The generation game

Product designers suffer the problem of having to shroud their work in secrecy, and find themselves at the beck and call of their multi-national clients. This is why speculative projects are satisfying and morale-boosting, explains product designer Paul P

One of the main problems of being a product designer is that you’re rarely allowed to talk about it. The majority of the projects on which we work at Priestman Associates are for big companies and we are forbidden to say what we are doing for them.

The main reason for this is obviously because if a new product is seen before it is ready to be launched it peaks too early and gives the competitors time to catch up. But added to this is the fact that huge multinational manufacturers don’t want to shout about the fact that they employ “outside” product designers when they are struggling to maintain their own identities.

So we are usually not allowed to talk about the clients we work for until we no longer work for them, which we hope isn’t going to happen. And as many new product designs never actually see the light of day for various reasons, usually to do with company strategy, many of ours are locked away forever, remaining the legal property of the client. This can be very frustrating for the designers involved and can lead to a loss of enthusiasm.

All product designers are restricted by these problems, which is why many people don’t even realise that product design exists. This is partly why we try to always have one of our own (non-commissioned) projects going through the studio at Priestman Associates.

Projects such as the Cactus heaters, the Press̩ stationery folders, and more recently the Soft Fan, provide a little light relief in the form of design therapy and the opportunity to have a bit of fun and enjoy the design process. They help boost studio morale and keep the creative mind stimulated Рmany of the clients projects we work on are very large and long-term. Some we are currently developing are not due for launch until 1998/9.

We are not the only product design consultancy that does this. Wharmby Associates and Seymour Powell, for example, also generate speculative projects. The only rule we stick to before deciding to go ahead with a self-initiated project is that it must stay true to the basic ethos of product design – which is that it has to be for mass-production. We are not interested in designing low-volume little trinkets for rich peoples’ tables and we don’t want to be seen as mad inventors. Both Cactus and Pressé are in production and people can buy them, and as we receive a royalty for every unit sold there is another benefit. We actually make money out of having fun.

Another benefit of initiating our own projects is that we are allowed to talk about what we are doing and show the designs straight away. It is also a useful way of entering a new sector and can be thought-provoking, enabling us to initiate a dialogue with a new company.

When we are working on our own projects we are not restricted by the normal constraints a client has to deal with, such as company strategy, financial constraints, and market research findings. We are able to explore ideas that would normally not make it out of a brainstorming session. It provides the opportunity to explore different materials and manufacturing techniques and so cross-fertilise into other areas. We have the opportunity to really

rethink a product and bring it up to date.

These projects can go through the studio relatively quickly because there is no delay waiting for client approval, so the rewards are instant. We’re able to see the new product we have created in a few weeks, rather than years, which is quite normal. It allows us to enjoy a

little spontaneity, which is rare in this business.

However, these types of projects are not suitable to show to some of the less adventurous clients. Because they tend to push the boundaries of markets, they can be a positive turn-off to some manufacturers.

Paradoxically, because we are not allowed to talk about the main volume of the work that goes through our studio, Priestman Associates is best known for its self-initiated products such as the Cactus heater, even though that only represents a fraction of what we do.

We patented the idea for the Soft Fan before any information was divulged and we are now showing it to a number of manufacturers, including some of our contacts in the Far East. The reaction so far has been very good.

We will continue to work on projects like these for as long as we are still breathing. But it must be said that the products would be nothing without the essence that makes them possible – the idea – and you never know when the next one will come along.

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