Production line poser

Despite the hype, product design seems to have found itself at an impasse. Mark Delaney looks at the reasons for the malaise, while Design Week previews product designs from this year’s degree show at the Royal College of Art

Despite the hype, product design seems to have found itself at an impasse. Mark Delaney looks at the reasons for the malaise, while Design Week previews product designs from this year’s degree show at the Royal College of Art

Design has never been more important. From daily newspapers to the heavyweight business press, design matters are being debated almost daily. There are more designers than ever before, resulting in the design media heaving with designer chairs, cushions, lights and other witty knick-knacks. But, away from self-indulgent, artistic self-expression of the so-called ‘design elite’, what does this mean to the stuff we use every day – mobiles, microwaves, TVs and the like?

On the face of it, consumer electronics brands seem to be taking design very seriously, investing in huge design resources. There are even examples of design being represented at board level within these organisations, with Jonathan Ive, Apple Computer’s vice- president of industrial design, being the most famous. But, with a few very notable exceptions, this exponential rise in the importance of design within the consumer electronics industry has not been reflected by a similar rise in the quality of electrical products for sale in our shops. Walk into your local consumer electronics retailer and you will be confronted by row after row of me-too, generic blandness or products so eye-wateringly ugly you marvel at how they ever got made at all.

What is going wrong? It’s not for a want of design talent. Visit any competent product design studio around the world and you will find it populated by passionate, committed individuals, most of whom truly believe in the power of design to make the world a better place. They will, doubtless, be able to show you numerous interesting and exciting product designs they have developed for clients that, for various reasons, never made it past the concept development stage. Why is it so difficult to get innovative ideas to market?

At the heart of the problem is the fact that, despite acknowledging that design is important, most companies are still unsure of how to manage it effectively. Product designers are also struggling to come to terms with their new-found importance. Used to relying on intuition and personal opinion, many are struggling to facilitate design within a business context. In the 2005 Design Council/Design Business Association design industry research, almost a third (31 per cent) of design respondents thought designers do not communicate the value of design very well to clients. Their ability to do this was described as ‘absolutely appalling’, ‘depressing’ and associated with ‘a reputation for fluffy talk’.

Therefore, it is little wonder that, despite design becoming an increasingly important element of corporate strategy, senior executives, used to the absolutes of sales figures and spreadsheets, are struggling to come to terms with the intangible, less quantifiable elements that make up a satisfying brand and product experience. To be able to make the right decisions, they need access to expert design advisers, who can demystify the design process and make it relevant within a business context. As long as they are lacking in credible design guidance, company executives will either make snap decisions, based upon personal taste, or, if they are more cautious, turn to traditional market research methods, such as focus groups, hall tests and the like, which seem to offer concrete results that are easy to communicate. Product designers tend to be rightly suspicious of research results arrived at by these simplistic methods, as they fail to engage with the complexity of the customer’s relationship with a product or the realities of manufacture, and assume that the current state of the market reflects its future.

All of this often leads executives to assume that product designers are resistant to research, unwilling to connect with the customer and overly precious about their work. With some particularly egocentric designers, this is undoubtedly the case and, if you are lucky enough to be a superstar name, you can probably get away with this sort of behaviour. But, for the rest of us, it’s time to think seriously about how we engage with clients and communicate the value of our work.

Product designers need to take control of the research that feeds into the design and selection process. They need to dive deeper than the thin veneer of yes/no questioning, to develop a rich understanding of market trends, consumer behaviour and cultural patterns. Finally, they need to develop tools that communicate their findings in a professional and – above all – credible manner to business executives. Product designers need to do all this, and still deliver an elegant, well-resolved, culturally relevant and engaging product.

It sounds difficult, doesn’t it? But, if product designers are ever going to deliver their promise of truly innovative, inspiring and pleasurable products, it’s the only way.

Mark Delaney is a director of strategic consultancy Plan

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