Design builds an engaging brand

Consumer-focused design has transformed Samsung’s product line as well its image, says Scott Billings

Korean electronics giant Samsung has pulled off a remarkable turnaround under its chairman Kun-Hee Lee, who, in the mid-1990s, formulated a vision that would reinvent the company and steer it away from the brink of collapse.

Repositioning, surviving economic crisis and collecting a bunch of design awards along the way, Samsung has risen from a me-too Asian electronics outfit to a well-respected, premium technology brand.

Its European product design centre in London, Samsung Design Europe, is set to move to larger premises in March, a studio that is twice the size of its current two-floor site near Sadler’s Wells theatre. Creative manager Clive Goodwin says the move to Saint John’s Lane will expand capability and is likely to result in additions to the already 16-strong team.

On 8 February, the company will unveil the Samsung Experience in New York, designed by Imagination USA. Samsung refers to the unit as an ‘UnStore’, because consumers can demo products with no pressure to buy.

Imagination’s work includes a series of interactive exhibits designed in conjunction with Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and Parsons School of Design in the US.

The concept of the UnStore is an extension of the smaller, less luxurious Samsung Brand Centre that opened in Moscow early last year, also designed by Imagination. After trialling the New York site, Samsung will consider introducing the UnStore concept in other locations.

These developments are a continuation of a design-led, consumer-focused philosophy that has suffused the company over the past seven years. Hit by the Asian economic crisis in 1997, chairman Lee nevertheless declared a design revolution and drew together the cream of design talent – graduates as well as in-house staff – and sent them to the Innovative Design Lab Samsung school of design in Seoul for a two-year course.

According to SDE co-founder Mark Delaney who left Samsung a year ago (DW 12 February 2004) and is setting up his own consultancy, putting design at the heart of Samsung’s culture had a profound effect on its fortunes, steadily elevating its status, from a budget to a premium brand.

According to Delaney, ‘Samsung can now compete with most Japanese brands like Mitsubishi and Panasonic, even if it can’t yet touch Sony, Apple or Nokia.’

To head the IDS learning facility, Samsung brought in former IBM designers Gordon Bruce and Tom Hardy. According to Delaney, the pair was responsible for breaking down the Korean company’s Confucian mindset, which essentially prevented subordinate staff from questioning their superiors.

‘[We] nurtured a cultural change in attitude. It was based on a much more thoughtful, longer term vision of chairman Lee’s [than] just having more research, designers and offices,’ says Bruce.

SDE was established in 2000 by Delaney, Goodwin and Harry Choi to handle product design across the entire Samsung portfolio. Dale Russell acts as the centre’s external creative director for colours, materials and finishes.

In addition to SDE, the company operates equivalent design centres in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Each unit is encouraged to compete with the others.

Goodwin refers to SDE as a consultancy, rather than an in-house design team, because it competes not only with the other Samsung design satellites, but also with external consultancies.

SDE will also call in external groups when appropriate and has already worked extensively with Seymour Powell Forecasting. For its part, Samsung has employed the design services of product consultancy Tangerine.

A key contribution from SDE to the global corporation is its ability to offer a European perspective on product design. ‘In 2000 we presented European designs [in Korea] and they were shocked. We give a European flavour that they can’t do. If they could, we wouldn’t be needed,’ says Goodwin.

What is Samsung’s trajectory now? Can the rate of innovation experienced over the past eight years be maintained? There is a sense that having achieved what it has so quickly, the company has applied the brakes slightly, if only to build some structural foundations: As Goodwin notes, a crash in the Korean markets has happened before and may happen again.

The spectre of China also looms. Given the company’s origin in producing Western-styled electronics more efficiently and cheaply than the West, it is ironic that Samsung management is now irked by Chinese copies of its own products.

Meanwhile, at SDE, things are ‘ramping up’ after a quieter period, according to Goodwin. ‘We have got the balance of designers and researchers just right now and we should be able to do more of the fun stuff again; we won’t always give them what they want,’ he says, with gentle mischief.

The design process has undoubtedly changed from when Delaney joined Samsung in 1997. ‘Then, designers were people who applied shapes at the end, once the engineering had been done,’ he says. Now, the approach is far more expansive.

Goodwin says, ‘They won’t even look at it if there isn’t a product story attached now. Every little thing is incredibly nailed down. It is much more linked with marketing departments than it used to be and it produces far better products.’

Unwilling to reveal the specific direction of Samsung’s forthcoming product designs, Goodwin does say that the fashion and furniture industries are the places to look for the latest ideas.

‘Colour, materials and finishes are incredibly important at the moment. Minimalism is boring and has been done; you need to add that little bit more, a bit of character,’ he says.

Mark Delaney also features in this week’s Inspired, page 10

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