Brilliant design can go beyond new market opportunities and break-through products. It can change the world. But companies have sometimes gone too far searching for innovation and great design.

The latest indication is a piece in the New York Times Magazine that addresses the mania to redesign the entire world. In business it's become an object of faith that Apple has succeeded in large part because of great design. Rather than something that looks nice, design in this case means creating products so they more effectively address a problem customers have.

Design as innovation

In that sense, design is a form of incremental innovation in which you change a product, service, or system through multiple iterations. The point is to work toward a more perfect form that people find easier to use and a more intuitive and direct way of accomplishing what they wanted to do. As you change aspects of an existing idea, you look for it to deliver more value to users than previous versions.

One limitation in business has been the embodiment of the it's-always-been-done-that-way principle. Lamps look and act like lamps because that's how they've always been made. So do refrigerators, chairs, and so on. We assume that there is something inherently important about existing design rather than questioning it.

The problem

As companies realized they were making assumptions that were possibly limiting, interest in better design became popular. The belief in incremental improvement -- the ability to build that better mousetrap and have the world beat a path to your door -- let to design consultancies that could help manufacturers better understand their users and adapt design to work for people.

But the consultancies needed to keep redesigning everything to stay busy. Companies assumed that everything needed redesign. Asking questions about existing designs made sense; trying to redesign everything was problematic. There are only so many design resources, so much money to devote to creating new forms, and so much time.

Redesign has high costs

Some item designs could use new thought. There have been times that have seen significant attempts to redesign many aspects of life, like the Bauhaus movement that tried to reconceive architecture, furniture, and housewares. However, there's a difference between changing fundamental design and altering ornamentation and style. Achieving real difference in design that provides improvement your customers will care about is difficult. Such an achievement requires expensive and time-consuming undertaking requiring research into user habits and analysis of what could work better.

Then there are the issues of bringing something new to market and selling it. A redesign of some common item may not get attention from the public because people are in a rut. Getting them to change habits requires education and can be an expensive and extensive process. The costs and efforts necessary to convince people to adopt a new model of something familiar are extensive. You might find that even a new logo or packaging design leaves people unable to quickly spot your product on the shelf, driving them to pick something else. If you don't factor those into the development costs, you could come up with the most expensive improved mousetrap that no one bothers to purchase in the world.

Permission to leave things alone

You can also create distress among customers. When The Gap changed its logo in 2010, customer feedback was so negative that the company had to scrap the planned changes. Coca-Cola committed its largest single when it reformulated its iconic drink into New Coke. There are so many chairs too uncomfortable to sit in and websites too confusing to use that sometimes you might wonder whether letting people tinker with design at all is a good idea.

It can be, but you need to prioritize. Focus on what has a chance to make the biggest impact on customers and the return you'll see on the investment in the redesign. Don't make a fetish of incremental improvement and redesign.