It’s a good time for product design. Dick Powell and Richard Seymour are appearing on the telly and their passion and creativity is exposing, and in some cases winning over, the forces of conservatism in the manufacturing industry. Jonathan Ive’s in-house group at Apple Computer took a British Design & Art Direction Gold for the second year running. Millennium products wear their spiral medals with pride. Product designers seem to be achieving recognition and reward with both clients and the public.
There is great confidence and optimism in the industry and a sense that things have changed. One thing everyone agrees on – product design is dead. In its place is a renaissance of creative activity, engaging with every aspect of physical life. In a train, on a plane, sorting out our future technology, at the centre of advertising and communicating the brand, those people we used to call product designers aren’t sitting around designing toasters anymore.
The UK is full of small design groups and individuals with passion, integrity and creativity. In the past, product design has been seen as a cottage industry. The consultancies working in the sector were deemed incapable of earning the big profits of their retail and communication counterparts. But increasingly product designers are working with the brand owners and the service providers to make the experience count, not just the promise, and connect with the consumer. The artists formerly known as product designers are working strategically with companies which don’t need their CAD machines but they do need their core creative skills.
“Designers who don’t evolve are dead,” says Adam White, partner and creative director of Factory. So what are they evolving into? Product environment specialists, user experience companies, brandware consultants; product design has grown up and away from it’s manufacturing background to take a broader, strategic role sorting out what happens when the physical, virtual and commercial worlds collide.
Already this year we have seen a number of landmark projects that illuminate the new product design. J Mays has handed over the keys to Marc Newson to create a concept car to help bust Ford out of convention. Tangerine’s seat for British Airways is now on the TV screen, generating the experience of the Club World brand. Priestman Goode is defining the future of air travel for Airbus with the concept A3XX, and designing planes and trains for Virgin.
These products don’t just show product designers working on bigger projects, though consultancies based around core specialisms such as transportation are certainly unhappy at this trend. What is interesting is that they are no longer employed by the seat, train or plane manufacturers, but by the brands that deliver the service to the customers.
As Priestman Goode director Paul Priestman argues, “You don’t do a toaster without looking at the kitchen, you don’t do a seat without looking at the plane.” These designers are working on a larger canvas than they have ever worked on before, their creativity used as a holistic business tool, communicating brand values directly through the product experience.
Product designers can do this because they take the long view and are historically concerned with what happens after the purchase. Product designers know about values and experience, and how to deliver these to people.
But also at the heart of this renaissance in product design lies design management. Product designers are working with empowered design managers who can communicate and promote design excellence as a powerful business tool throughout an organisation. “It only takes one or two jewels in an organisation to make a big difference” says White. Good design management in an organisation means an improved relationship and more focused results. The BA Club World seat is as much a tribute to brave and visionary design management as it is an innovative design solution.
To work in this new, brand-aware and technology-connected world has meant that product design teams have become broader than ever, from quantitative and qualitative research techniques to digital communication and Web design skills. Multidisciplinary, in the old use of the word, doesn’t work anymore. It’s not about a series of craft-based skills applied to a number of different aspects of the client’s requirements. Product designers are now about process, experience and emotion as much as form or manufacturing. For Colin Burns, director of Ideo London, “Products are connected media, and their virtual and physical nature have to be considered together.”
All you Wap users out there know what happens when this isn’t considered – it’s not enough just to buy the licence and forget about the hardware, interface and content. But it will get better, and the UK’s designers and consultants, whether they work in-house or with a consultancy, will play a global role in forcing hardware and software providers to understand how we want our technology delivered.
Given the lack of home-based manufacturing employment, the UK design industry has always played to an international audience. Truly international design groups such as Ideo are providing a portal into Europe for their US clients, designing both soft and hard delivery systems for their client’s products.
Global corporations continue to rate UK design talent as important and in-house groups at Sony, Panasonic, Nokia and Black & Decker continue to make vital contributions to those companies’ abilities to compete in Europe. This month saw Samsung’s welcome return to London to set up a European design group.
It’s not all inbound investment though. UK in-house design groups at Hotpoint and Richardson Sheffield have developed young creative teams which are transforming the reputation of UK industry. In the meantime, we wait to see if Peter Stevens, design director at Rover, can inject some spirit into the rejuvenated brand.
There is great optimism in the world of product design at the moment. Although Royal College of Art students returning to a position of world eminence might be disillusioned at the blandness of the world around us, product designers are rising to the top, making strategic decisions to help companies understand how we as individuals make our choices.
Of course, product design is not dead, it’s more alive than ever. Our definition of what the product is just got bigger. If you interact with it in any way, it’s a product, and those people who used to (and still do) design toasters and kettles, know more about it than anyone else.
In a super democracy, peopled with sophisticated and intelligent consumers, you can’t pull the wool over their eyes with a promise that isn’t backed up by the experience. And if the experience is good, just let it do the talking.
Clive Grinyer is head of design at Tag McLaren Audio