Time to raise our game in 2008

Last year’s launch of the Apple iPhone was arguably one of the most successful product stories of the decade. And yet some say that the world of product design is at a crossroads or, worse still, doomed to disaster in the new eco-aware climate. So just what will happen in the business of product design in 2008?

One of my lasting memories of 2007 is that of John Thackara, the director of Dott 07, announcing that the age of the object is dead, and as such, that the design industry must reinvent itself.

I guess he was speaking predominantly of the product design industry – whose sole focus was once on the object.

It is fair to say that, as a sector, we have suffered an identity crisis in recent years, and whether prompted by Thackara or not, it is likely that this issue will dominate 2008.

What are we – product designers, developers, innovators or, if the Design Council has its way, facilitators? Are we really consultants or merely contractors? Is our business model fee-for-service-based, or are we fast becoming the originators – the inventors – intent on developing our own intellectual property, doing away with the client altogether?

Certainly – with increased competition in the UK alone coming from in-house and ‘in-educational’ establishments, in addition to sole-traders operating out of their bedrooms – the sector is diversifying into areas such as strategy and sustainability.

I’d challenge anyone, however, who tells me that the age of the object is dead. How many of us have a phone in our pocket that is less than six months old? Yes, the package, service and interface are important, but it is the physical object that makes the statement – and someone, somewhere has to design it.

For me, it isn’t whether or not we will continue to consume objects, but rather whether the UK product design industry will remain interested enough, or even competitive enough, to design them.

On the back of work for indigenous industries, German and US product design groups are targeting Chinese manufacturers eager to develop their own brands. China’s nascent design industry is growing as fast as its economy – big enough to be more concerned with internal rivalry than competition from abroad.

South Korea is also now a design powerhouse in its own right, having matured rapidly on the back of a prolonged government-sponsored industrial drive.

What of us? Well, like our national football teams, we are in danger of being left behind – of being overconfident and overpaid.

For the past five years industry commentators have been telling us that the current trend of increased salaries with decreased fees is unsustainable – you don’t need a degree in economics to work that out.

Come to that, with all the recent changes in education, I’m tempted to think that you don’t need a degree in product design to be a designer. I need people who can design, not people who can talk about it.

I was fascinated to read that new research from the London School of Economics shows that art and design graduates top the charts of people who are overqualified for their jobs – 58 per cent of them go into jobs that do not require a degree qualification. Are they overqualified, or is this more a reflection of the sheer number of graduates compared to the still modest size of our industry?

Maybe Thackara is right, and the future for the UK design industry lies in moving away from the object and towards the packaging, brand, environment and service. Priestman Goode, though recently successful with its design for the BT Home Hub, is, I suspect, actually making its money from trains, planes and terminals. Seymour Powell constantly advertises for packaging designers and strategists, seemingly on the back of increasingly lucrative work with Unilever – attracting the attention of the acquisitive Loewy into the bargain.

So, what does it mean for 2008? Design education is going to become increasingly irrelevant to the needs of the design business – focusing more on academic qualification, on the ‘business’ side of things, rather than on pure ‘design’. Salaries will continue to increase more than fees – in part because of the small number of good design graduates feeding the employment ladder. Global economic turmoil brought about by subprime loans and increasing oil prices will put a squeeze on budgets. The strength of the pound to the US dollar will affect our exports.

Locally, one-man bands and subsidised services will continue to erode consultancy profits. Consultancies will further diversify and explore income streams other than fee-for-service. Intellectual property generation will remain a focus despite the real value being in the quality of translation rather than the idea itself.

Sustainable development will increasingly be discussed, but rarely implemented because of commercial pressures client-side.

On the back of Loewy buying Seymour Powell, we will all dream of similar deals.

But, of course, dreams aren’t enough – the English football team had dreams. We must be competitive. Not just in terms of our charge-out rates, but also practically.

As the saying goes, you’ve got to be in it to win it. In the global world of product development, we must get out there and compete at a global level. Then, and only then, will the best rise to the top.

Jim Dawton is a director of Pearson Matthews

Latest articles