Pride and Prejudice

It’s time deluded designers who think Britain is best woke up to what’s really happening in Europe. Jeremy Myerson dispels the British bulldog myth

In an uncanny echo of the general political scene, the UK design industry has its very own Eurosceptic wing. And just like its Parliamentary counterpart, it is sometimes highly vocal in expressing the view that there’s nothing the rest of Europe can teach us. Its thinking is based on the fact that the British design community is certainly the largest and longest-established in Europe – and probably the most creative and resourceful too.

This Euroscepticism expresses itself most forcefully in graphics, where British designers tend to dismiss some of the packaging, identities and communications emanating from continental Europe as old hat. However, it is altogether more circumspect when assessing the technical achievements of, say, German or Swiss product design; or when confronted by furniture or interiors from Italy, Spain or The Netherlands, where there is a high degree of architectural creativity (although retail schemes still tend to bring out the jingoistic sentiment).

Ironically, the Eurosceptic argument has been given fuel by recent Netherlands Design Institute research which identifies the UK market for design services as the largest in the European Community on account of the size of our publishing, packaging and promotional industries. At 1.4bn, UK design spending even narrowly outstrips Germany’s 1.3bn, where the lion’s share of cash is for product development and civic environmental improvements.

Given the scale of our design education and consulting sector, the temptation has been to say that continental Europe hangs on to our coat-tails in terms of design. When there was a spate of Anglo-French consultancy mergers a few years ago, it was repeatedly pointed out that our design industry was ten times larger than nos frères across the Channel. Today we are frequently reminded of how British designers can be found high up in Volvo and Renault, Givenchy and Christian Dior, Philips and Olivetti. But how can we really be so sure we are the design masters of Europe?

For one thing, there is plainly something missing from the UK picture: namely all those design-oriented small and medium-sized businesses on whose fortunes the creation of new jobs and prosperity in Europe will depend over the next decade. With one or two notable exceptions (such as James Dyson’s vacuum cleaner company), the type of agile, entrepreneurial, technologically-aware company which champions the use of design as part of the innovation process has been conspicuously absent from British industry.

This point was brought home at last Friday’s presentation of the European Design Prize at La Villette in Paris, where Europe’s most innovative companies took part in a design industry summit organised by The Netherlands Design Institute, Dublin’s European Design Partnership and the French Agency for the Promotion of Industrial Creation.

The aim of the EDP is to “stimulate awareness and use of design as an instrument of innovation and quality” among small and medium-sized industrial companies operating in Europe. A total of 365 companies were nominated, 64 were shortlisted and there were 11 winners. From the UK, only Dyson – which was nominated along with high-tech company Psion, biomaterials specialist Innovation Technologies Group, prosthetic limb-maker Blatchfords, and JCB Special Products – ranked among the winners. Dyson was given a special award as “young technology-intensive company” of 1997 in recognition of its revolutionary adaptation of dual-cyclone technology. The company’s winning streak, which included Britain’s Design Effectiveness Awards Grand Prix last autumn, clearly shows no sign of abating.

A look at the other European Design prize winners swiftly reveals that mainland Europe’s design strength resides more in the substance of its smaller manufacturing companies and less in the effervescence of its design consultants. Artemide, one of a number of outstanding Italian lighting companies, received a lifetime achievement award, as did kitchen maker Bulthaup, one of two German winners. Swedish welding mask producer Hornell won a newcomer’s award for its work in an area that has never traditionally considered industrial design, while Spanish furniture company Oken reaped the rewards of a successful relationship with designer Josep Llusca in the public seating market.

Publicity about the UK’s designers being in the vanguard of new media and Green design is all very well, but a Dutch publisher won the prize for multimedia and a Danish waste disposal company was recognised for its contribution to the environment.

To win a European Design Prize, companies must demonstrate their use of a total design policy as part of the innovation process, embracing product development, communications and environmental design. It is an award for design management as much as anything else, although special emphasis is given to the introduction or exploitation of new technology.

According to John Thackara, director of The Netherlands Design Institute, analysis of the EDP winners and finalists reveals an interesting picture of the innovative company. Europe’s leading edge companies typically employ around 230 people, spend in excess of 250 000 a year on design, and are less than 30 years old. They also employ a team of around seven in-house designers, and express design value primarily in terms of the form and usability of products.

Thackara argues that “it is very hard to draw global lessons or conclusions from the winners because every company innovates in a different way. Even within countries, there are major differences in creative tradition and how design is used. In Germany, Bulthaup and Authentics, both prize winners, are very far apart in approach, so national generalisations are not that helpful. But what we can say,” he concedes, “is that the big challenge for smaller innovators is the coordination of different inputs, and there is now widespread recognition that design is a key integrating factor.”

Thackara has written a new book entitled Winners! based on case study analysis of the 64 finalists in the European Design Prize in which he identifies new trends in European innovation and design. These relate to a range of issues, from smart materials and customisation in products to Internet communication, competition between cities and ecological limits. The message for designers, says Thackara, is that companies operating in sectors where products and services have now reached a plateau of acceptance by customers are looking for new ways to differentiate. “In Germany, for example, there is a yearning for more than technical excellence, but it is not a yearning for visual excitement. It is about asking where the next level of quality comes from. Design has got to supply the answers,” says Thackara.

At the design summit preceding last week’s European Design Prize ceremony, the 64 finalists were asked what they wanted to discuss. The overwhelming response (more than 80 per cent) was relationship with customers. The only other issue to register strongly (just under 70 per cent) was evaluation of design , which gives some encouragement to the design effectiveness lobby.

Just as Europe is increasingly dependent on its smaller enterprises (16 million in the 15 countries of the European Union, which account for more than two-thirds of all jobs) so these businesses will inevitably turn to the European design community for new ideas to build better relationships with customers. In Winners! John Thackara sketches the parameters of a Europe-wide design industry to which UK designers belong, whether they acknowledge it or not.

This industry contains some 9000 design groups, most of which employ fewer than 25 people and are highly specialised. They are also nationally focused: fewer than 5 per cent of these practices provide international or pan-European design services, although around a quarter of all Europe’s designers are now connected to the Internet. Design consultants in Europe turned over an estimated 6.5bn in fees in 1996, a sustainable growth rate of 7 per cent on the previous year.

What is especially interesting for British design groups is that their pace of technological change is being matched across the Channel. According to Thackara, the average design consultancy in Europe spends 17 500 a year on hardware, software and training and expects to spend as much or more each year for the foreseeable future.

When you place UK design within the broader context of a European design industry, it is clear that “Little England” attitudes are out-of-date. Aside from the obvious quality of European manufacturing companies, there is room for mutual admiration within design practice. Much-travelled consultant Michael Wolff observes: “It is irritating, blind and ignorant to say that British design is best. Our design consultancies tend to fall in love with their own concepts and then not deliver them in a comprehensive way. Very rarely, for example, do we see typography done with the passion and intensity of Germany or Switzerland. Nobody should say we can’t learn from others.”

As if to prove Wolff’s point, there was a special guest at last week’s European Design Prize. His name: Philippe Starck. It is a moot point whether his kind of genius would have been allowed to flourish in our insular creative hothouse.

Winners! How Today’s Successful Companies Innovate by Design, written and edited by John Thackara, is published in the UK by Gower on 1 March.>

EUROPE’S MOST INNOVATIVE COMPANIES BY DESIGN

Artemide: Italian

Lighting company in the vanguard of design innovation with its new Metamorfosi lighting system.

Authentics: German

Manufacturer of eco-friendly plastic products for household use.

Bates: Danish

Producer of waste disposal systems.

Bulthaup: German

Designer and maker of quality kitchens, using new materials and a systems approach.

Dyson Appliances: British

The UK’s fastest growing manufacturer picks up another top design prize as its vacuum cleaners continue to outsell the opposition.

Fiskars: Finnish

Manufacturer of gardening tools and scissors, based on the application of sound ergonomic principles.

Hornell: Swedish

Maker of welding helmets.

Lafuma: French

Maker of outdoor clothing and camping gear – its flagship product is an “airstream system” backpack.

Mediamatic: Dutch

Website and multimedia production. Publisher of Mediamatic magazine for video artists.

Oken: Spanish

Furniture company specialising in public seating systems for the international market.

Oticon: Danish

Designer and manufacturer of advanced hearing aids which adjust to changing sound environments.

Source: The European Design Prize 1997, part of the European Union’s Innovation Programme.

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