Woud work

James Woudhuysen’s ability to predict trends has given him status as a mentor for design. Janet Fitch asks him about his new managerial role at Philips

James Woudhuysen is not an immediately recognisable household name, but there can and should be few in the design profession who have not heard, marked, learnt and digested his wise words on the future, particularly as related to design.

Woudhuysen is not a designer, but his influence on and interest in the profession is profound. He marked the end of 1995 by leaving his job at the Henley Centre for Forecasting (Britain’s well-known think-tank on the future of social and economic behaviour), and his home in south London for a new career as a manager of worldwide market intelligence in sound and vision for the European market giant Philips, and will be based in Eindhoven in The Netherlands.

He seems so far to have made a remarkable success of changing career paths, probably inheriting a fair slice of his parents’ adaptability. His father, Lewis Woudhuysen, crossed the channel in a dinghy to Britain in 1940 to escape the Nazi onslaught, and was picked up by a British battleship: quite plucky for a man who couldn’t swim. A graphic designer, he eventually set up his own consultancy, Woudhuysen, which in its heyday in the Sixties employed around 25 people. He was also president of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers. James’ mother Alice was an illustrator, now a painter, from the Somerset landed gentry. She met Lewis after FHK Henrion couldn’t keep an appointment with her to look at her portfolio. Lewis looked at it instead, took her to lunch, and they later married.

The family lived in Wimbledon and James became a scholar at St. Paul’s. “I had a really good education there but hated it at the time. I was quite rebellious and in the Sixties it was quite repressive there,” he recalls.

He also had the dilemma of choosing between science and the arts. He was good at maths but also English; and the arts ran in the family. But the 12-year-old James was in love with the space race, and so he mugged up on physics to fulfil his great ambition to be an astronaut.

“I calculated that it was easier to get a job with a background in technology than literature. But I wasn’t a physics nerd, I was interested in film and the social side of science, politics and economics.” So he did a BSc in physics at the University of Sussex, and followed this with research on the political economy of European nuclear energy.

By now physics was beginning to lose its allure, and he wanted to write, speak and teach about the social side of science. Halfway through his PhD he realised that he was flat broke and applied for the job of technical editor of Design. He was hired by the then editor Mark Brutton in 1976, and became editor himself two years later. In 1982 he swapped journalism for academia and became co-ordinator of postgraduate studies at the Central School of Art and Design, where he taught MA courses in graphic and industrial design. He still teaches there.

In 1986 he switched from academia to the business of design. Rodney Fitch, impressed by his writing for Design and Designers’ Journal, hired him “as head of research” – the job description proving a tad vague. So, narrowly averting redundancy, he became head of Fitch’s information department, “an upmarket librarian adding value to pitches”. By then Fitch had acquired Richardson Smith in Ohio and Woudhuysen was sent off to research its exploratory design laboratory, with a view to setting up a similar one in the UK. Working in Ohio gave him opportunities to become an expert on teleshopping, cities and their development, as well as allowing him to work as a consultant to Philips.

He left Fitch in 1991 to develop broader skills than in the design field, and went to the Henley Centre to develop his work on cities and IT (computers, telecom and consumer electronics). His contribution at Henley enabled him to develop an impressive portfolio on the writing of cities, Japanese design, new materials, IT and customer services.

As manager of worldwide market intelligence in sound and vision at Philips (Philips’ words for consumer electronics – TVs, VCRs, Hi-Fi’s, phones and so on), he will look at the future of consumerism in these areas.

Philips wants 25 per cent of its turnover to be in Asia by 2000. It already has a large presence in Latin America and has volume in the US as the Magnavox brand.

Woudhuysen aims to head a team of around 30 people to give Philips the ability to better use knowledge of the consumer, the competition and brand performance. His aim is to build a multidisciplinary source of information – a kind of mini Henley Centre for Philips. An example of how he will operate is, for instance, to research how the the possibility of the 1998 Brazilian election could affect business, product and service development in Latin America. As well as having a substantial team, he will be using external services.

Understanding his sphere of knowledge is difficult, but he combines solid information and statistics with a lack of technological determinism and a questioning of why “because it exists, it’s bound to happen”, particularly applied to IT.

His views on corporate identity beg questions that need to be answered – such as why a new identity scheme will make employees feel a heightened “sense of belonging to the company” or whether a new vehicle livery or company uniform is just that and no more. He takes the old adage about computers – rubbish in, rubbish out – to argue that people, not computers, are at fault if we don’t use them properly. “To make the chips is not difficult, to make the interface is,” he explains. His words on information design should be obligatory reading for anyone who is in charge of the small print on things like an airline ticket or the handbook that accompanies a new CD player.

His new post doesn’t mean he will be severing his links with either Britain or the design world. He remains professor of design management at De Montfort University in Leicester, and feels he is in a strong position to be an ambassador for design.

He believes facts and data and rigorous analysis are necessary to the design profession for its own self-respect and in order to regain some of the public respect it has lost in recent years. He believes in humanistic worldwide solutions for mass problems like large inner cities, not “craft solutions for a small coterie”.

His verdict on the IT superhighways sums up his philosophy: “It is human beings and human inputs, not inanimate highways, which will determine the fate of the Earth.”

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