In-house design armies battle against slowdown

Brandon Cheevers finds out that in-house design teams aren’t being hit by the global economic slowdown nearly as hard as external design consultancies

The on-going cull of designers by consultancies is not mirrored by companies that have in-house design facilities. Most large organisations have identified design as a key resource that will see brands through the bad times.

Virgin Atlantic has cut four full-time staff from its product development team (DW 1 November), leaving the facility with nine full-time staff. But the cut is due to the exceptional circumstances facing the aviation industry and the wide-ranging cuts the company has had to make, not a general trend.

Most companies hold their in-house teams together, providing them with a steady stream of work in an attempt to create stand-out for their brands at a time when consumers are feeling the pinch.

Despite its cuts, Virgin Atlantic recognises the role of design in persuading people to get back on its aircraft.

‘We have got the right size team now to support all future design projects. Although we have had to suspend the creation of some business class lounges, I can see the work picking up and the expansion of our design team. Virgin has to reinvent itself continually so design projects are important for our survival. There is a great opportunity now to look at all our brands and classes to see how we can do things differently,’ says Virgin Atlantic head of design Dee Cooper.

Many companies with in-house teams have decided to cut back on the use of external consultancies, which is tough on consultancies but means more money, work and trust invested in in-house facilities.

Despite the worldwide economic downturn, in-house design remains strong because it is an investment rather than a cost, says Design Council director of design and innovation Clive Grinyer. Furthermore, Grinyer, who is a former co-founder of Tangerine and European design manager of Samsung Electronics, maintains that the short-, mediumand long-term prospects for in-house teams, both in terms of staffing levels and project planning, are positive.

‘The interest in design is higher than it has ever been and it is in-house teams that will develop the innovation and design to get companies out of this mess. They are more likely to reduce costs while improving effectiveness,’ he says.

Cooking products manufacturer Richardson Sheffield demonstrates Grinyer’s assertion. Despite staff cuts across many areas of the company, it is still investing a ‘significant proportion of its turnover in design’.

‘The company places a huge importance on design. It’s recognised it as the only way forward and it realises it has no option but to design its way out of [the current climate]. Over the past three or four years the marketing department has halved, the accounts department has halved and the shop floor has suffered, but the design team has remained stable,’ says Richardson Sheffield design manager Andrew Stokes, who oversees four other designers.

Where design expenditure has been cut, it has been to consultancies’ detriment, he says.

Over at the Electrolux Group, responsible for the Flymo and AEG brands, among others, and with design teams in the Americas and across Europe, the situation is the same. In-house teams are strong and there is no shortage of design work.

‘Over the past five to ten years design has taken on increased importance. Within retail the industry is consolidating into a few huge groups. That affects us. We have to be more innovative in our solutions, providing more attractive products at lower prices. So our design work is increasing,’ says Electrolux Group senior vice-president design Christian Klingspor.

Meanwhile, Samsung Electronics’ Design Europe facility, which was set up last December and is manned by eight designers, is expanding. It will move into a new building, which is double the size of its existing one, and take on two or three designers by the middle of next year, as well as a freelance this week.

Despite traditionally making cuts to design during periods of recession, Samsung has cut back on engineering and instead invested money in design, says the Design Europe design manager Clive Goodwin.

‘The company understands how important design is. It knows that design is going to get it through these tough times,’ he says.

Use of external consultancies has levelled off. ‘There are occasions where we have to use outside consultancies, but the big thing is cost,’ he adds.

Cooper agrees. Outsourcing has slowed down at Virgin Atlantic because ‘we do not have the level of different work opportunities available. We value and support our team so we try to keep them before our contractors’, she says.

The role of in-house designers has often been ignored with consultancies hogging much of the limelight. But while the downturn has resulted in widespread redundancies at consultancies, the small army of in-house designers quietly marches on with its work.

Perhaps the one ray of light for designers without a job to go to tomorrow is that the expansion of in-house teams, like Ford’s Ingenie facility in London, which is still recruiting, may soak up some of that unused talent.

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