Minor ambitions

It was on seeing the first Morris Mini Minor that I determined to become a designer. To this day, the very thought of my first encounter with this little car raises goosebumps. It did everything differently; the windows slid instead of winding down, the doors opened with a cord, the starter button was on the floor and the interior space that Issigonis created by putting the engine sideways was simply extraordinary.

It was a blinding revelation, because this car had rewritten the rules and I decided that that was a much more interesting proposition than working in the bank, or whatever else my careers master was trying to fob me off with.

From then onwards, approaching things from an unconventional angle has been a guiding light to my professional career and I have learnt from the best teachers. The Beatles rose to fame right in the middle of my adolescence and showed me that to stay ahead you must lead from the front. Once they had found a winning formula, they immediately abandoned it to move on to greater adventures and even greater success. The motto seemed to be: “If it ain’t bust, bust it”.

From a design perspective, we have been blessed with Conran who took great design into the high street, and Michael Peters and Wally Olins who made it a profession to respect. Since that generation, who has taken up the baton? Over the past ten years we seem to have lost the great, overwhelming desire to produce tremendous leaps forward for our clients. We have developed a service industry mentality rather than a pioneering, tub thumping, visionary, business. Do you feel flushed with pride from the achievements of today’s design profession?

It is time to look at what we do, to place a far greater value on creativity and on the drive to be different. While I am proud and heartened that we now have more successful and profitable design consultancies than ever before, I am horrified at the mediocrity of much of the work which they manufacture rather than create. The guiding rule seems to be one of client comfort over creative achievement. Somehow, in our desire for business safety we have become just responsive, giving clients what they want rather than what they need.

In a bid to ape ad agencies which we mistakenly believe “eat at top table”, we may have placed too much emphasis on the role of account managers and account directors in our consultancies, many of whom are not great advocates of creative design, but are more interested in turnover and client management. Often it is these people who are the primary contact with the client, who negotiate fees and who run the work. Comfort and safety probably makes money and enhances their careers, but it does not offer the industry a great future. If we are to enthuse our clients and earn their support we have to ensure that their contact with us is with those who are driven by a passionate love for what we do.

All too often I hear the response that clients don’t value design, they are not willing to pay, they don’t understand (somehow everything is always the fault of clients).

Well, I’ve got bad news. Clients do not value what we do, because we don’t.

We have created, certainly in packaging design, a world where the top players regularly accede to client requests for 20 000 worth of work for 3500 in the name of a pitch. This is not an issue of greedy clients, but one of an industry cowering to client power and fearful for its future. Have we no respect for what we do?

Well, I’d like to remind all of us of what can be achieved and hope that I might spur our passion for creativity. Remember when handicapped people were hidden away and kept out of the public gaze? It wasn’t that long ago. Sadly the imagery used by charities operating in this sector reflected exactly this attitude. Then along came The Partners’ identity for Mencap. A piece of work which broke every single rule ever applied to a charity, it showed real people surmounting perceived disabilities, enjoying their lives to the full. I find this work extraordinarily touching and it restores my faith in humanity.

The iMac needs no introduction. This is the machine that consumer research would have thrown out because it is not grey and does not conform to the category and because it does not have a floppy disk drive. Actually it is a joy to look at and to use. It is also an extraordinarily brave move since Apple has probably had more product disasters than successes. iMac has become the fastest-growing product in the US computer world and deservedly so. Being different is in Apple’s DNA – I wonder how many design groups could claim the same.

Superdrug has been fearless in the way it has used design to differentiate itself. It must have seemed an enormous task to take on the might of Boots, but Superdrug saw the gap and filled it using design as one of its key differentiators. There are some interesting lessons to be learnt from Superdrug. It treats its consultancies with great respect, involving all of them in every aspect of its business and engendering a strong sense of communal spirit. It is also hugely enthusiastic about the work it gets from its consultancies. I believe its success to be testimony to reinvention through design.

There are just so many examples where design has a huge influence over peoples’ lives, where it can change opinions forever. A lift button that works badly makes you think less well about your hotel. A car door that closes perfectly tells you much more about build quality than looking at the engine ever could, similarly a pack which makes you smile, like Frijj, will be in your shopping basket before you know it.

Although it may be hard to admit, most clients cannot name more than a couple of design consultancies, even though they are inundated with sales calls and literature every day of their working lives. Maybe this is why they encourage us to pitch so often, because they can’t see much difference between us. We are currently just another low cost, low interest item on the shopping list.

If we can’t make ourselves different from our own competition, there is little hope that we can persuade clients that we can make their product or service stand out from the crowd.

Latest articles