Product design calls on universities to stop undermining them

The Design Council concurs with product designers that universities that offer commercial product design services must clearly define their offer if the reputation of design is not to suffer.

In a letter published today in Design Week, product designers signal their growing impatience with higher education providers running consultancies.

Signed by 19 designers from across the UK, the letter argues that some academic institutions are undercutting design professionals on price, as well as misappropriating public funds intended for research.

Pearson Matthews founder and letter signatory Mike Pearson complains that universities using their facilities for commercial use are ‘abusing the goodwill of the taxpayer’ and leveraging an unfair advantage over consultancies that pay higher overheads.

Pearson claims that clients began to report bad experiences with university design consultancies about three years ago. ‘Those burnt by poorly delivered product design are beginning to complain that design doesn’t work, which is the wrong conclusion to draw,’ says Pearson.

The Design Council’s head of skills Lesley Morris believes that higher education centres should present their commercial design services more clearly to clients. ‘We need some guidelines shared between design’s professional bodies and univer sities, in which definitions or even guidelines are drawn up,’ she says. Nevertheless, Morris approves of the ‘huge and much-needed live project experience’ that university consultancies can offer students.

Robert Young is associate dean of research and consultancy director of the Centre for Design Research at Northum bria University, the university’s in-house consultancy. He cond emns universities taking on ‘jobbing design work’ as a ‘road to nowhere’. But he argues that, ‘We can’t develop knowledge relevant if we look at it from a purely theoretical perspective.’

Young explains that the centre has unknowingly handled commercial projects that involved pitches against design consultancies. ‘In these cases, we tend to win the job because it is very research intensive and interdisciplinary. The centre was not set up to pull in money, but to develop new knowledge.’

Pearson Matthews head of design Joseph O’Connor believes that lack of investment in design education is prompting universities to generate their own revenue streams.

‘Universities are being permitted to generate revenue streams through in-house design activities which, when poorly delivered, seriously damage the reputation of the design industry – an open debate is needed,’ he says.

UNFAIR COMPETITION?

University and college design schools stand accused of:

• Providing free or low-cost product design services

• Using public research funds to support their commercial product design ventures

• Over-selling their services

• Delivering poor design work to clients

• Damaging the reputation of product design with buyers

• Taking work away from incumbent design groups

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Comments
  • da bishop November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    academia should be strictly academia, the commercialisation of the academic establishment is disgusting. You should not have to pay as a UK citizen, and they should not do commercial work other than generating patents or copyrights through research. Academia used to be a province which was not influenced by commercial constraints, for doing non-commercial work for the advancement of knowledge. This is getting a bit silly, really.

    However, I’d say that the arguments of unfair competition are a bit silly, too. I personally have more work than I can handle, people can’t get the quality I deliver to at the price point I deliver at, and I’ve never been anywhere near academia. Because they wanted me to pay them! Ridiculous.

  • da bishop November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    academia should be strictly academia, the commercialisation of the academic establishment is disgusting. You should not have to pay as a UK citizen, and they should not do commercial work other than generating patents or copyrights through research. Academia used to be a province which was not influenced by commercial constraints, for doing non-commercial work for the advancement of knowledge. This is getting a bit silly, really.

    However, I’d say that the arguments of unfair competition are a bit silly, too. I personally have more work than I can handle, people can’t get the quality I deliver to at the price point I deliver at, and I’ve never been anywhere near academia. Because they wanted me to pay them! Ridiculous.

  • Steve Scott November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This article perfectly highlights the problems we face as professional consultancies and agencies from the very institutions that we trained in or source our employees from. How can we ‘educate’ these institutions not to ‘bite the hand that (often) feeds’? As champions of professional, quality design that derives from the stresses of working in a commercial competitive environment and many years of experience in our chosen fields, it is frustrating and annoying when we discover that we are often pitching against undergraduate or graduate programs from nearby universities who undercut us on price. Whatever happened to mentoring and secondment? Where is the respect and support for our profession?

  • Richard November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Having just graduated in industrial design this summer I have myself worked as a student on live briefs during my studies. It certainly hadn’t occurred to me that the briefs we were being given might well have been pitched for by design consultancies.

    As a student it is very exciting to be working on a live brief with an actual client looking at your work, as well as the credentials a brand name adds to your portfolio.

    In the final year we became aware that the university did charge companies for our services and it was a bit of a sore point, with many students feeling that they aren’t receiving any monetary return for their work on the projects (after all the university takes £600,000 in tuition fees each year from our department)

    It also became apparent that the companies wanted the concepts we had generated to be carried further but due to our course structure this was never going to be possible. So where does this leave the company? They have a concept but nobody to develop it. Do they then take it to a consultancy and ask that they pickup the project? It all sounds a bit messy.

    Surely a better solution would be a partnership between a local consultancy and university where students could work with professional designers (learning much more in the process) with the intension always being for the consultancy to have control of the project.

    The consultancies expand their client base with the help of the university and their contacts, and also get access to young talented designers every year. The students get to work on live projects with professional designers and have the chance of gaining a full time job with a consultancy. The university can boast it has links with companies and local consultancies as well as receiving a cut for their contribution to the project.

  • Tony November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It sounds like a possible solution to this would be for the consultancies to bring the university in on a few projects per year. If a company approaches a university, they would be told to go through a consultancy of their choice, pay their price and then the students work with the designers on the project. Then you have more accountability. The consultancy is putting their name on the work so it gets done right, and the students are getting good experience.

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