It was an imposing sight as the men from Kinneir Dufort strode up to the stage to collect the Best of Show prize at the Design Week Awards the other week. Here was a team. No messing. And though probably not all of the six who took the honours worked on the prize-winning Handi- Haler inhaler, consultancy founder Ross Kinneir was keen that everyone share the glory.
That seems to be the way the Bristol group is run. Currently numbering 13 folk, including the design team of seven, it comes across as a friendly, enthusiastic outfit. And it is one to which prodigals have returned from jobs elsewhere throughout its 19-year history.
Clients – companies such as the BBC, British Telecom and the Automobile Association – have likewise been known to come back for more over the years, recognising the technical troubleshooting bent that is a strong factor in the consultancy’s personality. But founder Ross Kinneir couples this with a proactive attitude to getting the jobs he wants because he reckons his team would be good at them.
“The key to it all is doing interesting product design with clever people,” says Kinneir of his ideal designer/client relationship. “We’re not driven by politics or philosophy, but there are always personal standards in the back of the brain.”
It all started in the mid-Sixties for Kinneir, with what now seems an odd start. But in those heady days of opportunity, things happened in odd ways. In 1965, he recollects, an A-level student could go straight to the Royal College of Art after “a little crammer arrangement” but without a degree. And that is how he came to join five others, including Random’s Ian Dampney, who’d done just that, armed with the unlikely combination of physics, maths and art A-levels.
Kinneir’s father Jock was then head of graphics at the RCA and his elder sister Elspeth was a postgraduate graphics student there. But having the family around didn’t make life any easier. “It was very, very hard work and unnerving,” says Kinneir, describing the preliminary year as “a massive crash course” in subjects as varied as sculpture and engineering.
But in 1969, under the rectorship of Robin Darwin, the RCA became a university and the six “boys” had to think about their education. The options were to get a bachelor’s degree and do a year in professional practice to get the MA, or take a year out and come back.
Fate led Kinneir to choose the latter. He’d met a Yugoslavian designer two years previously while doing holiday work at Total Design in Amsterdam. His friend had moved to Germany and wrote asking if he’d like to join him there in the office that employed him. So three weeks later, Kinneir set off for Ulm and the studio of Herbert Lindinger, who was also a design tutor at the legendary Hochschule fr Gestaltung.
“There was great talent there. The team was driven by intellectual gratification and wasn’t looking for the grand result,” Kinneir remembers. He enjoyed his stay, learning German on the hoof – a skill that helped recently in dealing with Boeringer Ingleheim, the German pharmaceuticals firm behind the HandiHaler.
But fate intervened again. The school was closed for political reasons and
Kinneir found himself first in Frankfurt with Institut Lindinger and then back at the RCA to complete his final year.
“No one was strenuously chasing a job then,” Kinneir recalls of his graduation year, 1970 – an enviable stance for graduates of the Nineties. But he nonetheless found himself at the British Aircraft Corporation designing engines. BAC wasn’t his scene – he “fell out with the unions” – but it had two major effects on his career. “I learned design’s relationship with engineering,” he says. And it brought him to Bristol.
It was in Bristol in the mid-Seventies that, against all advice, he set up his own show, which finally led in 1977 to the formation of Kinneir Dufort with designer Francis Dufort. Kinneir recalls that some 100 hand-typed letters to prospective clients went astray, thanks to the interminable postal strike of the time.
Kinneir handled small product design projects, bought a derelict coach house with a 5000 loan and set his sights on the future. “But we didn’t expect it would end in a design company,” he says. “We were driven by capability rather than business intentions. Now the design world has a business attitude.”
But soon Kinneir Dufort started employing people and the partners realised they could set a direction. Kinneir’s choice was “to work on products with a strong technological content” and one of these – a computer pen to complement a local computer manufacturer’s kit – led them to manufacturing in the early Eighties. When Kinneir and Dufort split in 1986 it was because Dufort wanted to pursue design and manufacture, while Kinneir was keener on pure design.
Meanwhile, the team was growing. One of the first to join Kinneir Dufort was Craig Wightman, a Scot who’d just been named Student of the Year at Napier college in Edinburgh. Then came Jim Orkney, formerly at the RCA, who had three years’ experience with international weights and measures giant Schlumberger behind him and is now co-director of the consultancy, and Graeme Paterson, another from Napier and “the same sort of breed as us – Scottish and clever”, says Kinneir.
But inevitably the moves began. Wightman left for a job with Hoover, Paterson for Nagoya, Japan. Five years later, both were back at
Kinneir Dufort, to a team that now includes Mark Teucher, Sean Devane and David Cottle as full-time designers, as well as two modelmakers.
The returning prodigals also brought new experience and client contacts to a group Kinneir describes as a meritocracy, where individuals run projects that fit their capabilities.
“Now we’re in a position where we can aim at subject areas rather than regions or company types,” says Kinneir. What he doesn’t quite say is that Kinneir Dufort is reaching the enviable point where it is choosing its clients; that the direct approach to Boehringer Ingleheim which put the consultancy on the paid-pitch list with the HandiHaler job is typical.
The first real success through propositioning a client dates back to 1988 when Kinneir and company approached the BBC with the idea of a publicity stunt involving a prototype digital radio to promote its new RDS broadcasting technology. “We wrote to the BBC saying no one was taking any notice of RDS technology because it seemed boring, but we could see its potential. Jim went to see them and brought back a contract,” says Kinneir. The contract also earned the group a cover on Design Week.
The AA roadside telephone (DW October 1991), came much the same way. “We’re not afraid to ring anyone up and make a suggestion,” says Kinneir, who is hoping now to use the HandiHaler to make inroads into pharmaceuticals. “We’d like to be recognised as the design team to partner up with by clients wanting medical products.”
So what now? The priority for Kinneir is to move out of the coach house and find new premises in Bristol. “Growth only happens if you find the right premises,” he reckons, “and we can’t expand where we are.”
But what about long-term ambitions? “I want people to dream of working at Kinneir Dufort’s studio. I want them to think ‘I wish I could get a job at that fantastic place in Bristol’,” he says.
And awards? They’re part of the strategy – almost. Success two years ago with the Biotrace Uni-Lite instrument in both the Design Business Association’s Design Effectiveness Awards and the Horners Award for innovation and plastics technology “helped enormously”, says Kinneir. Award wins “show we’re performing well in an area we’ve chosen to work in”.
But is it all that calculating? Seeing the mix of joy and bewilderment on Kinneir’s face after picking up DW’s best-of-show prize and hearing the jubilant shrieks from his team suggests there’s more to it. Whatever its game plan, Kinneir Dufort’s design involves pure emotion.