Both business and academic communities have embraced the concept of a one-page canvas as a way to conceptualize new ventures, create innovative designs, and teach entrepreneurial thinking. The popularity of the canvas approach has been sparked by Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas (BMC) . Introduced in 2010, the BMC has been widely adopted in entrepreneurship classrooms, the NSF I-Corps program, and as part of the Lean Launchpad approach.
The popularity of the BMC has inspired the creation of many additional canvases including several developed through the efforts of members of the IOI Partners team, such as the Innovation Canvas, which has proven to be a highly successful tool for helping young engineers understand the product-market fit for potential innovations.
So what’s the magic? Why have canvases become so popular and readily adopted? We are just starting to uncover some of this reasoning but insights have already emerged .
A canvas is typically comprised of the high-level themes that model a system. A system can be a product, a business model, or anything else that processes inputs to produce outputs. For example, the BMC represents the high-level, important themes or elements of a business model. The Innovation Canvas (IC) and Customer Value Proposition canvases represent the main components of a product design model that is based on an underlying systems engineering meta-model called Systematica . Since a canvas represents a view of an underlying system, it is critical to select the right canvas for your desired purpose.
The Canvas Mindset
A canvas changes the mindset of the user from ‘follow a process’ to ‘build a model’. However, developing products and business models is often presented as a process with the sections of the business plan serving as the visual roadmap for the exercise. The process is best managed by experts who understand the hidden nuances, but novices, who despite accurately following these processes, often end up with poor designs.
When a team of users think about and work with a canvas, they are actually exploring, associating and making trade-offs using the high-level themes that they will continue to develop into a system model or possibly a business plan.
The canvas shifts the approach from ‘divide and conquer’ to ‘collaborate and communicate’. Whereas a traditional design or business plan project often consist of individuals working in isolation on different pieces of the project, the canvas approach encourages a group to work together, share perspectives, and seek alignment of ideas. These activities are supported by the canvas’ visual and team-oriented characteristics.
The Benefits of a Canvas Approach
The canvas brings value and context to the forefront of the development process. A well-designed canvas represents the high-level themes of a model of a system with a central theme of value. This presents a different thought process to the user. Rather than focusing only on the technical design of a product, use of the Innovation Canvas ensures that elements of business context and a central theme of value creation are considered. This conceptual prototyping is unique as a team can explore and experiment without investing significant resources. The team can often rule out poor options, and narrow down concepts for further consideration and prototyping.
The process steps for using the canvas is less important, and canvas newcomers often ask, “Where do I start and when am I done?” Since this is now a model building exercise, the starting point can really be anywhere on the canvas and the exercise is completed when alignment among the various model elements is achieved.
Additional benefits of the canvas approach include the ability to represent multiple systems on a canvas including product, business model, and elements of context. Canvases are equally valuable in startup or established enterprises and a canvas can be applied in a variety of forward, backward (reverse engineering), or diagnostic situations.
It is clear that educators and practitioners are not waiting for rigorous assessment results to adopt canvas tools in their work and neither should you. Canvases are a great way to inspire teamwork, innovation, and your ability to deliver value to customers.
 Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
 Tranquillo, J., C. Hixson, and W. Kline, ‘Making Sense of Canvas Tools – Analysis and Comparison of Popular Canvases with an Emphasis on Educational Use,’ paper to appear at ASEE Annual Conference, New Orleans, June 2016.
 Kline, William, Cory Hixson, Thomas W. Mason, Patricia Brackin, Robert Bunch, KC Dee, Glen Livesay, ‘The Innovation Canvas in Entrepreneurship Education: Integrating Themes of Design, Value, and Market Success,’ JEEN – The Journal of Engineering Entrepreneurship, Volume 5, Number 1, 2014.