Our studies of hi-fi rivals Tag McLaren Audio and Bang & Olufsen reopen the case for in-house design versus consultancy. The two-year-old UK company is sticking out for high quality in-house designers, despite problems it hit last year in funding even a small team and subsequent redundancies. The established Danish giant meanwhile buys in its design, despite its products exuding one of the strongest “house-styles” in the business.
Both compromise. Tag McLaren Audio brought in automotive design consultant Peter Stevens – designer of its sister company’s F1 road car – early on, before poaching Clive Grinyer and Charles Allen from Fitch, both of whom have more direct experience of the consumer market. B&O, on the other hand, relies heavily on British born designer David Lewis. But their respective philosophies are largely intact.
Of the two, you could say Tag McLaren is the more forward-thinking, in European terms, in that in-house design appears to be making a comeback, at least in product design. Home-grown companies such as Black & Decker and JCB and Continental giants such as Nokia and the legendary Philips are building in-house teams led by design visionaries – a far cry from the old image of engineering-led poor relations of “glamorous” consultancies. And the trend is spilling over into retail, with news last week that Matthew Hilton, Georgina Godley and US designer Russ Menuez – all “names” in their own right – are joining Tom Dixon at Habitat.
It will take a while for the in-house trend to catch on. It’s not even appropriate for all design to be done in-house. As Ideo founder Bill Moggridge told an audience at the Confederation of British Industry a few years back, the best results come when in-house design and consultancy work in tandem, each playing up its strengths – exactly what Dixon wants to achieve with the Habitat team. But it’s great to see newish companies like Tag McLaren Audio trying a different way.
If you look back towards packaging and branding, rosters such as the seminal model set up by Martin Richardson at Superdrug almost straddle in-house design and consultancy. Volume buyers such as the high street chemists and supermarket chains effectively have “in-house” teams on their rosters – as, indeed, do brand giants like Procter & Gamble, with their approved consultancies – yet they have the fresh thinking that consultancies claim. A hybrid approach is often the best idea. With in-house product design slowly regaining stature within UK industry, manufacturers might also benefit from a healthy mix of skills.