Let’s clean up our act

Why do product designers in the UK have such a hard time doing their job? Products such as James Dyson’s Cyclone vacuum cleaner demonstrate that it’s certainly not due to lack of skills, so perhaps it’s a question of redefining roles and briefs, says Mart

SBHD: Why do product designers in the UK have such a hard time doing their job? Products such as James Dyson’s Cyclone vacuum cleaner demonstrate that it’s certainly not due to lack of skills, so perhaps it’s a question of redefining roles and briefs, says Martin Wharmby

Five years ago my partner Chris Garcin and I started a manufacturing company. I would love to say that this was the result of much thought and planning but of course it wasn’t. We were offered the opportunity by one of our clients to supply the product rather than license the design and we tentatively went ahead. We now have 20 products and the majority of our income comes from this source.

The reason I mention all this is that it has given us a very different perspective on the service we offer as a product design consultancy in two respects.

Contrary to the view held by most designers, design is expensive. Yes, it’s cheap in retrospect, when set against a commercially successful product, but at the start of a development programme there is no certainty of success, so design costs are a part of this gamble and will therefore always seem high.

We developed our own range of products over an extended period when we were short of commissioned work and the real time taken, if converted into fees, would have been unacceptable to many small companies. The time, however, was essential to ensure that the detail was resolved to the very highest level to minimise the risk and possibility of error. Even so, 90 per cent of our turnover comes from 25 per cent of our products. In other words, 75 per cent of the items developed by us under these lavish conditions of unlimited time and care are at best moderately successful and at worst failures – and we’re supposed to be experts! The difficulty of getting all the elements – product, presentation, and marketing – right, all at the same moment, should not be underestimated.

The second point is the understandable notion that as the client pays the bill then they are best- equipped to brief the designer. The problem with this is that the most creative step is almost certainly in the hands of the wrong person. There are very few marketing directors who have the courage and vision to avoid the security of following the competition, and I suppose it is unreasonable to expect otherwise – after all, jobs depend on these decisions and the safe option must always seem attractive. I’m quite sure that one of the reasons there is so much mediocre product development in the UK is because the true potential of creative design is rarely, if ever, tapped by clients. Why is it that the brilliant work seen at degree shows every summer hardly ever sees the light of day?

The best – or maybe the most exciting – products developed in recent years have been initiated by designers, not by marketing directors. To name a few: Philippe Stark, Richard Sapper, Sir Terence Conran, Ivo Rousham, Perry King and, perhaps most brilliantly, James Dyson with his Cyclone vacuum cleaner. This must surely be the most spectacular example of design-led product development this country has seen in the past 25 years.

To invent a new principle of floor-cleaning and then handle all aspects of the engineering and product design is an extraordinary feat from a small design-led development team. For that product to be selling successfully against the giants in my local electrical store is, well… incredible.

I would argue that Hoover could never achieve this, not because the engineers and designers are incapable of handling this type of progressive development but because “marketing” could not afford to take the risk and so would never give it the chance.

I’m not quite sure what my conclusion is, except to say that design needs to be promoted by the new Design Council and the profession generally as expensive, high risk and essential, rather than, as now, essential, low risk and cheap. Maybe then the manufacturing sector will begin to face the reality of R&D costs and budget accordingly.

As for briefing, it would probably be quite fruitful to set up a series of seminars for manufacturers on how to brief designers. This should not be presented by designers, as it would inevitably end up biased and opinionated, but by professional presenters, who should ensure an absolute basic ABC of how to do it.

The people who brief us are generally amateurish and unsure, and it’s quite possible that they have never briefed a consultancy before. As a consequence, the potential for creative and appropriate design is rarely given the chance to blossom.

In the meantime, we will continue to seek marketing directors with the vision and courage to allow us to brief them! It’s so easy in a depressed market to accept a brief as given rather than challenge the basic premise. Maybe we need a bit of courage here – after all, we might lose the job!

In the meantime, I recommend that product designers take the initiative, start making things and break the stranglehold of the “me too” philosophy. It’s more fun and much more lucrative!

Martin Wharmby is partner of Wharmby Associates and director of WAG Products Ltd.

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