Time to touch base

Mike Exon meets Homebase head of store design Colum Lowe to find out what the future has in store for the company and how Lowe manages his team

Colum Lowe has a mission or two for the design industry and he’s typed them up on fresh sheets of paper for reference, to make sure none get missed.

Lowe is a designer born and bred. He has the goatee beard to prove it. ‘When I was a kid there was nothing I wanted to be apart from a designer,’ he starts off.

His father set up retail design group Brian Lowe Design, where, after a stint as a freelance, postChelsea School of Art and Design, Lowe (jnr) ended up working for 11 years. There he helped to roll out a phenomenal 1600 The Body Shop stores, using The Body Shop’s green box concept, which was created by his father.

His wife is a Spanish-born artist, his elder brother is an architect and most of his friends hark back to his college life or early days as a retail designer. True to form the genial Belfast man also likes the odd pint of Guinness. Despite Belfast roots, Lowe considers home to be somewhere between Dublin and the west coast of Ireland.

He is a man of strong opinions and a good deal of words, all of which are obviously heartfelt. But he is not loud or overbearing – he’s a regular kind of 500-words-a-minute guy.

Lowe’s confidence in his abilities as a designer was justified when he won a national Royal Society of Arts student competition while at Chelsea.

His design for a telescopic child safety product to prevent electric kitchen equipment being dragged off work surfaces looked like going all the way. (It was inspired by a self-induced half-day of crawling around on his knees with half a bottle of whiskey inside him in an attempt to bring on an accident). He took the design to a manufacturer who agreed to manufacture it under license, but eventually pulled out after about 12 months when the recession bit in around 1988.

‘I always felt uncomfortable. I was going to meetings talking about moulding technology and market forces – and I had no idea what I was saying. I really had the feeling internally that any second now someone is going to work out that I have no idea what I am doing,’ he laughs.

He got through it all the same and it taught him a bit about confidence and pokerfaces. ‘I think it was Michael Peters who said the most important thing he ever learned was how to say £250 000 without blinking,’ he says.

Back with his dad, he learnt the retail game the hands-on way and gained the experience that set him up for his current role. Finding the consultancy game a bit restrictive in general, he decided to go client side, where he is still very keen to stay. After a Masters of Business Administration in design management, he was appointed to set up a creative department for Homebase, following the group’s acquisition by Schroder Ventures two years ago. He now runs a five-man team and manages a six-consultancy roster.

He and his team are in the process of updating the Homebase stores, which are moving towards stocking a much wider range of products and furnishings aimed at ‘closing the loop on home enhancement’. A mezzanine store in London’s Finchley Road opens this week, designed in conjunction with SCG Design and project management group Troika. It also features the new modified Homebase corporate identity. (This was relaunched quietly six weeks ago and completed in-house by Homebase senior designer Rick Markie-Hicks).

It probably takes a certain type of designer to walk into an established organisation suddenly waving the creative flag, let alone to fit into a regime run by an investment house. Yet Lowe has done both. Most significantly, he possesses a concrete belief that his design function should be run with one aim – to make a profit.

‘To me the most important challenge our industry faces is to prove its commercial value. The thing is, when you work for big retail organisations like us, if you can’t prove return on investment you will not get a job,’ Lowe says frankly.

It’s sensational stuff all right. A punch in the face for the Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen camp. But he is living testament to what this approach can achieve for the status of design within a business organisation.

His MBA in design management has clearly played a critical part in his business-orientation. It has also helped to break down the communication barriers that usually exist between the finance and creative functions. This approach has clearly helped his case at new-look Homebase, not only because ‘it’s why they gave me the job’, but because he seems to have managed the difficult task of getting the design function noticed at boardroom-level. His enthusiasm for this gem of knowledge is infectious.

‘Not enough designers walk in and can talk about investment decisions, return on investment or payback periods – they just don’t talk in that language. They talk about the difference in your “brand” (he draws the word out). The second you do that a managing director is liable to switch off,’ he says. ‘In my terms, if you want to know how to judge good design, you ask of the finance director, “Is he happy?”.’ Bang. There it is.

After that bombshell you might not be surprised to hear that Lowe is a proponent of the free market in all that applies to design. This means that free-pitching, while not advisable, should not be prevented, and also that clients should have the right to negotiate anti-competitive contracts from external consultancies so that the consultancies don’t run off to the competition. (But before you start writing hate mail, he’s actually a really nice guy.)

If his profit-first mentality goes against the grain for many creatives, it is more than compensated for. Where other in-house heads of design might have stayed quietly in their creative departments, Lowe has proven that design should influence company strategy. Can that be such a bad thing?

Colum Lowe’s CV

Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland

Education: Portora Royal School, Enniskillen; graduated from Chelsea School of Art and Design in 3D Design; MBA in design management from University of Westminster

Career: 11 years as retail designer at Brian Lowe Design; Since 1999, head of store design at Homebase

Boss: Homebase head of brand marketing Andrea Preducov

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