Commercial union

The relationship between a design group and a client can and should be mutually beneficial. Jeremy Myerson looks at the factors that make a successful collaboration.

“Design alliances are fragile and intangible. Once destroyed, they may never be rekindled and the company will have recognised, but too late, that it has lost its creative and competitive edge.” So say the authors of a recently-published book, Management of Design Alliances.

And as British product designers survey the ad hoc nature of client relationships in much of the UK design industry, they could be forgiven for envying the more solid and lasting corporate design alliances displayed in other parts of the world. While graphic and packaging design firms can, to some extent, thrive off-roster by flitting from project to project, the longer deadlines and more in-depth technical skills and knowledge required in product development work against a series of short-term relationships with different clients.

The name of the game is long-term client partnership. But, despite some notable exceptions (Kenwood with Kenneth Grange, for example, or Psion with Martin Riddiford), examples of successful product design alliances are still relatively rare in the UK.

A number of the Millennium Products selectors have spoken publicly in recent weeks about the mismatch between the high standard of scientific invention and low quality of industrial design in the British products they have been asked to judge. But to simply blame client companies for failing to integrate design into the product development process is too simplistic. There is clearly a design management learning process to go through on both sides.

When, for example, design consultant Ideo set up a “Samsung University” at its Palo Alto headquarters, attended for several months by senior Korean executives, it was in recognition of the need for designer and client to share learning and knowledge. The invitation to the client to come and “live” for months in the designer’s studio is a direct reversal of the more traditional scenario. An example, says Ideo’s US chief executive officer David Kelley, of how the nature of the relationship between product designer and client is in transition.

“In the old days, toaster companies would come to us and say, ‘design a new toaster’. We’d do it and then they’d go away,” he explains. “Now companies come to us and say, ‘how can we make our company more innovative?’ That’s the big management question right now, especially in the US where many companies have even appointed a head of innovation. It leads to more profound, longer-term relationships.”

Ideo has also entered into a significant design alliance with office furniture giant Steelcase, and the design teams of both have begun working closely together at several locations in the US and Europe. Not surprisingly, Ideo’s practice of what Kelley describes as “tacit learning through design projects” is singled out in the book, edited by Margaret Bruce, Professor of Design Management at UMIST, and Norwegian researcher Birgit H Jevnaker.

The authors define a design alliance as “a collaborative and interactive business relationship between a company and its design resource”, and describe the mutual benefits which accrue. Principally, clients benefit from the fresh ideas, new knowledge and skills that design consultants bring while designers benefit from having the opportunity to work on novel problems and develop new expertise.

Bruce and Jevnaker’s publication is typical of academic design management literature in that it rewards the diligent rather than casual reader. Its rigorous style, with dense thickets of footnotes, is hard work to get through but nevertheless provides an insight into the fundamentals of an effective design alliance. In particular it identifies three main factors:

a frank and open exchange of ideas;

acknowledgement of design as a valuable, or equal, partner in development projects; and

learning from experience so that companies continually improve and don’t repeat earlier mistakes.

This last point is powerfully illustrated in the book in a UK case study – the fast-track development of a new powertool by Ingersoll-Rand in alliance with Manchester-based product design group Buxton Wall McPeake. This pioneering project became the flagship for a new European design centre for the client, winning awards for innovative design and use of materials and giving Ingersoll-Rand confidence in a renewed ability to develop new products, despite the newness of the relationship between company and consultant.

Ingersoll-Rand didn’t just want a functionally superior product. It wanted a new image so that customers could look at the product and “know it instinctively to be made by Ingersoll-Rand”, says marketing manager John Schofield. That image-making dimension opened the door for Buxton Wall McPeake to bring fresh expertise to the alliance; what really impressed the client was consultant Bob Buxton’s ability to “put pen to paper” immediately and visualise in sketch form.

The rest of Bruce and Jevnaker’s case material, however, is not British. Scandinavian companies appear more receptive to design alliances, as case studies on Ericsson mobile communications, Finnish fashion company Marimekko and Norwegian furniture firms Stokke and HAG demonstrate. Patience is clearly a virtue, because design alliances take time – although Buxton Wall McPeake jumped through hoops to meet the targets of a very tight programme, success is not guaranteed overnight. Long-term design investment is required.

Consultant Peter Opsvik’s relationships with Stokke and HAG, for example, started in 1967 and 1974 respectively, but the real strategic breakthrough with innovative products didn’t happen until the Eighties.

It was a similar story with IBM’s development of its ThinkPad notebook computer: Richard Sapper was appointed industrial design consultant in 1980, more than a decade before the ground-breaking product took off, earning sales of $1.4bn (875m) in 1993. According to Bruce and Jevnaker’s book, one of Sapper’s most important contributions was to help young designers working inside IBM to push their radical ideas through. As one of them said: “We can take a short cut within the company’s bureaucracy by getting Sapper’s authorisation. Sapper is almost an insider because of his long relationship with IBM. He has faith in his idea of what is good design, he’s strong. But, simultaneously, he is not wedded to the old ways.”

That is a design alliance in the true sense of the word. If Britain is going to develop the fullest range of Millennium Products to be proud of, we are going to need more of them. n

Management of Design Alliances: Sustaining Competitive Advantage is edited by Margaret Bruce and Birgit H Jevnaker and published by John Wiley & Sons, price 34.95

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