Samsung is riding high. The Korean home electronics-to-armaments giant has boosted its global standing over the past 12 months, and now ranks 25th in BusinessWeek/ Interbrand’s annual chart The Best Global Brand, published last month.
With its valuation up 31 per cent on last year’s rating, it deserves to be proud of its financial success, but its image is another matter. Until the late 1990s it tended to trade on price and function for the global mass market. But things are changing, with design at the heart of those changes.
Key to this for the European market is its London-based in-house facility Samsung Design Europe, whose work is beginning to bear fruit, with a host of customised products in the offing across the range of domestic appliances and mobile telephones. A true sign of its success is that its upmarket flat-screen TV can be seen each week by viewers of the V Graham Norton show on Channel 4.
SDE is in its second incarnation. It was originally set up in Brentford in 1996 by product designer Clive Grinyer, now director of Orange World customer experience, but the Asian economic crisis caused the company to pull out of Europe in 1998. In 2000 it had second thoughts and invited Mark Delaney and Clive Goodwin, both of whom had worked with Grinyer at Samsung, to re-establish the team.
Opting to work in central London, in the belief that that would attract the best staff, Delaney and Goodwin aimed to build the centre to seven people in three years. That goal was achieved within 18 months and the team is now a healthy ten or 11, working across product and interaction design, graphics and trend analysis, with supplementary help from students and regular placements from the 370-strong Korean studio. And though much of the work is in the ‘what if?’ vein of future forecasting, products such as large luxury domestic appliances for the Korean market are coming onstream.
For Delaney and Goodwin, Samsung has been a major force throughout their careers. Delaney kicked off by working in-house at Electrolux before joining Grinyer at Samsung. When, after two and a half years, that job ended, he worked freelance at Fitch – partly on Samsung projects – before joining Tangerine, where he worked with Matt Round on the British Airways seat. Goodwin, meanwhile, worked at Seymour Powell, the then FM Design and PSD, where he met Grinyer before joining him at Samsung. He then went to Native, taking Samsung work with him, and Fitch, ending up freelancing at Tangerine before the recall call from Seoul.
‘Samsung realised we brought something unique to the design centre, because we were outside the company,’ says Goodwin of the years in between Samsung employment. ‘We call ourselves an in-house consultancy. They needed to build a team to make an impact on Europe.’ The upshot is that SDE works across Samsung’s massive portfolio of products, except for the armaments side.
‘Samsung realised that it couldn’t compete here just on price,’ adds Delaney. ‘You can’t just push Korean products on to Europe and the US to see if they will sell.’
As a consequence Samsung has set up other design centres in San Francisco – which has a similar spread of work to SDE – Los Angeles, where the focus is on telecoms, and Japan.
‘The difference between European and Korean design is that Koreans still like to express the technology on the outside,’ says Goodwin. ‘Over the past three years we’ve been trying to create a tone of voice for Samsung – a design approach that applies to different products, from fridges to phones,’ adds Delaney. ‘We think about the customer more than the technology so that the experience of using our product is the best it can be. Sometimes it’s blue sky stuff or we may be called upon to “Europeanise” a Korean product.’
‘They tend to give us the best projects or future projects,’ says Goodwin. While continuing to create futuristic concepts for mobile phones and domestic appliances, they are now putting their minds to ‘home theatre’.
When they were approached by Samsung, Delaney and Goodwin said they wanted to be Mac-based and ‘in town’, believing London to be a cultural melting pot. They started out working from each other’s homes, but now have an impressive two-floor studio in Rosebery Avenue – a far cry from Brentford’s industrial estates.
Though they are still building the in-house team, with the search on now for another product designer ‘or two’ to work with a telecoms bent and a senior interaction designer, Delaney and Goodwin believe in collaboration. ‘We assemble the team for the job,’ says Delaney.
To this end, they work with Kevin McCullough at Seymour Powell Forecasting and Gro in Eindhoven, set up by former Philips people, and have collaborated with Tangerine, Factory, Seymour Powell and Porsche Design. They have an annual contract with independent design consultant Dale Russell of Russell Studio, who shares the office when she is in London and has an input into every job.
They also welcome their Korean colleagues, who stay for between three weeks and three months at a time. Delaney explains that because Far Eastern time zones are around nine hours ahead of the UK, decisions have to be taken while London is asleep. Having people in the Seoul studio who understand what SDE is trying to achieve with a product helps to preserve the integrity of the design. ‘We are trying to get better at how we implement designs,’ he says.
As for the future, Delaney says, ‘We hope to continue to grow SDE at a sensible pace that will allow us to find and recruit the right people. Most pressing is the need to “beef up” our product interaction capabilities so we can create a complete package of both the tangible physical aspects of the product and the more intangible aspects, like how the customer accesses the functionality of the product in an intuitive and enjoyable way.’
‘We’re a drop in the ocean [for Samsung],’ he concludes. ‘But we make a big splash.’