflected in designing locomotives and appliances from the 40s to the 60s. This time period is important, being in an era after the Great Depression and World War II, with the general public’s emotive towards progress is gaining traction, albeit still conservative, and arguably risk-averse.

This constraint, I believe, has guided him in his designs and ultimately forming his mindset and principle as to how to put out a design that strikes the balance between the current acceptable norms and the innovative ideas of the future.

Slowly but surely, his work helped to “move the needle” of innovation. Bit by bit he helped Progress in a general sense by helping users move forward comfortably by accepting new designs.

Is the MAYA principle absolute? Or is it relative to a scope or timeline? How do we, as designers, know it is working for us or against us?

In my head, I imagine this principle as bending the rules vs breaking the rules. I see designs that bend the rules adhere to this principle wherein their designs push it to its “next level” but still being rooted in its base concepts. What this does is that it introduces it’s users to new concepts and ways of doing but with the comfort from familiarity from some old things. It’s gradual reconditioning and acceptance and adoption of the new. It’s an evolution.

On the other hand, breaking the rule is shattering through a layer and completely removing ties to old ways and thinking. It’s an overhaul of how things are done, how things seem to look and function. It’s a revolution. However, neither of these two things ensure success in its iterations. More importantly for me as a designer is knowing if I’m bending the rule or if I’m going to break it.

The MAYA principle isn’t absolute but can be considered as a constant option in evolving a product. As with many types of evolutions, it’s contextual and gradual. This makes the MAYA principle a guide rather than a rule, but a good one for that matter.

Breaking the rule can be great but is definitely harder

High risk, high reward type of design is almost always going against the MAYA principle. These designs tend to disrupt the accepted norms. These are the products that are labeled innovative. Uber, Dyson products, Tesla are some of the few who break the mold and offer something entirely new to the market. These products and services didn’t necessarily steer away from everything normal as they still have to play within the physical, economic, psychological boundaries of their different products. What they did is they leapfrogged several steps to break that ceiling of the currently accepted norm and succeeded.

However, going back to a phrase I’ve written above: “Uber, Dyson products, Tesla are some of the few who break the mold” — that’s very important and quite indicative of how hard to be successful in designing a product that breaks the rule. It’s very, very hard. The success rate of inventions are astoundingly low (success in this context is defined in terms of market success, not just problem-solving success) compared to products that are built on top of the latest iteration.

But again, it’s a high-risk high reward of play, and of those who succeed, help move that needle tremendously. They completely reorient user perspectives to a new normal through some kind of necessity or perspective that they immediately acknowledge is better and is worth the trouble of relearning or getting accustomed to something new.

A Practical Approach

In closing, I would like to ask a few questions that can be applied in design iterations. How do we know that our designs are in its most advanced state and that it’s still acceptable? How do we know and measure that our work innovated the field (whatever field) and that it still thrives in the hands of our users?

A practical answer to this would be to simply ask your users. Is your product familiar or devoid of what it was? Can they use and function as before while being introduced to new ideas and concepts? How does introducing a new idea rate in the product’s HEART framework (if you are using that)? If it is not the same, is it now better, or worse? Coupling these qualitative questions to actual usability exercises can point us in the right direction if our designs and iterative innovations are working for us or against us.

UX & Product Designer. Santiago, Chile.

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