Four Tips on How R&D Can Work Better with Design

By Lilly Milman |  May 28, 2021

David Dombrowski, the R&D Packaging Head of Innovation and Sustainability for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Consumer Healthcare considers being a translator between the design and R&D teams one of his main responsibilities. Dombrowski’s background is primarily in design, with past design roles at Fisher-Price and Procter & Gamble — but he sees R&D and design as being much more similar than they are different.

David Dombrowski, GSK

“Innovation is the thread that works across everything,” he says. “We’re [Design and R&D] always going to push each other… Everybody wants to do something a little bit new.” 

In his role at the pharmaceutical company, Dombrowski works on bringing new pharmaceutical products and technologies to consumers, working with the design team on packaging and delivering new offerings. GSK is the world’s sixth largest pharmaceuticals company, known for creating medications like amoxicillin — an antibiotic popular in treating strep throat — as well as the first malaria vaccine.  

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In a recent interview with InnoLead, Dombrowski shared a designer’s insights on incremental innovation, design thinking, and more. Below are his top tips for innovators, from a designer’s point of view. 

  1. Technology can refresh retired ideas.  “What’s old is new again,” Dombrowski says, referencing the color DayGlo Green, a bright lime akin to a hue popular in 1960s fashion and decor. “That’s a way back, throwback color,” he says. While the retro color is popular again, Dombrowski explains, innovation has allowed it to come back in a brighter and more vibrant shade than ever before. This is just one example of how incremental innovation can benefit designers, and how the two groups can work together. 

  2. Take time to understand design thinking, and use it to bring iterations of ideas to life. In Dombrowski’s words, design thinking is a way of presenting product ideas and prototypes to a specific audience. And, he says, he appreciates the term because it gets designers involved in conversations early. “How you bring that Minimum Viable Product to life could be through an experience, could be through a spreadsheet,” he says. “I hated [the term ‘design thinking’] at first because I felt marketing just took it and stole it from design… I’ve come to embrace it now, because…it’s opened more opportunities for designers to get involved in areas they never thought they could… Don’t ignore that design is the foundation of design thinking, where it came from, how it’s brought to life, and what it means to deliver on a great opportunity.”

  3. Get non-designers involved in design thinking with activities like mind mapping. Even if you are intimidated by the idea of drawing, Dombrowski says, getting comfortable with putting pen to paper is an important step in thinking through ideas fully. He recommends mind mapping because it can begin with something as easy as a single word on a page inside of a circle. Then, that word can lead to another, and another. It can also be done as a group. “You start to see patterns…and then you make large circles around clusters of things that make sense, because you naturally will do that in your brain. Mind mapping is…[getting the words] out of your head on paper. Everybody’s a Leonardo da Vinci in their head — [but it’s harder] getting your hands to articulate that on paper. … All of a sudden, one of those words becomes shared with somebody else, and then [you can] start the conversation… Post a notepad on the wall and just start and ask people for input and let other people mind map and connect the dots with you. … It’s almost like a very low-end version of open source.”

  4. Embrace processes where they are necessary, but don’t get bogged down. “I hate process,” Dombrowski says, although he recognizes that he needs it in order to succeed at a large company. Not only is having a process a way to organize one’s innovation activities, but it also allows employees across a company to speak the same language and collaborate more effectively. “I have to have process in corporations, and companies need process in order to create a foundation of thinking. … It’s not a rule but a guide…to keep you moving. … Externally, having process enables you to look like someone who is organized and can work in a business environment… I don’t want you to get stuck on process. You need to work outside [of it], but then bring yourself back to [the process to get] organized moving forward. It can bring others on board, because it allows a common thinking and common thread to move an idea forward. If you keep staying on your own track, you’ll be on your own track. You need to somehow merge every once in a while.”