Can you keep one step ahead of the game?

A designer’s job involves keeping up with, or even keeping ahead of, the latest trends to create work that appeals to changing markets. Alistair Ray reports

You know the future’s going to happen, the question is will it be bright or orange? Or any other colour for that matter.

Claiming your designs are ‘classic and timeless’ is unlikely to pass muster with sceptical clients, anxious about fast-moving consumer trends. Consultancies must provide the reassurance that their work won’t date as rapidly.

‘Retailers [in particular] expect designers to have a view on the future,’ says FutureBrand creative director Mark Staton. ‘You have to talk about where the future is heading. The days of good design standing up on its own have gone.’

Not so much retro-fitting a design rationale then, as future-proofing it. And there are a variety of ways to assess how a market might change, from scenario planning and market research to visiting cultural hotspots or examining what’s currently making waves. The question is, should consultancies carry out this work themselves or use external suppliers?

‘We look at precedent – what’s happening in the marketplace. When you see which concepts are successful and which aren’t it starts to give you an idea of where you want to go,’ says Matthew Brown, head of research at Echochamber, the think-tank set up by Rawls & Co.

Staton uses the hotspot approach – ensuring his ‘cool hunters’ visit the most happening parts of town or taking a group of 20to 22-year-olds on a road-trip around Europe.

Such tactics are a long way from the traditional version of futurology, where a slightly leftfield guru stands up and says ‘in 20 years time you will be able to link your fridge and your toaster’.

Consultancies are naturally more cautious and considered. ‘You’ve got to be quite careful about saying we know this [trend] will last for so long or this will be happening in five years,’ says Staton.

Brown thinks futurologists can be misleading. ‘Their problem is they embrace technology far more than consumers ever will. They tend to be a little more conceptual. They need to take into account the unwillingness of consumers to take up technology,’ he says.

‘The best vision of future-gazing is to look at the things that are invariant over time,’ observes Martin Bontoft, head of human factors at Ideo Product Development.

Elmwood head of brand innovation Greg Taylor says futurologists’ findings can be used as a tool to encourage people to approach their markets differently. ‘Where we see it working well is where you use it to provoke, almost as a provocation to get people to think differently,’ he says.

It’s important to add a dose of reality to these future visions because, as Brown suggests, ‘it’s certainly useful to be able to think ahead and present these ideas creatively to clients’.

Others take a more sceptical view. Piers Schmidt, until recently chief executive at the now defunct The Fourth Room consultancy, believes futurology is ‘largely discredited’. Many designers turn to the consumer behaviour studies produced by the likes of The Henley Centre and Headlightvision, but, according to Schmidt, even these only provide so much information.

‘They don’t do the “so what”. They don’t distil their findings into conclusions,’ he says. ‘It takes a particular interpretative skill to distil shifts in behaviour into a proposition that you’re going to build a brand on.’

While clients would obviously prefer something quantifiable, ‘the jury’s still out as to whether the finger-in-the-air or the scientific [approach] makes the better decision,’ he argues.

Despite such doubts, the existence of Echochamber, Fitch London’s Trends Observatory and Attik’s Taxi service (see News, page 6) indicates some consultancies believe they do need to offer a future research capability.

‘Fitch as a group feels that keeping on top of trends and being able to offer that [service] is quite core to the way we do business,’ says Jane Simmonds, chief executive of Fitch London.

She says clients do welcome information about the future, particularly in consumer trends.

Others argue that clients will most probably have their own data, which is often better than anything a consultancy can provide.

‘I’ve found that a lot of clients tend to have this trend information anyway, they know this stuff because it relates to their business,’ says Bontoft. ‘What they are looking for is that next level of understanding. Everyone’s got this data, but so what. What are you going to use it for?’

Understandably, Brown thinks consultancies should be offering this kind of service. ‘Anything that increases your offer is probably a good thing,’ he says.

However, Schmidt points out the resources required to interpret the trends mean only the larger players can really afford to provide it. ‘Only some of the bigger consultancies can do that internally. You need to have a certain mass to support that, on the face of it, non-chargeable cost.’

But, as the saying goes, you can’t predict the future, but you can prepare for it. ‘Clients will always come to a brand consultancy because they’re wanting to do something in the future, whether it’s six months or two years down the line,’ Simmonds maintains. ‘Of course, they want to do something that lasts. I think that’s almost the entry point.’

Latest articles