Product Promotion

For the UK product design industry to make its mark internationally, relationships with manufacturers need to be re-assessed, says Lynda Relph-Knight. Jane Lewis finds out what the clients think

Product designers’ traditional gripe is that UK manufacturers don’t grasp the value of design in promoting their products. Consultancies such as Seymour Powell, TKO and Tangerine, at the sharp end of the thinking, invariably have to look abroad to find enlightened clients, or, like James Dyson and Priestman Goode, set up their own manufacturing.

In-house designers, with their strong engineering bias, are meanwhile deemed to be of a lesser order in terms of ability and influence. But this hasn’t stopped a handful of superstars emerging, working in-house for a number of design-aware overseas manufacturers. Apple Computer in the US and Philips in The Netherlands are among the popular destinations for UK product design talent.

Happily, things are also changing here. Overseas patronage is still key for UK consultancies. But local manufacturers are starting to wake up and, taking a lead from the likes of Jonathan Ive, the British design head at Apple, whose team gave us the IMac and other Nineties computer icons, and Stefano Marzano’s design empire at Philips, in-house design is gaining respectability.

At a debate on British manufacturing at London’s Design Show last week, Clive Grinyer, head of product design at hi-fi manufacturer Tag McLaren Audio, and Lawrie Cunningham, European industrial design manager at power tools giant Black & Decker, pointed to UK companies such as Psion and old stalwarts JCB and Kenwood, which integrate design into the process of building products. Then there are global concerns like Black & Decker and Nokia, which have a strong design presence in the UK.

These still represent the tip of the iceberg, but others are emerging from “the bog of UK manufacturing”. Those that don’t integrate their offer will be dead in the water before long, was the consensus of those at the summit.

Nor is Dyson likely to remain the only designer prepared to back his own ideas. Accountant-turned-inventor Martin Myerscough is set to follow suit with his revolutionary Titan washing machine, developed by his company Monotub with UK design group TKO. Myerscough combines the bloody mindedness of Freeplay wind-up radio inventor Trevor Baylis with Dyson’s business sense in a domestic product that breaks the mould.

Concerns facing the bright stars of product design are more about defining what they do than worrying about who they do it for. Is product to do with brand – as in the case of Apple’s IMac or the Audi TT Coupé, where product design has intentionally changed perceptions of the company? Or is it less tangible? Is facilitating Internet communications the way forward? It’s significant that UK digital media star Deepend was set up five years ago by two product designers, Gary Lockton and Simon Waterfall. Before them we saw Ideo founder Bill Moggridge developing interface design to make computers more accessible.

Such issues were thrashed out last week at a Design Summit on The Product and the Brand held by Design Week and British Design and Art Direction at the Royal College of Art. D&AD president Richard Seymour spoke of a “transition from hard product to ‘software’ design”. Taking the Sony PlayStation, he asked “What’s the product ?” Is it the “box”, the games software or the experience of the player? It’s hard to see where one stops and the other starts.

Participants were keen on “product experience”. David Ingram of Audi asked if, technology being what it is, “nobody makes a bad car today, what creates the desire (for customers)?” If 50 per cent of IMac buyers didn’t previously have a computer, is it decoration for the living room or a machine, Seymour commented.

Product design is no longer just about function and creating objects. It’s about culture and the value of a brand, with companies like Nokia relying more on the product itself for promotion than on ads. If, as Seymour maintains, product design’s skill is “emotional ergonomics”, there’s a strong role for designers in this.

Design and manufacturing are starting to converge, though investors are slow to back innovation because it is hard to quantify – which is why UK companies often lag behind. Wilf Stevenson of the John Smith Institute explains, “We’re living in the third industrial age, which is about people, but we’re still trying to measure things in the same way as we did in the second industrial age.”

We need more arguments to convince the backers. But the way is being paved, not least by consumer expectations, for design to become hero over accountancy in UK manufacturing.

A transcript of the Design Summit will be published next month

{storyLink (“DW199910220051″,”Consultancies and manufacturers need to change their attitude…”)} Jane Lewis finds out what the clients think

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