It’s showtime

Jane Lewis talks to the clients and finds a growing tendency for product design to be recognised as a tool to promote a company’s brand quality

Product design is increasingly seen as a crucial part of the marketing mix. Although it is still entwined within research and development departments, designers are finding themselves presenting to marketing managers and board directors who are more inclined to acknowledge its contribution to their brands. The boundaries between other design disciplines, engineering and multimedia are also becoming more blurred. Which means there is more opportunity for product designers to play a strategic role in projects.

“The big issues are still to do with what is the future for product design consultancies,” says Fitch senior director of product design Clive Grinyer. “You have to look at the way product designers sell themselves. Some consultancies are becoming more strategic and give clients a tool kit for design rather than actual design.”

Smallfry is one such group, where managing director Steve May-Russell has taken an MBA in business skills. “I talk to members of the board, not in a design language, but in a business language and help them formulate their product design specifications. Industrial design is not about art, it’s about commerce,” he says.

Despite the UK’s lacklustre manufacturing industry, there is increased demand from UK clients, particularly within services such as telecoms, and uncharted areas continue to open up – as witnessed by Dick Powell and Richard Seymour’s recent TV challenge to design a new bra. Design Acumen, meanwhile, has been asked by Hilton Hotel Group to work on concepts for the hotel of the future, following on from its award-winning airline seating for British Airways.

The more buoyant climate has witnessed a number of new startups which report healthy workloads. “Considering we’re only just over a year old, we’ve picked up a lot of work. Clients are more aware of what design can do for them and that product design is as much an advert for their company as advertising is,” says Matthew Wright, who runs Wright Design Partnership.

Product design remains the key export within design, and most groups rely on work from overseas. But the economic problems in the Far East have had an impact on the UK groups working there. “Projects haven’t dried up completely, but they have diminished. That’s obviously going to have an effect,” says Powell, managing director at Seymour Powell.

The growing demand for structural packaging design skills is another area of expansion for product designers, and is a good example of the boundaries between the disciplines easing up. Though some graphics groups are taking on product designers in-house, others work in collaboration with product consultancies, as brand-owners increasingly look to design as a means of differentiating products. Kerrin Lyons, director of Lyons Associates, which has worked on a number of structural packaging design projects for clients such as Boots and Virgin Vie, believes there is a rise in “industrial design groups setting up structural design arms”. But, he warns, clients are looking for portfolios of similar work before handing out new briefs.

What clients want

While design rosters have been commonplace in some areas of design for several years, they are just starting to filter through to product design. BT’s product design roster was put in place just over a year ago. “We invest a lot of time making sure people on our roster are fit for the purpose,” says Richard Troughton, design manager at BT. Rosters are reviewed regularly and contracts are initially issued for two years with a third year renewable.

“We look for creativity, strategic thinking and, to an extent, technical knowledge, good project management skills so they can deliver to deadlines, experience in a telecoms environment is a plus and behind all that a sense of the importance of brands to the overall marketing mix,” says Troughton. “One of the benefits of a roster is we run a regular programme of brand workshops. People on the roster are aware of the things we’re trying to achieve. We’re moving towards having a significant range of products which are distinctively BT.”

“We look for consultancies to be proactive and listen well,” comments Alan Zimmerman, development manager at Nortel. He says he was impressed by Smallfry’s approach when he was looking for a consultancy to work on new telephones for the European market within a short timescale. “They threw their support behind it and spent a lot of time here talking to us so they could really understand what we wanted,” he says.

Mike Ellams, senior designer at Addis, points out: “More and more we need people with computer-modelling capability as not all of them have those skills in-house. Creativity is still high on the list and we run creative workshops which include the consultancy running it, maybe designers from another agency, some of the marketing team and consumers.” He expects consultancies to “work totally with us” and interact with all the relevant in-house teams. “I don’t like them coming back once a month. It’s more of a mix with everyone on board so there are no nasty shocks. It’s also more healthy because the R&D team know what can be done,” he says.

For a client commissioning product design © for the first time, there can be a bit of a learning curve. But Tony Hodges, deputy chairman at lingerie company Charnos, felt very comfortable working with Seymour Powell for the Channel 4 programme Designs on Your Bra. “They quickly developed a rapport with our designers. I was impressed by the inspired new lateral thinking from people who had no idea what a bra could look like,” he says, adding that the ability to “communicate simply” is vital. “There’s a lot of time spent together at a human level so the ability to think incisively and clearly and not get lost in jargon is totally important.”

For Virgin Vie’s launch product range of toiletries and cosmetics, marketing director Ros Simmons explains a “combination of skills” was used. For initial design concepts, German designer Dieter Bakic was commissioned, while Lyons Associates was appointed to translate the designs into a final product. The distinctive bottle shape has been registered worldwide reflecting the importance of the structural design to the Virgin Vie brand. “There aren’t that many good structural packaging designers around. The market is becoming more and more confusing and fragmented and we needed a product that would stand alone.” She stresses the “partnership” between client and designers is crucial to the success of the product.

When Innes Ferguson, product design manager for London Transport, is selecting a group, it depends on the value of a project. Where initial design fees amount to more than 10 000, he would stage a three-way competitive tender. When fees are lower, he can approach a group direct. For Ferguson, key requirements when choosing a group are “commitment to become part of a project team and consistency – particularly with personnel”. He uses “outside people almost the same way I use internal staff. I expect them to be motivated and arrange meetings as I don’t have time.” He also needs design teams which are “able to articulate verbally and artistically” when making presentations to in-house teams. “Design has a mystique about it and can be regarded with suspicion,” says Ferguson, who trained as a product designer.

Room for improvement

According to Innes, some consultancies don’t ask enough questions at the start of a project. “They are usually very happy to get the work, especially if it’s their first contract, but there’s a misconception that we dish out work all the time and they can glaze over at initial discussions. It’s frustrating when they come back and offer too much in the way of input and their fees may be way off the ballpark,” he says.

Ellams agrees new relationships can have their problems. “It’s always difficult the first time someone does some work for you because they always try to prove themselves. You end up with a full blown presentation which is great to show the managing director, but I always like to see some initial sketches. The longer the relationship the easier it gets,” says Ellams.

“We’ve had experiences in the past where designers have come along and what they’ve shown us has been completely off the wall so we’ve had to add in another stage. Another area which could be improved is ideas on how to realise the product. You often need to sit there and do it with them,” comments Zimmerman.

Innes says he always makes a point of writing to a consultancy and explaining why they didn’t win a job. “It doesn’t make me many friends. People can be too subjective and take it to heart. From my point of view, I’m trying to help them.” He also finds it annoying when key designers move consultancy. “Consultancies keep guarded if people are leaving and we’ve been caught short so are trying to change our contracts so that we can follow people”.

He adds because LT is “engineering-led”, in-house teams like to see something tangible from consultancies. “No one in the company is impressed by 3D walk-through spin around models. Because 99 per cent of product designers are men, they always come out with the latest gizmos and toys and, for me, it’s damn annoying. We’re not interested in seeing the

latest version of Photoshop.”


Inevitably, clients want to feel they aren’t paying over the odds, while designers would like to charge more. Some projects are royalty-based, though such a method of payment is not as common as an up-front design fee.

Ellams believes some consultancies are “starting to outprice themselves”, but adds the younger groups are “more realistic”.

“When they’re quoting for work they need to be focused on giving value for money and be seen to be giving value for money,” comments Zimmerman. “We have had some surprises in the past but we always get consultancies to spell out exactly what each stage is going to cost.

The empty bucket syndrome doesn’t go down very well.”

“If you want good input from clever people you have to pay for it,” says Lee Markwick, managing director of Technology Desking. “Good design and good service cost money. Fees should be transparent and designers shouldn’t be embarrassed about charging what they think they’re worth.”

“It’s BT’s policy to pay for creative pitches. We have a professional ethic to pay the going rate for a service, but we also look for value and discounts,” says Troughton. “I think we’re cheap for what we do. Clients understand they need it but they don’t understand the time it takes or the process that goes into producing it,” comments Wright.

“Product design is not as fashionable as other areas so in a way fees are more steady – at least it means we don’t fall out of favour as quickly,” says Adam White a director at Factory. He adds there is a tendency for a “new breed” of free pitch where clients offer a certain amount “which is not what you’d expect to be paid”. Royalties are still an option for some projects, but White stresses, “We’d always ask for a fee up front to make sure our costs were covered.”

Tim Brown, director of Ideo Europe, claims there’s a noticeable difference in the way UK clients approach paying for product design and clients in the US and Japan. “Our American and Japanese clients have a really clear idea of how product development adds value and understand investment in it.”

High interest rates haven’t helped export product design. As many rely on overseas work, the strong pound can make fees look higher. “It isn’t good for what essentially is an export,” comments Richard Miles of FM Design.

The future

As a discipline, product or industrial design still lags behind sister disciplines in terms of kudos, tarnished by a perception that the sector is dominated by male boffins. But Channel 4’s series starring Seymour and Powell has no doubt raised the sector’s profile.

Brown claims the market for product design has changed to the extent that “it’s difficult to still call it product design”. He points out that Ideo is increasingly involved with multimedia and interactive design as part of a project and believes terms such as product design and communication design are becoming redundant.

As the boundaries between design disciplines become more blurred, White says Factory is increasingly tailoring its service to suit clients’ needs which might mean going into a pitch with a graphics and multimedia or engineering consultancy. “When I started 15 years ago there were graphic designers and product designers and never the twain shall meet. That’s all been blown to bits now. We all need to be holding hands,” he says.

Grinyer believes UK product designers need to do more to promote themselves abroad, and laments the fact that product development in the UK still lags behind the US and Japan. “Markets are demanding more innovation, but clients aren’t demanding enough from product designers. Design is so much on the agenda, yet UK companies aren’t asking designers to push to create world-leading products.”

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