Collaboration is the key to good design

Reports suggest that last week’s gathering of industrial designers, brought together by British Design Initiative to debate common concerns (see News, page 3), only served to reinforce the huge rift between those with an engineering bent and the creative sparks who champion UK product design in the global arena.

One exasperated participant – renowned for ground-breaking work – says most people at the meeting see front-end design as a tiny part of what they do, dwarfed into insignificance by the need to advise clients on tooling. So driven are they by the nuts, bolts or chips of production that they see little merit in innovation of form or in reaching beyond the client’s brief to address the needs of the end-user. Worse still, they tend to berate those who do.

Engineering is not a dirty word. It is essential to the success of a product – or a piece of architecture – and some of our most talented designers put themselves firmly in the engineering camp. James Dyson, for example, calls himself an engineer largely because of his fascination with making things. His mentor, structural engineer Tony Hunt, has shown through projects such as London’s Waterloo International rail terminal what can be achieved when a great engineer works with a great architect – in that case Nick Grimshaw. Hunt’s former colleague Neil Thomas, founder of structural engineering firm Atelier One, has taken engineering into the rock arena, working with architect Mark Fisher on projects for the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd et al, and into art with the likes of Rachel Whiteread.

But Dyson, Hunt and Thomas have shown that, to make a difference in the marketplace, engineering has to be part of a bigger process to which great design is the key. On its own it is only likely to replicate what has gone before.

Top “names” in the product world – often dismissed by the engineering heavies as lightweight – are respectful of engineering skills. They acknowledge that the client company’s technical team probably has more expertise than they when it comes to production issues and learn from working with it. They also champion the consumer in the face of a client’s concern with cost and timing.

The best results are born of collaboration based on mutual respect between client, designers of all disciplines and the consumer. Isn’t it time that the product design old guard stopped being isolationist and joined the party with those too busy leading design into the future to attend meetings set up for a mutual moan? They might even enjoy themselves.

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