Objective view

Jane Lewis investigates what clients want from product designers and discovers that they are not as highly thought of overseas as they like to imagine. Personality and economy are also major concerns.

Prospects in the UK look good for product designers. There’s a new breed of young, design-aware patrons coming through, which is good news. But, there is no room for complacency, as competition from the US, Far East and the Continent is hotting up.

Product design is becoming more sophisticated – the Cinderella of the design world is growing more business aware – and many UK consultancies have successfully built up international client lists. Findings from a recent Design Council/Design Business Association report show product design is one of the most exportable sectors of design. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, this achievement, UK consultancies are earning an unfortunate reputation for their arrogance when approaching prospective clients overseas. UK designers may think they are the best, but a separate Design Council survey, compiled with Ideo, revealed senior design managers placed Britain fifth out of nine countries for product design – hardly top of the league. Germany ranked first, followed by the US, Japan and Italy. The UK beat France, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. International markets remain crucial sources of income, but consultancies have to sharpen up their act and, says Clive Grinyer, director of product design at Fitch, “evangelise” if they are to beat the competition.

Activity within UK groups has certainly picked up over the last year or so. According to Paul Priestman of Priestman Goode: “We’re almost taking on a new person every month and we’re now working on bigger projects which last a couple of years rather than a couple of months.” He notes that opportunities are also opening up in relatively uncharted areas such as retail, as shown by the work his consultancy and Tangerine are doing with Virgin Megastore.

Richard Seymour, partner at Seymour

Powell, is encouraged both by the increase in UK opportunities and the fact that ,”people we meet seem to be much more informed and up to speed about design and what it can do”. Peter Philips, partner at Tangerine, points to the emergence of more design-aware managers in manufacturing: “It’s very welcome as they have a much more enlightened approach.” He suggests the surge in design graduates should have a positive effect if it means they are taking jobs in industry. It is also likely to be reflected in the growth of in-house design teams aimed at enhancing the client-designer relationship rather than replacing the use of external consultancies.

What clients want

“Finding designers is a lottery and remains a lottery,” declares Chris Rhodes, marketing director for Gillette. “There are so many out there and the chances of hitting the ones you want is almost a random process.” He believes personality plays a big role – “before you actually touch paper the important thing is how you get on together and whether or not you get a buzz out of a conversation” – as well as an intelligent approach – “you need a person with a brain, it isn’t enough to be able to draw”.

“I’m looking for creativity and original thought, but it’s also important that designers have a strong feel for the marketplace in which the product we’re asking them to look at will be operating. For short-term projects we want practicality – nothing too bizarre or over the top,” comments Peter Eldon, general marketing manager Sanyo UK sales.

Grinyer, former design manager at Samsung who moved across the fence to join Fitch earlier this year, predicts clients will be building up their in-house design departments to strengthen their brand strategy and complement the use of external agencies.

Black & Decker Europe has invested in building up a strong in-house design and engineering team and brings in external European consultancies for occasional projects.

“We have a high new product launch schedule and need to have product design and engineering integrated within our business. By their very nature external consultancies are more remote and we go out to them to deliberately take a step away from ourselves and get a view that’s not controlled by our business,” says Black & Decker industrial design manager of consumer products Lawrie Cunningham.

“There are certain consultancies we use consistently because they are reliable, can relate to our business, are attuned to our needs and are extremely rewarding to work with.”

Lyn Haville, senior product manager for pay phone kiosks at BT, says she expects designers to understand the market products are aimed at, and question the client at the brief stage, “so that they don’t just go off and draw pretty pictures”. She would also look for “mechanical understanding with a view to manufacturability”. Consultancies are commissioned for projects ranging from concepts only to overseeing designs through to production. “I try to make it a tripartite relationship between manufacturers, designers and us,” she says. ©

Senior product designer at Addis Housewares Mike Ellams believes his experience of working for some of the bigger consultancies gives him a distinct advantage: “I’ve worked for a variety of London agencies and know who’s working for who so I’ve got an inside track that a lot of clients don’t have.” He adds: “I look for concept and style – the initial thought process and front-end design. We have our own engineers and can do modelling through to tool-making, so it wouldn’t worry me if the agency didn’t have that on board.” Ellams is also keen to forge relationships which are not too formal. “I don’t want to play the suit and the T-shirt game. I’d rather sit down over a cup of coffee and discuss things as a team.”

Room for improvement

UK product design groups have notched up a bit of a reputation globally speaking for coming across as arrogant in their approach. According to Cunningham, a colleague in the US was somewhat affronted by the approach methods of UK consultancies who “talked down” to the prospective client with a “parochial view that the way we do it in the UK and Europe is the right way. They need to acknowledge that clients have cultural imperatives that they need to adhere to to some extent”, he says.

“Designers tend to underestimate us as clients. It’s great to be confident about what you do but it has to be a partnership. Both sides need to have some humility,” suggests Rhodes. He is also concerned about over-reliance on new technology. “More and more things are being driven by computer design. I don’t think it hurts to still wield a pen or a pencil. I don’t think I’m old-fashioned, but I want the freshness of the sketch early on.”

His concerns are echoed by Ellams, who claims some designers suffer from “complacency” by relying on new technology. “I don’t like them jumping on to the computer straight away. I don’t want finished artwork at the presentation stage. It’s too hard and fast rather than allowing us to chew it over.”

Although he feels his design background gives him confidence in dealing with consultancies, Rhodes believes many clients can feel intimidated. “Most clients are from a financial or business background and therefore design is seen as arty-farty and something only the geniuses of the world can do. Marketing and business people should feel comfortable with the visual arts,” he says.

Haville agrees clients can be “frightened of the experts” and strives for openness when dealing with designers. “Clients have got to be prepared to say if they are not happy with something.” But she laments situations where the client ends up arbitrating between designer and manufacturer: “They can both get precious about their process. We want everyone to be a member of the team working on the same level.”

She also stresses cost implications are sometimes overlooked. “They have to understand the market and listen to the client. We need a synergy between old and new products. They may come up with super designs, but you know it would cost you an arm and leg to produce them.”

Size of consultancy can also have implications. For Rhodes, dealing with the larger consultancies is something he avoids: “There’s always a problem with big agencies full stop. Their structures may be more sophisticated but I want someone to care about the job, I want it to be right, not just part of the production line.”


While some clients are happy to pay market rates and invest in design, others feel they are paying over the odds – evidence that some UK clients are still not convinced about the commercial benefits of good design.

“Fees need to be carefully controlled because people can get carried away. I have had instances of ridiculous quotes for very simple pieces of work,” says Sony’s Eldon.

Rhodes is not keen on time-based fees. “Good design doesn’t have to be expensive and bad design doesn’t have to be cheap. You need open discussion about what you can afford, and I like to agree a fee for the job irrespective of the time spent.”

Ray Dalton, business development manager at supplier Leon Schaller & Sons, believes UK designers “charge too much – I resent writing the cheque because I know what I get is nothing compared to the Far East”.

According to BT’s Haville: “Fees are negotiable, but designers are always too expensive – that is the bottom line as far as I’m concerned.”

Unlike most other design disciplines, product designers can earn fees based on royalties, though this can be a risky way of getting paid. Most would refuse to work on royalties alone, preferring at least a partial design fee up front. According to Kerrin Lyons, director at Lyons Associates: “It’s a risk and you’ve really got to trust the client, otherwise you get a deferred fee rather than the real rate.” Clients can also be over optimistic about projected sales resulting in lower than expected royalty payments.

Some consultancies have taken the bold step of actually producing products themselves, which involves far greater financial risk, but means greater design control over products. Martin Wharmby, director of Wharmby Associates, argues his consultancy was probably the first in the UK to take the plunge nine years ago. Wag Products is the in-house manufacturing arm which enables the consultancy to “exploit ideas in a direct way”. He adds: “It’s risky because you can get the tooling wrong or be late with a delivery, but it’s got enormous potential and also gives absolute control of our designs.” Design fees are charged up front, the rest on approval of the product. Like Wharmby Associates, a handful of other consultancies have set up similar facilities which also allow them to manufacture their own products.

Future trends

Demand from UK clients looks set to grow, judging by the optimism of consultancies and the emergence of design-educated buyers and managers. “There is future confidence from a new, younger generation of design-aware buyers coming through and the industrial design fraternity is likely to find it easier to work in a proper, meaningful designer/client relationship,” comments Design Council design director Sean Blair.

Areas such as retail which have not traditionally called on product design skills are emerging. Structural packaging is also a growing area which product designers are successfully infiltrating, particularly in the booming toiletries and cosmetics sector. However, recyclability remains an issue, with increasing pressure on packaging to have an afterlife.

Although there is increased activity within product design, with some new names emerging, it remains far more male-dominated than other areas of design, despite moves to encourage more female students. “There’s an enormous need for more women but it doesn’t seem to be shifting,” claims Seymour.

The global opportunities really excite Grinyer, particularly in Europe. “International clients are very keen to use UK designers, and Asian and US companies view Europe as a single market. But UK designers are still a bit parochial. They don’t spend much time finding out what Europe and the rest of the world is doing,” he states.

“The Brits think they really know how to do it. It may leave the door open for US rivals to come in and steal their lunch,” says Cunningham.

Start the discussionStart the discussion
  • Post a comment

Latest articles