Product designers forge ahead with strategic plans

The debate rages on as to what constitutes a designer, following the naming of non-designer Hilary Cottam as winner of the Design Museum’s coveted Designer of the Year prize.

We all know that design is no longer merely the province of project-based crafts folk and that creativity exists across a range of front-end activities that might not manifest in an actual product. Process and ideas rule these days.

Nowhere is this shift more apparent than in product design. The ideas put forward by this year’s Royal College of Art students, among others, take 3D design into new realms of thinking. It’s not just about styling or technical advancement. Design is used to address social and political issues as well.

This shift inevitably echoes what is happening to leading consultancies and with in-house teams, of which Apple Computer is a much-cited example. It is no longer relevant to even refer to many of them as product design groups. The terminology doesn’t go far enough.

London groups such as Priestman Goode, Factory and Tangerine operate in environments – largely transport – packaging and branding, applying 3D thinking and global experience to the task in hand. They are often acknowledged as team leaders by their clients – take Priestman Goode’s lead role on the Yotel! project – and increasingly they are helping clients to ‘redesign’ a company through design rather than just adding another product to the repertoire.

They are also taking a lead in dealings with the Far East – which is perceived as the biggest challenge facing UK design and manufacturing. Several already have offices or strong relationships there and they are adjusting their offering to suit those cultures and markets.

Against this backdrop, it is interesting to read product designer Dick Powell’s letter this week, posing his definition of a designer. His view strikes a chord, but surely for his peers the term needs to embrace much more than this.

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