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The time has now come for product design groups to shape up for the future, says Clive Grinyer.

For some reason, the end of a century puts you in the mood for change. I think product design is about to change, and when you look around you might agree.

Products are so restrained, so careful and safe, but then we get the iMac. The iMac is in the history books already as one of the fastest selling products of all time, and is being bought by people who have never used a computer before. The iMac puts a smile on every product designer’s face because it says “I told you so” to the grey box computer industry with all its reasons why the design couldn’t be different.

The iMac has taken us where we all wanted to go, but hadn’t been able to get to. It’s moved the paradigm and shown the future, but not just in terms of what it looks like or how you use it.

The design team that created the iMac is an in-house team. It understands what the brand value of Apple Computer is and can communicate that through the product, and lead us into the future.

If you want to see into the future, you’re not so likely to look at the work of design consultancies as you once were. The future is more likely to be defined by those designers who have a corporate remit and access to cultural and technological realities that the future is built on. These designers live in companies like Philips, Siemens or NEC.

What role do product design consultancies have in defining our future? The Eighties were littered with blue sky visions of whole nations wearing CD camcorders strapped to their heads. Technology, cyberspace and Blade Runner were exciting catalysts for 3D imagination, so if it is a good time for product designers, where, iMac aside, are the great products for the millennium? ©

Since the recession at the end of the Eighties and the rise of CAD, UK design consultancies have, with only a few notable exceptions, sold engineering and product development and looked away from pure design creativity. This was good for stability of income, and there are not many product-based engineering consultancies in the UK of the kind you find in Silicon Valley. But, as a result, I think the strategic use of product design has been devalued.

Anyone who’s taken part in judging Millennium Products will testify that, despite many world-class British products, there are far too few with any evidence of visual, tactile or interface design effort of any sort. And even where there is evidence of design, there is a low threshold of acceptability where a little of design is enough. And yet design is increasingly commissioned by marketing people rather than engineering or research and development departments as it is understood that the product is the most powerful and best communicator of brand value and corporate differentiation.

An architect will communicate a corporate vision and aspiration through a building, and a graphic designer will understand the brand, but the product remains the last item manufacturers look to as a communicator or differentiator. Designers bring their own brand values to each project, but this is a problem if you’re interested in building a unique set of values and a design language, as car companies do so successfully.

This is one of the reasons why we see companies in the US reinventing the in-house design group as a creative engine with ownership of the brand. In Europe, where design has traditionally been in-house, design teams are being strengthened and even spun-off as consultancies, as has happened with Philips and Siemens.

In the absence of clients demanding high design standards, our designers, of course, famously work for clients abroad. Given the paucity of consumer product manufacture in the UK, if you want to be a designer in the UK you have to be a consultant and you have to find an international client. But with competition from corporate design teams acting as consultants, and companies looking for better co-ordinated product design, product by project solutions are a thing of the past .

Consultancies and clients will have to find ways to work together as partners to develop more strategic design tools which unveil and develop brand values. Companies need to expose the breadth of vision and expertise design consultancies offer and consultancies need to understand how to focus and direct their creativity, or they will find themselves without a role.

But design consultancies are only as good as the client. Companies should demand much more of product designers. They should stop asking for service and ask for skills – skills to help them see what might be, to explore and test, to develop research techniques that generate solutions that mean something to consumers and break stodgy old moulds that kept PCs grey and hi-fis black.

If the greatest role of product design is to enable everyone to have access to the tools and technology we need to live, learn and enjoy life, it is the in-house teams which have taken the mantle of responsibility and lead the way. The final ingredient is the company itself. Philips had hundreds of designers designing kettles and TVs until the bosses at Philips let Stefano Marzano drive the company into the future, so defeating global competition on the way.

The lesson for the new millennium is to work on the inside, where the designer reacts and responds to the future, with a remit from corporate mavericks who connect them to the consumer, not the shareholder.

Clive Grinyer is head of design at TAG McLaren Audio

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