The need for a change of attitude

For UK product design to succeed on the international stage both consultancies and manufacturers need to change their attitude…

For UK product design to succeed on the international stage both consultancies and manufacturers need to change their attitude…

Product design has received a big boost since the Labour Government came to power. Initiatives such as the Millennium Products and the Design Council’s Design in Business Week are helping spread the message. There’s no denying the fact that the UK has product design talent, but is that talent marketing itself in the most effective way? Feedback from designers and clients suggests that while there are successful client/design partnerships, there is still work to be done to ensure businesses receive the service they require, and designers are given the necessary recognition and financial reward.

“British manufacturing underestimates product design. Compared with information technology, product design has only a modest prominence in the media,” says Geoff Hooker, product and market development director of Corus (formerly British Steel) in his foreword to the D&AD Product Book, launched next week.

However, the profile of product design has certainly come a long way over the past ten years. As Design Council chief executive Andrew Summers says: “Our experience with Millennium Products has shown that British designers have a world-class eye for what makes distinctive, creative and highly competitive products. And our latest research shows that, on average, nine out of ten businesses now believe that design is essential for improving the quality of their products.”

But there is still reticence to invest in product design. According to Kenneth Grange, who runs his own consultancy, there is a push towards US concepts of commerce. “There can be a ruthless concern for cutting costs and that manifests itself in the deals with designers and the end product,” he says. Other designers agree clients can be reluctant to invest in creating quality products and paying market-rate fees.

Nonetheless, many consultancies are busier than ever, and are starting to infiltrate the boardrooms and take on a more strategic role. “We’re now working on very large contracts and are up there working with the client before the design has been created,” says Priestman Goode partner Paul Priestman. “Designers should be writing the brief and we’re finding ourselves in that situation.” The consultancy is also working collaboratively with a network of specialists on different projects. “We want to work with the best so we bring them in and do joint pitches.”

Sean Devane, business development manager at Kinneir Dufort, says: “We have seen growth in all the key market areas, from telecoms, medical and hi-tech to technical packaging. Internationally, we have seen an increasing number of pharmaceutical companies recognising the value of industrial design as a powerful strategic business lever.”

What clients are looking for

Clients are looking for a holistic approach, real understanding of the customer’s needs and, as ever, creativity. “The key thing we look for is innovation,” says Rachel Gilbert, vice-president business manager of consumer products at office equipment group Esselte. PSD Associates was selected by the group to work on a number of projects because it was strong on ideas and could combine product design, packaging and multimedia skills. “I used to be hesitant about putting too many aspects of a project with one agency, but PSD has been very good at that and understands the concept behind the product when its taking it through to packaging. I also like its innovation workshops,” she says.

“We need people with a good understanding of our industry, a good knowledge of manufacturing processes and how to transfer designs into products, as well as imagination and creative flair,” says John McGrath, head of product management consumer products at BT.

When marine supplies company Wessex was looking for a design group, it chose London Associates for a number of reasons. “London had previous experience of marine products, was very enthusiastic and had the best ideas. The consultancy was also committed to going out and talking to the customers to find out what they wanted,” says Chris Hoffman, business development manager at Wessex. London’s work on an SOS flare has been shortlisted for the Design Effectiveness Awards, to be announced on 25 October.

“We looked at a number of industrial designers throughout the world. Frazer Designers was talking the same language as us,” says Nicholas James, electronic programme guide manager at Sky. Frazer designed a remote control for Sky TV that has also been shortlisted for a Design Effectiveness Award. “Our main criteria were cost and previous work. Frazer stood out because the consultancy had a good understanding of the technical aspects of the product. Personality also comes into it,” he adds.

For Clive Grinyer, who left Fitch last year to take up the new role of head of product design at Tag McLaren Audio, selecting a consultancy is not based on its knowledge of the hi-fi market, but its grasp of the end user. “I would look for vision and understanding of the customers we’re dealing with. I’d want them to be under their skin – that’s where consultants can really help.” He would also be swayed by international product design groups with offices which are “truly connected”.

Room for improvement

“I’m disappointed in all the UK consultancies in terms of their international knowledge. They’ve got parochial and they’re not putting enough effort into it,” says Grinyer. “I know we’ve got the talent, but we need more international vision. Consultancies have to know what Germans like and what Americans want. They really need to be in touch,” he adds.

For James at Sky, groups which falsely claim to have background knowledge about a project are off-putting. For the remote control project carried out by Frazer, James came across designers who “didn’t have a clue what we were talking about”, whereas Frazer had a “good understanding of the technical aspects and could talk set top boxes and satellite dishes”.

Dealing with the partners or directors is important for Hoffman, who wasn’t keen on using a “multinational agency, where it’s easier to get a junior designer who’s had the project dumped on them”. He’s also wary of consultancies which seem to lack the vision and understanding of the environment Wessex’s products will work in. “I recall one in particular which came back and told us what we already knew without taking our ideas any further,” he says.

Having a practical approach is a key requirement for most clients. “I can’t stand it when designers get precious – we’re a practical company and our people are essentially engineers. Quite often there can be tension between them and the designer,” says Chris O’Donnell, director at Adshel Developments. Gilbert agrees some groups “come across as too wrapped up in design and can forget about the commercial aspect – they’re not in the real world”. She also believes some groups “over-sell” themselves by emphasising all the big projects they’ve worked on rather than smaller ones. “We might be looking for everyday things rather than highly-designed consumer goods,” she adds.


For product design, more than any other design discipline, fees remain a bone of contention. “A buyer is never happy with the fee and there’s usually a bit of negotiation,” says Paul Fensome, product manager at Halfords. Grinyer adds, “Manufacturing companies seem to be worse than ever at appreciating design costs and that they should pay well, and that’s unfortunate for design consultancies.”

According to Priestman, clients are “prepared to pay more now, but it depends on the client and the value they place on a project – it’s still a battle against advertising budgets”. Being involved at board level rather than reporting to a design manager has also helped, he adds.

Hoffman admits he found fee levels “a bit on the expensive side” when looking for a consultancy, and says the costs for concept work “were more than we thought they would be”. Some clients offer the option of royalties, though some sort of up-front fee would normally be included.

Future trends

Technology seems to be driving the future needs of clients. Designers need to be aware of technological developments and know what will be required of them. “Designers need to be several steps ahead, especially when working on something like the Internet, where the technology is outdated as soon as it arrives, ” says PSD director Barry Jenkins.

McGrath agrees that knowledge of interface design and the Internet are becoming more important. “Technology is changing and the days when you could work with people who aren’t able to transfer data from their desktops to manufacturers in the Far East are over. Time to market is more and more of an issue, and consultancies who haven’t got the right tools are going to be left behind,” he says.

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