Dominant design

The transition from architectural to regular innovation is often associated with the emergence of a dominant design in the product. With this the focus of innovation shifts from meeting emerging needs with new concepts, to refining, improving and strengthening the dominant design and its appeal in the market. It is important to recognize that this transition is but the search for a strategic advantage over competitors. Where advantage in the architectural phase rests on enhanced product performance that may be gained through creativity in linking new technology to latent needs, exploiting the advantage inherent in a dominant design demands a change in strategic orientation.

(Abernathy and Clark, 1985:15)

Abernathy W. and Clark, K. 1985. Innovation: Mapping the winds of creative destruction. Research Policy, Vol. 14, pp. 3-22.


Two concepts are important to understanding the ways in which component and architectural knowledge are managed inside an organization. The first is that of a dominant design. Work by Abernathy and Utterback (1978), Rosenberg (1982), Clark (1985), and Sahal (1986) and evidence from studies of several industries show that product technologies do not emerge fully developed at the outset of their commercial lives (Mansfield, 1977). Technical evolution is usually characterized by periods of great experimentation followed by the acceptance of a dominant design.

(Henderson and Clark, 1990: 13)

A dominant design often emerges in response to the opportunity to obtain economies of scale or to take advantage of externalities (David, 1985; Arthur, 1988). For example, the dominant design for the car encompassed not only the fact that it used a gasoline engine to provide motive force but also that it was connected to the wheels through a transmission and a drive train and was mounted on a frame rather than on the axles. A dominant design incorporates a range of basic choices about the design that are not revisited in every subsequent design.

(Henderson and Clark, 1990: 14)

Henderson, R. and Clark, K. 1990. Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technologies and the Failure of Established Firms. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 9-30

Evaluation policy for an existing technology plays a role analogous to that played by an accepted paradigm in an area of scientific explanation. It comprises a system of judgments as to which factors are important, how each is measured, and how they are to be valued (Wojick, 1979). Except in the case of simple technologies, technological designs are seldom adjudicated based on technological considerations alone; dominant designs emerge out of a sociopolitical process of compromise and accommodation played out in the community (Murmann & Tushman, 2001; Rosenkopf & Tushman, 1994). The “best” technology does not necessarily win the competition between alternative de signs. Van de Ven and Garud (1989, 1993) found that, in technology-intensive industries, fragmentation of interests across industry participants can hinder collective action

(Hargrave and Van de Ven, 2006:877)

Hargrave, T. and Van de Ven, 2006. A collective action model of institutional innovation.  Academy of Management Review, Vol. 31, (4), pp.864-888.

To read:

Zeppini, P., van den Bergh, J.C.J.M., 2011. Competing recombinant technologies for environmental innovation: extending Arthur’s model of lock-in. Industry and Innovation 18 (3), 317–334.

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