Product design’s quietly crept into the limelight

With most folk in the industry taking time out to prepare for the autumn push for work, it’s worth taking a look at an area of design that has quietly been going through change while those in other sectors have been pretty vocal about their new ventures. That area is product design.

It’s the bit of the industry the acquisitive big conglomerates have largely shunned, not tempted by relatively small margins and equally tiny teams. Yet it has long-standing international reach and the best practitioners on the consultancy side enjoy considerable influence in the companies that commission them.

But it has changed over the past five or so years from producing durables for consumer or industrial consumption, to being, in some arenas, as much a part of the communications and branding mix as any other discipline more overtly focused in these areas.

At the turn of the millennium talk in marketing circles was of ‘product as brand’. Jonathan Ive’s sterling work at Apple Computer bore this out, as did Dyson vacuum cleaners and the Volkswagen Beetle. The product was the brand and any consumer communications had to bow to this fact. Many of the creative teams behind these products are in-house, but consultancies too were changing. There were reports of successful collaboration, between, say, Factory and Williams Murray Hamm.

But many product groups were meanwhile diversifying from pure product. Take Kinneir Dufort. Even before its management buy-out in 2001, the Bristol group had introduced packaging into its mix, initially as a new product development project for intermediaries and often in collaboration with local branding group Blue Marlin, but now it works directly with brand-owners.

Priestman Goode now claims interiors among its strengths. PDD, once known for its engineering-based work, now says communications is one of its main thrusts. BIB went into Web design and Seymour Powell is renown for its forecasting arm.

These are high-profile examples of change, and, given the reticence of the product fraternity and their clients’ awkwardness about pushing their work, it is hard to identify others. But there are others, as the trio featured on page 15 show.

The message is clear though. Product designers can still create ground-breaking designs, reducing costs through effective use of materials and processes. They can address environmental issues head on and can bring the human experience to the engineering side of manufacturing. But, with courage, they can also get deeper into the client relationship and have an impact on strategy and even brand essence. They are to be applauded and watched with interest.

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