Product design in the UK can be summed up in two words: undermarketed and undervalued. It’s the old chicken and egg scenario – designers blame UK manufacturers for not using design, clients accuse designers of not promoting themselves effectively.
Yet UK product designers have an enviable reputation worldwide. The best ones are plucked from the degree shows by foreign organisations before they’ve had time to graduate, and established consultancies usually have more overseas clients – particularly in the Far East – than British ones. For a discipline which is still maturing, product design has had terrific international success, but a lukewarm reception over here.
Richard Watson of client advisory service EDR says: “The world buys product design. But the UK doesn’t recognise product design.” He is also amazed at how “commercially unsophisticated” product design consultancies seem to be, and at how low fee-levels are.
The market itself can be confusing in name alone, and clients and consultants switch between industrial design and product design to describe a skill which varies from creating initial concepts to providing a product design manual including graphics and colour-coding for a manufacturer’s entire range.
Although product designers are accused of not making as much noise as other designers, they have plenty to shout about. According to Sean Blair, design director at the Design Council: “the market is quite buoyant, most designers are busy.” Sanyo UK marketing general manager Peter Eldon believes there are “more and more opportunities for European designers to make an impact in Europe” as more electronics factories are being opened.
Anne Gardener, co-founder of consultancy TKO, agrees that there is a new-found optimism as the recession abates. Although her consultancy has relied on work from the Far East, work is filtering through from UK clients. “There are smaller outfits which are coming up with product ideas and are thinking about using designers for the first time. People are more willing to lend money and the atmosphere is slightly more open,” she explains.
According to Paul Priestman, partner at Priestman Goode, his consultancy has been growing steadily since it was set up at the end of the boom and is now expanding into offices three times bigger. While it has built up a strong base of largely overseas clients, it has also been proactive in designing products on a speculative basis, such as the successful Hot Springs radiator. In this the consultancy is following in the footsteps of success story James Dyson, whose business came about through the failure of manufacturers to take the lead.
What many designers are now hoping is that they are taken more seriously as strategic consultants and not just as add-ons. As Blair points out: “I question how many consultancies are actual consultants and not contractors.” But a real bugbear among designers is the lack of investment in product design. According to Priestman: “It’s frustrating when companies are willing to spend more on graphics, packaging and advertising than on the product itself.”
What clients want
Clients vary as much as the projects, and in theory any business which is not a service could be a potential client. But when it comes to keeping the client satisfied, one of the major factors seems to be keeping the customer satisfied, and knowing the customer inside out. Some clients will be looking for in-depth knowledge of manufacturing processes and up-to-the minute CAD skills, some for in-depth conceptual thinking, and others still might not know what they want. Many may have in-house design teams and expect external consultancies to work with them.
“We expect consultancies to have a bit of a track record in the area of the product. I don’t look for ‘me too’ designers, but if it’s seating we want, we expect them to have done other seats. I don’t want to pay for their learning curve,” states Christopher Nell, design manager of environment at London Transport.
“If we think there’s a business fit and are impressed by the consultancy’s credentials, we’ll get them in,” comments Ian Truin, marketing manager at Lec Refrigeration, which is based in Bognor Regis and has recently started to use more external consultants. “We need those with a good knowledge of manufacturing processes. They wouldn’t necessarily have to know how a fridge works, but they should have an idea about how injection mouldings work, what the latest processes are, what the tricks are – we want them to bring something new.”
Clive Grinyer, European design manager at Samsung Electronics, explains Samsung has a “core” of European consultants with whom he develops long-term relationships. “We need relationships so that there’s an understanding of Samsung’s manufacturing capabilities and an understanding of the design language. I like to give consultants a number of projects and hope they integrate Samsung into their planning.”
He adds Samsung is looking to re-evaluate its consultants and bring in “new names to broaden the vision”. Grinyer says: “I look for some experience of consumer products, sensitivity to where our markets are and what people actually buy. I want design skill rather than constant invention or mass innovation, and I’m not interested in engineering.”
For Ali Haynes, a designer at toy company Hasbro, innovation is the key requirement. “We basically use all our consultants for conceptual work and generating ideas, which are then developed in-house. I look for honesty, creativity, real innovation, real front-end stuff – know- ledge of the company isn’t necessary. But it’s imperative that the consultancy has an understanding of the end-users.”
David Griffiths, design manager at Royal Mail, matches consultants to projects and claims: “We are quite sophisticated design buyers. I use a doughnut model to evaluate designers.” The soft side, or centre, is the personality or culture of the consultancy, and the hard side around the edge represents the tangible aspects of differentiation; can they invest in infrastructure? Have they got a modelmaking studio? He also “seeks to build relationships and not be promiscuous”.
Although most consultancies invest heavily in new technology, it’s not always essential. Haynes claims “lack of technical ability wouldn’t really worry us,” while Nell agrees: “Engineering and manufacturing skills aren’t really important, and we don’t have any way of reading CAD”.
Nonetheless, Blair believes technology has an “ever increasing” role in the marketplace.
Room for Improvement
As with other design disciplines, clients see product designers as creating solutions which suit themselves rather than the end-user. Product designers in particular are perceived as more “parochial” and a lot less sophisticated at promoting themselves and communicating their skills.
A common complaint is that apart from a handful of well-known exceptions, they have been a bit slow in coming forward. If they want to be taken seriously as consultants they must portray the right image.
“Product designers have a tendency to see the world as a personal vision, but it should be a social vision. You have to please a lot of people and not just yourself,” suggests Grinyer. “Role-playing and scenario building are a really important part of product design, but not enough people do it. In the US, these things are part of the product teams from the word go.”
Haynes points out that some designers assume intimate knowledge of consumers. For her projects, which are based on Play-Doh, there are very specific end-users. “Some of them like to think they know best,” she says, so she makes sure the briefs leave no room for misinterpretation.
Designers who go off on a tangent mess it up not only for themselves but the whole industry. “We have had experience of one or two designers who have been very difficult to work with and very frustrating. They may as well have been working on the moon,” says Terry Friend, engineering manager at electrical manufacturer Avo International.
What clients do notice is the way product designers promote and market themselves, or not. Watson points out: “What’s quite bizarre is how commercially unsophisticated they are – they’re generally all run by designers with little or no marketing skills.”
Nell agrees: “A lot of them aren’t very good at selling themselves. They market themselves in one way and we use them in another. Graphics people go the other way and say they can do everything when they haven’t got the kit.” Truin also finds it strange that “for creative people, they are not very good at selling themselves. A lot of them tend to be boffin-like and their brochures don’t truly say how they can suit our business.”
“Product designers can’t spell and can’t communicate,” declares Griffiths. “I’m talking about mundane things – written reports, visual presentations. It’s not their main discipline and it shows. They would do well to take the advice they give me and get a graphics consultancy to give them a makeover.” He adds: “There’s a challenge for them to understand the client’s mentality – little things they can do to make life easier. They also suffer from lack of size and ability to raise capital investment and mature as a business.”
Compared to other design disciplines, fees for product design work are surprisingly low. This stems partly from projects coming out of tight R&D budgets, and partly because designers don’t seem to be pushing for more. “It seems barking mad that fee-levels are staggeringly low,” comments Watson.
“They are not paid as much as they should be, but I also find UK designers lack confidence to ask for fees. In the US they are a lot more confident because they are busier. They should find ways of increasing the value of what they provide,” suggests Grinyer.
Griffiths agrees fees are probably lower than other consultants, but states: “The challenge is in getting clients to understand they could make a lot of money from the consultancies.”
But Truin points out that consultancy costs are still high compared to in-house “people” costs. “We are relatively old-fashioned, based on manufacturing and engineering and not at the forefront of technology. The gap between our costs and agency people costs is difficult to swallow.”
Martin Darbyshire, a partner at consultancy Tangerine, believes the problem in how product designers are perceived is deep-rooted, and claims they should be getting involved at higher levels within clients companies. “Product designers should be doing everything they can to change the value of what they do for clients.”
Inevitably, new technology is setting the pace, with programmes and packages being developed which almost replace modelmaking. Priestman Goode has invested vast sums into new software which provides “rapid prototyping”, which Priestman claims speeds up development and “allows more interesting things to happen”. He adds: “We use machines which cost 50 000 to 60 000, and it’s a growing requirement. If I was trying to set up now it would be very difficult.”
Blair believes consultancies have to invest in technology to keep up with the changing pace. “Technology is a clear trend. If you’re in that niche you can’t afford to get left behind, but you need to make sure the investment pays off.”
But Seymour Powell partner Adam White believes many design groups are becoming “obsessed with the power of their PCs, which might scare clients”. He sees the “continuing integration” of design into marketing within client companies as crucial. “Just as with advertising, design adds personality and equity to a brand, yet there is still a trend to spend vast tranches of budget promoting inferior products instead of developing really high quality products at grass-roots level.”
Consultancies also need a broader range of skills to fulfill clients’ requirements. Truin predicts: “They’ll need heavy marketing skills and strategic skills at all levels – they’ve almost got to be better at it than the manufacturer.”
Environmental factors will play a bigger role, according to Darbyshire: “We have to change our means of consumption. The irony is that designers are dependent on consumers because they fuel them. But to approach a higher level of sustainability, we must produce products with a longer life.” Product designers will play their part by becoming integrated at a much higher level, he adds: “You have to have product design totally and utterly integrated and very visible to everyone within an organisation.”
And there should be more women product designers coming through, judging by CVs being sent out to consultancies, but the heavy male bias will take a long time to even up.
Clients perceive product designers as…
Frustrated male inventors trapped between a creative leaning and an interest in science, or prima donnas who don’t take any notice of what the client says, what the client wants or what consumers need. Boffin-style trainspotters of the design industry, who can’t string sentences together and are afraid to ask for decent fees.
Product designers perceive clients as…
Either totally design illiterate or suspicious. Reluctant to spend money on design and penny- pinching when they do. Too cautious to stick their necks out and venture into the unknown, preferring safe solutions. Think design management is some sort of new-fangled American business course. According to Seymour Powell partner Adrian Berry, the perfect client is “someone you want to meet and relax with at the weekend. Someone who wants to involve you in all their design decisions because they appreciate your input and advice, not simply because they want their money’s worth.”
Bathroom accessories by Sebastian Bergne
“I call myself an industrial designer and define what I do as designing things for mass manufacture. The reason I still use that term is it’s important to have very strong links with industry and design things specifically for certain manufacturing processes,” declares Sebastian Bergne, who has run his own studio since leaving the Royal College of Art five years ago.
Most of Bergne’s clients are based overseas, and he began working with German company Artipresent after being introduced through a friend. He is now part of a team of individual designers chosen from around the world to work on product development within the company. Bergne’s most recent project to be launched is a range of bathroom accessories made from Artipresent’s trademark – very thin translucent polypropylene.
The company claims to have pioneered the extra thin plastic to keep prices competitive and satisfy its ecological ethos. “Plastic is a natural material because it comes from a natural oil. We use only half of the raw material because it helps achieve the transparency,” explains Artipresent managing director Hans Maier-Aichen.
“We have a small group of consultants and we know they can design really well, but we also expect team work, and expect them to get involved in the company and marketing concepts.”
Bergne describes the Authentics range as meeting the client’s motto “more than simple”. The screw-on wall-mounted soap dish, towel rail, toilet roll holder and toothbrush holder have been designed as “simple, elegant, well-manufactured and at a reasonable price”. It was decided each component should be one-piece moulded to make it easier in terms of tooling and construction and to achieve a fair price.
Maier-Aichen’s aim is to ensure quality products can be produced in quantity while his international selection of designers ensures a rich and varied input. And he pays royalties rather than a flat fee. “The designers play an important part. They have to profit if it runs well, and must also take the risk.”
Megger test meter for Avo International by Frazer Designers
“It’s important that industrial designers should have detailed knowledge of manufacturing processes and in particular the kind of manufacturing organisation they are going to work for,” stresses Avo International engineering manager Terry Friend. Luckily, the manufacturer of electrical test and measure instruments found a good fit with Frazer Designers, the consultancy chosen to work on a new combined test meter.
Although Avo has an in-house design facility, it specialises in moulding and circuit board design and for new projects external consultancies are usually commissioned. “We’ve found some designers are not very realistic when it comes to manufacturing ability,” suggests Friend. “They may be good at coming up with elegant shapes, but when it comes to the manufacturing process it’s not going to work.” However, in Frazer Designers, Friend was reassured to find “a team with a background in manufacturing who were more aware of the problems we might encounter”.
The brief required a design for a new integrated meter unit combining four instruments which were previously marketed as separate items in a carrying case. The unit had to be suitable for use in domestic and industrial settings, and had to include a hands-free option.
“Avo realised it needed a more sophisticated product with a new type of identity,” comments Frazer Designers managing director Stephen Frazer. “The design is a balance between being workman-like and adding something new to the style.”
The consultancy also carried out a colour and graphics exercise for Avo and its subsidiary companies across all of its products, resulting in a corporate product design manual to be used by in-house engineers.
“What clients like Avo are looking for is not a prima donna, but someone who is going to be part of a team,” adds Frazer. “Historically, its products have had a long life, but it is under increasing competition and is aware of the need to speed up development. We’ve been acting as a facilitator to the company.”
Friend emphasises how important it is that consultancies understand the nature of the group and the products it makes: “95 per cent of the product cost is in the printed circuit board assembly, the mouldings which give it aesthetic appeal are only a fraction of the cost.” He concludes that after bitter experiences in the past, working with Frazer Designers was a “pleasant surprise – we understand each other”.