The Difference Between Inventing and Innovating

Do you know the difference between innovating and inventing? I’ve been reading a bit of tech news lately and discovered the articles I was reading aren’t really distinguishing a difference. Just yesterday I read an article where the author used the terms a bit interchangeably when in reality they are quite a bit different. Innovating and inventing are different and if we miss where they are unique we can miss an opportunity to do something special.

Definition of Invent

Starting with the definition of invent we can see the meaning often associated with these words. Put simply by Wiktionary:

To design a new process or mechanism.

The Free Dictionary (who suffers from far to many ads) has a nice addition where it says:

To produce or contrive (something previously unknown) by the use of ingenuity or imagination.


to create or devise (new ideas, machines, etc.)

Inventing is about creating something brand new.

Definition of Innovate

Merriam-Webster has some good clear definitions for innovate:

to introduce as or as if new


to make changes : do something in a new way

Innovating is about introducing something new.

The Difference and Why It Matters

The difference between inventing and innovating, while small, can make a big difference in what we design and build. Inventing is coming up with something new. For a rudimentary example, someone invented the wheel. But, that doesn’t touch on all the places an invention is introduced and used. Innovation is where inventions or other ideas are introduced into a situation, product, or process that are new to that situation, product, or process. They may not be new to the world around us but are new to this place.

Let’s make this a little more practical and use the web as an example. REST APIs and mixing data together to have discoveries or display stories in ways people can better understand is not new by any means. But, there are a lot of industries that have not done this. Bringing this type of thing to their data would not be inventing anything new. But, it could be innovate and make a significant difference in the grand scheme of things.

Inventing is hard. There are only so many wheel ideas out there. Real inventions don’t come along all the time. But, opportunities to innovate do come along often. There are lots of opportunities to innovate. And, it can change lives.