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The often neglected in-house design sector accounts for a large – and often very successful – proportion of all UK work, with a fair share of accolade-winning brilliance to boot. Lynda Relph-Knight looks back over some of the past year’s top projects

In-house design tends to be the unsung hero of the industry. Yet when it is good, it is great – as the Apple Design Group’s continuing success commercially and in the awards stakes so radiantly demonstrates.

Many of the greatest examples are, like Apple, in product design, which comes as no surprise given recent figures from the Design Council which show 38 per cent of UK industrial designers working in-house. This year’s Prince Philip Designers Prize winner Andrew Ritchie created the hugely successful Brompton folding bicycle and continues to work in-house at the London company, while Sir James Dyson has devoted his life largely to vacuum cleaners, though now also to hand-driers and fans, through Dyson Appliances.

The creative prowess of these two companies is renowned, though, like so many manufacturers, neither company tends to enter awards schemes, despite a design-led approach. We have, meanwhile, come to expect technology companies to follow the lead of Apple to turn out well-designed lifestyle products such as mobile phones at a rapid rate. Some of the UK’s finest industrial designers have found their way into the London studios of the likes of Finnish giant Nokia, Sony and Korean technology company LG Electronics, though the latter has yet to make a significant mark in terms of design awards wins.

But this year we welcome a product-based newcomer to the charts in the shape of Funnelly Enough. Set up by Dr Vincent Forte and his sister Giovanna, the Londonbased company produces Peezy devices that make it easier for women to give urine samples and won Best of Show in the 2009 Design Week Awards. Peezy isn’t a glamorous product, but it is exceptionally well designed and does the job and will, we hope, encourage more small manufacturers to take greater pride in the design of their products.

In many instances, in-house product design is about collaboration between designers, engineers and technicians working within a manufacturer and external consultancies. This is the case with Virgin Atlantic Airways, where design head Joe Ferry works across both camps. His collaboration with Pearson Lloyd resulted in the award-winning Upper Class seat, for example.

But it isn’t just about product design at Virgin Atlantic. The company also saw awards success with architect Softroom for its Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at London Heathrow Airport, which was named Best of Show in the 2007 Design Week Awards and more recently with its Base training facility, created by the now defunct Universal Design Studio.

Nor are product manufacturers the only ones to field strong in-house teams. Chart stalwarts include media companies like Channel 4, with its E4 studio that collaborated with Rudd Studio to achieve D&AD Gold for its screen idents a couple of years ago, and print clients like the Royal Mail, whose stamp commissions are consistently high quality and much sought after.

Royal Mail, which invariably demands equal billing with the consultancies it works with in awards citations, managed to cause some controversy this year, particularly among the D&AD jury, for the Lest We Forget stamps by Hat-Trick Design to commemorate the end of World War I. We might expect, though, that it will fare better with the Olympics stamps, overseen by Studio David Hillman, than other organisations that have been involved in design projects relating to the 2012 London Olympic Games.

In general, though, award-winning print and digital work, packaging and branding is generated by consultancies rather than in-house, though many companies have some sort of studio. This could be because professional rivalry prompts design groups to show off their work and court the judgement of their peers, while in-house studios more likely have a guaranteed workload and aren’t constantly battling to win the next job.

Interiors and exhibitions too are more likely to be designed by consultancies as they aren’t an everyday purchase for most clients. It is only within the bigger retail groups that work might be carried out in-house and often this is more to do with the implementation of concepts created by an external designer.

It would be great to see more companies raising standards within their in-house creative teams, be they product- or communications-led, and having the pride to enter their projects into design awards. It would be particularly heartening to see more public-sector organisations stepping up to the plate, given the current focus on that sector and the growing scope for collaboration with external groups.

The publicity generated by awards success is, after all, a key driver in attracting the best people into a studio, be it in-house or external, and reflects positively on the company as a whole. There need be no extra cost involved in achieving great design, but it certainly goes a long way to adding value

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