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Design Edge: What is an Invention?

Have you ever seen a product at market and had that moment of thinking “damn, I thought of that years ago and did nothing with it”? It’s a common story that I would suspect every inventor tells. Through my involvement in the United Inventors Association, People of Play (formerly the Chicago Toy and Game Group), and the Toy Association’s Creative Factor, I have been fortunate to meet countless aspiring toy and game inventors and entrepreneurs. They often come to Design Edge looking for advice, design, development, manufacturing, and/or representation. Most all of them have a zeal and excitement to them that is heartwarming and powerful. Some have fantastic inventions, but the large majority has only an idea — and an idea without a solution is not an invention. Here are five ways to make sure your idea is an invention.

1) Research. It can be euphoric when the proverbial light bulb turns on in your head. But just because you thought of it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done before. Google as many keywords related to your idea as you can to see what turns up. For instance, if you have an idea for a “flying doll” mix and match search terms, such as “hovering doll,” “hovering toy,” “gliding doll,” “soaring doll,” etc. After exhausting your Google search, try doing the same on Amazon, eBay, USTPO, or any other site that may yield results. If nothing turns up, you may be golden. If you find similar items, you’ll need to consider how different your idea is from what’s already on the market.

2) What’s the Difference? Having a purely original idea is rare and some would even argue impossible. I liken this to cooking. There are no new foods, only new variations on old recipes. How successful your recipe is against someone else’s could simply be the amount of paprika you use. You need to ensure that the taste is significantly different. Sticking with the food analogy, I’ll cite the differences between McDonald’s and fictional restaurant McDowell’s, as told by the owner of the latter, in the 1988 film, Coming to America:

“They got the Golden Arches, mine is the Golden Arcs. They got the Big Mac, I got the Big Mick. We both got two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions, but their buns have sesame seeds.”

What makes this comparison so funny is that the differences between the two restaurants are so incredibly insignificant. Inventors will often hold onto their idea, knowing that competitive products exist, by listing similarly minute differences. If you find yourself doing so, it’s time to let go.

3) A Shortage of Solutions. The concept of manned flight is as old as man. Countless people have dreamt of flying over generations, but in 1903, the Wright Brothers were the first to successfully achieve it and usher in the age of aviation. What’s the difference between them and all the dreamers? They found the solution. I am often approached by inventors who feel that because a technology similar to their idea exists, they’ll be able to walk up to a potential licensor and get a deal. They have a “you’ll figure it out for me” mentality. What they fail to realize is that there is no shortage of ideas, but there is a shortage of solutions. Licensors are licensing inventions in order to make money. They’ll go for a good idea with proven solutions over an amazing idea that has yet to be proven. A licensing deal is an investment to them and a proven idea requires fewer venues to bring to market. Plus, they don’t run the risk that it can’t be done and will turn into a complete loss.

4) Prove Your Solution, Not Your Design Aesthetic. Far too often, I am presented with a concept that’s purely design-driven with no new function.While a new design aesthetic can certainly change a market landscape, it needs to be so revolutionary that any copycat would look like a knockoff. These items are also a much greater investment to licensors. To launch a new design aesthetic, they need to put a ton of money into marketing and promotion. Even if they obtain a patent, competitors can design around the design patent with enough small tweaks to their copycat. If the original item is a success, there will be a rush of similar items on the market. A licensor must be prepared to challenge them based on your patent while continuing to promote your concept as the original. This can be very costly, so licensors will really need to be convinced that your new aesthetic is worth it.

5) Don’t Show, Don’t Sell. Without a doubt, inventing is a tough racket. Not only do you have to have good ideas, but you also have to have the courage to show them to potential licensors. Many of the most successful inventors I have ever met are also the best sales guys too! If the gift of gab is not your forte, then find an agent who can talk the talk and understands the market landscape. Inventing is carpe diem everyday business. If you don’t show your idea quickly, you stand the chance of seeing it brought to market by other inventors.

Matt Nuccio is president of Design Edge, a New York-based graphic design and research development studio. For more information, he can be reached at Matt@DesignEdge.net.

This piece appeared in the February 2021 issue of TFE Magazine.