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The fundamental proposition of the C-K theory is that the starting point of innovation is the Concept. Without concept, the design is only reduced to the improvement of the standard or problem solving.


Developed by French researchers, the C-K theory brought together until there two separate worlds:

  • The architectural and artistic tradition, the world of Concept: This is the traditional version of the reasoning of innovation. It bases the design reasoning on the ability to reason, to be creative and competence to “expand” (ability to generate new).
  • The tradition of the engineers, the Knowledge Space: Arrived well after the tradition of the architect, this version of the design reasoning is based on knowledge and experimentation.

The fundamental proposition of the C-K theory is that the starting point of innovation is the Concept. Without concept, the design is only reduced to the improvement of the standard or problem solving.

Structure of the C-K theory

C: The World of Concepts

The concept space represents all kinds of proposals for desired objects or services. In essence, a proposal does not have a logical status in space K. The concepts assert the existence of an unknown object that has properties desired by the designer.

K: The World of Knowledge

The knowledge space is defined by the set of knowledge available at the moment T. Thus, this space is extensible as new knowledge appears. Unlike the world of concepts, the structure of knowledge is logical.

C-K Operators

Based on these two spaces, C and K, the C-K theory shows that the design process is the result of four operators:

C, K → C, C → C, K → K

  1. C: We start by defining our Concept.
  2. K → C: Using our knowledge, the initial concept is partitioned.
  3. C → C: These partitions add new proposals to the concepts and thus create new
  4. K → K: thanks to a C → K conjunction, the expansion of C can cause the expansion of space K

This process is oversimplify in the following way:

An example of the realization

Elmar Mock is one of the inventors of the Swatch watch. He argues that innovation is a nonlinear process, which requires a re-and-fro between the two spaces (concepts and knowledge).

He describes the invention of the Swatch, by successive trial and error between concepts and knowledge :

  1. Concept: Create a “cheap watch, good quality, quickly and manufactured in Switzerland”.
  2. knowledge: The state of knowledge at the time did not allow the manufacture of a product that meets this concept.
  3. Concept: Based on this reality, a new concept is proposed, that of the “disposable watch”.
  4. Knowledge: Thanks to the knowledge possessed by the team in materials technology, the plastic watch comes to life. What a change: The Swiss watch is now plastic, unrepairable and low cost.
  5. Concept: Once the manufacturing process is in place, the question of the sale arises. At the time, a Swiss watch is an object that is repaired, made of metals, sometimes precious. How to sell a plastic watch, perceived as a low-end product? An additional concept emerges, that of the “Watch as fashion accessory”
  6. Knowledge: But how to make a fashion accessory by watchmaking specialists, more comfortable with metals, machining and all mechanical production techniques. The world of fashion has been an acquaintance to acquire, through experts, consultants and recruitment. The environment of selling these fashion products (shops rather than jewellery stores) was also an acquaintance to acquire

Set up the K-C theory

Step 1: Define the product

By helping the current state, the K, we define our concept. The objective is to show that the current state is unsatisfactory, exceeded… A 5W2H is relied upon to answer the following questions:

  • Why this object: What is the purpose of the object? If he is not present, what happens?
  • Who makes and uses it?
  • Where is it placed on the market? Rented, sold remotely…
  • What is he interacting with? Can these elements evolve?
  • When is it the most used?
  • How much does it cost?
  • How often is it used?
  • How is the company organized to deliver it? Equipment, subcontractor…
  • How does it work?
  • Why do we need it?

Step 2: Identify the Concept

This is the creative step of the C-K method. The idea is to define several projectors concepts from the original concept:

  • Each projector concept is deliberately removed from the original concept in order to explore different areas
  • Projecting concepts are defined by the steering team and are intended to revisit the identity of the product


The objective is to have several projecting concepts, in order to illuminate a problem in the widest way and to move away from the fixation effects.

In practice, one separates the team into several sub-groups animated by a designated person. Each sub-group uses creative Tools (SCAMPER…) to help challenge the definition of the product. In order to simplify the work of creativity, each sub-group will have to work on a specific part of the definition of the product (example: Group 1 will work on the subject of the placing on the market, group 2 on the operation the object…)

As each sub-group will present the result of its work to the other participants, there will be mutual enrichment. Intermediate refunds are planned to energize the work of the groups, not in a competitive logic but rather in an overall collaborative strategy: The idea of a sub-group can either solve the blocking of a Other group or open up new perspectives.

Step 3: Explore the concepts in K

In relation to each of the concepts identified above, the objective is to identify solutions that can be achieved. By having partitioned the subject, in the creative phase, it will be easier to find already existing solutions. By combining them, it will probably be possible to realize our concept.

Step 4: Create your Action Program

The objective is not to select the ‘ best ‘ action, at the risk of losing promising leads, but to develop a strategy that takes account of the interdependencies between the various proposals :

  • The actions must be able to cover the knowledge to be acquired and the concepts to be explored
  • The number and type of actions to be launched must be as astute as possible, to learn a lot and at lower cost
  • Actions are to be considered as iterations, i.e. progressive Explorations in the search for innovation



A. Hatchuel, B. Weil (1999)-Design-oriented organizations: Towards a unified Theory of design activities

A. Hatchuel and B. WEIL (2002-The C-K Theory: Foundations and uses of a unified design theory

P. Le Masson and C. Mcmahon (2015)-the C-K theory, a formal basis for innovation theories

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