Investment in in-house design is growing rapidly, with dedicated teams working anywhere, from European centres in fashionable parts of London to converted barns in Yorkshire. Clare Dowdy takes the measure of their potential
Let’s be honest, in-house industrial design has an image problem. It seems that unless the company is Apple, then in-house is very much the poor relation of external consultancies. And yet 38 per cent of the UK’s industrial designers are employed in-house, according to the Design Council.
Many of these are bijou outfits and are in small to medium-sized companies, rather than in businesses the size of Philips, Dell or Apple. And there can be a poor perception of their worth.
Some of this image problem is about the perceived risk that, once ensconced and on the payroll, these employees design the same stuff for the rest of their days.
What’s more, ‘it’s difficult to be contentious in-house because you have to come back the next day’, says Clive Grinyer, former director of design and innovation at the Design Council, a former design head at Orange and France Telecom, and now director of customer experience for Cisco IBSG.
And perhaps the gloss has rubbed off of hard-nosed industrial design for young graduates. At the Royal College of Art, there is a concentration on furniture design, ‘and design for mass-production is disappearing’, says Paul Priestman, co-founder of Priestman Goode and member of the RCA Council.
Yet being in-house has potential. Design is becoming increasingly recognised as a differentiator by companies, meaning designers’ influence is growing as their input increases in value.
‘In-house design investment has grown significantly in recent years,’ says Luke Miles, head of design Europe for LG Electronics, who believes this is because ‘any in-house team generates new approaches and a bank of knowledge and learning. This allows them to understand the brand they work for, and the role of design in delivering that message. This is of great value to any company. Ultimately, this means the organisation can retain this equity and allows it to build on it.’
This seems to be the experience of Evan Kitsell at medical company Don Whitley Scientific. ‘There’s a risk that senior management can devalue design,’ he says. ‘But if they allow good people free rein and don’t manacle them, then good designers will rise in a company and will do well.’
Don Whitley Scientific
Evan Kitsell has been a lone design voice at laboratory equipment company Don Whitley Scientific during his 15-year tenure.
Before I joined, things had been well engineered, but they didn’t have user or aesthetic considerations at the forefront,’ he says.
He comes into a project at the very beginning, helping to structure the brief, steer user research and work out what the market opportunity is.
This is very much the gritty end of product design. One of Kitsell’s latest models is, for example, the A35, an anaerobic workstation which provides a controlled environment in which different kinds of bacteria will flourish He describes his role within the company as more than industrial design. ‘I influence the look and feel of product literature and communications, and I art direct photography,’ he says. So for the A35, all industrial design, graphic design, art direction and marketing campaigns were produced in-house.
But if it were not for his freelance graphic and exhibition design, and his contact with other designers through his role as design associate with the Design Council, Kitsell admits that his day job ‘would run the risk of being a lonely path’. In this, he shares the view of many an in-house designer.
The 132-year-old pram and nursery brand Silver Cross, which last year turned over £23m, was bought out of receivership six years ago by its current chairman.
That was when the six-strong in-house design team was built up by the then new design director, Phil Taylor.
The business now employs 45 people, many of them operating out of a converted barn in the Yorkshire Dales.
Taylor’s team comprises a former Samsung Europe employee, a young New Zealander product designer, two designers who have been in the nursery industry for most of their careers, and another with a background in car safety.
‘Though we want to keep our team small and close-knit, we’re always looking for good people, and we get a lot of approaches,’ says Taylor. ‘It’s beautiful here, but it’s not an urban environment.’
Taylor, who is on Silver Cross’s board, develops the company’s product-development strategy. ‘We’re trying to change the perception of the brand by being innovative and design-led, mixing derivative developments of existing ranges with some breakthrough innovations,’ he says.
A number of newly designed products that demonstrate this philosophy have launched this year.
LG Electronics’ London design capability is part of a growing trend for international electronics and automotive companies to establish studios in the city.
It is one of six LG Design Centres worldwide and aims to take advantage of the capital’smulti-skilled, multinational design talent, as well as to ‘immerse ourselves in our consumers’ lifestyles to ensure we draw the right conclusions’, says Luke Miles, the company’s head of design Europe.
Among Miles’ small team of designers at the South Korean LG Electronics’ European Design Centre are many who worked at LG’s former, and now defunct, studio in Milan. They spend their time designing consumer goods such as mobile handsets, flat-screen TVs, audio systems and white goods, as well as developing future thinking for experience design. The aim is to balance user-friendly design with appropriate equipment.
Miles is accustomed to in-house life, having previously worked at Nokia and Virgin Atlantic. He expects the LG European Design Centre’s numbers to grow next year, ‘as part of a wider objective to capture a substantial portion of market share that will see Europe playing the central role in the company’s global design ambitions’.