Design Unbridled, IDSA Innovation Journal, Clive Grinyer, January 2012
It was Bill Moggridge who said (in an accidently perfect tweet) that “few people think about it or are aware of it, but there is nothing made by human beings that does not involve a design decision somewhere”.
For most designers, this will be understood to be true for the act of “making”. Creating any sort of physical reality, especially if it has any type of interface with people, clearly requires a human centric design process (rather than the wider, technical aspect of design you would use in laying out a circuit board for example).
Bill’s comment says something about the all-pervasiveness of design that has always interested me. For him, design was a verb, an activity that could not be avoided. Design, as a conscious process of working out what something is and how it will be achieved, is a decision making process that has to happen, it’s not an option. In making these decisions, we can be more, or less conscious of the impact on the person who will use something, or the process required to bring it to life. How we consider and balance the “what” and the “how” is at the core of almost every activity.
As a student all I wanted to do was design a toaster my Mum would like to buy, or a piece of industrial equipment that was comfortable and easy to use, or create systems that where easy to understand and operate. Design was neatly fenced in around my discipline, product design, and creativity defined within parameters of materials, process and economics. My first job was designing car radios, an interesting challenge of cognitive understanding of digital functionality and ensuring long finger nails could press the buttons.
Since then the nature of what I designed changed radically. I moved from the physical to the interactive and developed mobile and web user interfaces but I was still able to describe myself as designer. Now, despite using exactly the same techniques and thought processes I was trained in, I am rarely described as designer and operate in completely new worlds creating “experiences” a million miles from car radios.
In my role at Cisco, I work with companies or public sector organisations who want to understand how technology can help them do things better, more efficiently and at a larger scale. The development of technology over the last decade or so has of course had a major impact on how we communicate, work, buy and spend our leisure time. So working in this technology world means that the problems I work on are extremely diverse. It never occurred to me when I was designing fake domestic irons or floor cleaning machines at London’s Central St Martins design school that I would be asked to work out how technology might help a fishing co-operative in Yemen. Or how to help local government workers find new opportunities when they loose their job, but those are just two examples of issues that I have used design skills to help solve.
One of the interesting features of technology is the enormous trust people have that technology will solve all our problems. So when an international aid foundation wanted to solve a set of problems around youth unemployment that were shared by many countries, it was easy for them to see that a range of web applications, platforms, call centers for information and video would allow them to reach a younger and culturally diverse audience and put them directly in contact with the services and opportunities that could help them and their employers give them sustainable employment. What was not understood at all however was just how this would actually work. What channels would this audience be able or want to access? How would these services be provided in remote and unconnected areas? How would training or information actually be received?
These things might seem unimportant, details to be worked out later. But it was clear that the investment was at risk at of being ineffectual if we didn’t start understanding how we were going to provide easy access to this great technology and make the services and information attractive and relevant. We needed to convert spreadsheets and process flow charts into meaningful experiences that would succeed.
Suddenly, and unexpectedly, this became a design project. Understanding the people at a street level, their cultural references and preferred channels was vital. Working out how generational attitudes and traditions would be respected, changed or worked around needed to be understood. Creating a vision of how the project would attract, engage with and succeed would then allow everyone to understand what and how to make the project a success.
What is perhaps surprising is that the same methodologies used in designing the car radio were required here. Understanding the “users” (replace finger nails with cultural traditions here) provided insight into how they would understand, see benefit and consume the services. Analyzing the different delivery channels, content and style led to a series of “design concepts” that allowed us to evaluate and decide what would work best. Visualizing the service as stories to show how each aspect of the experience would work could be done as a rough prototype – a narrated cartoon in this case bought the stories to life and communicated the vision to the project team and to the potential users for their feedback.
So we could tell the stories of how local business expand their markets, young people receive effective training in a style that suited them and how an NGO could download a training video, travel to a remote location with a laptop, projector and solar power pack and teach an illiterate fishing community how to fish and distribute their catch to more lucrative sushi craving markets.
Conventional design activities ensured the applications were well designed, the websites easy and attractive. But design here had transformed a worthy project into an effective one. And everyone on the team, for what many said was the first time, understood exactly what they were doing, and what success would look like.
There is often criticism that stories such as this over emphasis the contribution of design. A great many smart and brilliant people worked on this project and are making it a success as we speak. But design had a pivotal role in creating a coherent vision and a shared sense of how all the different parts could work together to deliver benefit.
I am not called a “designer” at Cisco. My specialism is described as “Customer Experience”. What this means is that I only occasionally get involved in designing a ‘thing” – a product, user interface or interior. And yet I have never done so much design activity in any previous roles.
I draw more than I ever have, but not to sketch a shape or scamp a web layout. I use drawings to help people visualise their strategic decisions - “is this what you mean?. I help people communicate their perceptions of a solution by drawing it themselves to see if we all agree. It’s much more powerful than words, and I have been asked to teach drawing to senior management as they find it so useful.
The principles of early prototype are vital in the technology world. So many projects waste money by developing what they think people want before they find out they don’t. People find it difficult to believe that you don’t have to build the technology for people to try it out. Designers are great at using all sorts of simple techniques to simulate reality – from a fabricated model that looks exactly like a finished product or a flash demo of a digital experience – that you an put in front of people to find out what they like and dislike, way before you have to develop anything real.
Of course what every designer wants to do is make the world attractive and beautiful and the importance of remembering this early in a process means you don’t have to put the lipstick on the pig at later date, you can make sure that everything about the experience is attractive and delightful. Why not design it right the first time, rather than have to do it twice?
For all these reasons, designers have found their skills applicable to a great many unexpected outputs that don’t look like conventional design. A whole crop of new consultancies has evolved in the UK around “service design”. Companies like LiveWork , Engine or, in the public sector, Participle in the UK are full of designers designing unconventional things for unconventional clients. Designers design better policing practices, programs to combat obesity and build communities in deprived urban locations. Not a split line or radius or font in sight.
For the last few years I have been working on projects that address our ageing population. We are all living longer, some affluently, all needing to remain independent, or receive support, for a longer time than previous generations. My first project in this area was in the city of Almere in Holland. This rapidly growing city still retains it’s original “pioneers” who first moved onto the reclaimed land (polders) in the ‘70s. As they live longer, the city wanted to understand how technology might help this part of society to retain their dependence and carry on enjoying their city as they grew older.
As a designer, my first reaction was to understand the people better. Interviews and photos made these older residents of Almere real and gave us all insight into their needs, desires and surprisingly open attitude to technology. Making the people real and developing personas changed the attitude of the City planners, they saw their citizens in their own minds and better understood their needs.
In Almere we used video technology to connect two choirs in different parts of the city to sing together, keep fit together and keep them connected to their local communities. The results were phenomenal with physical and mental health improvements and the choir now singing to others around the globe.
In Torfaen, a district in Wales, UK , we aimed our attention at a younger generation prepare for transitions in their lives as they grew older. Changing job, retiring or redundancy are likely transitions for the 55 to 65 age group. Retaining the knowledge and skills of people, and connecting them with younger people just entering the job market, or older people who need care and assistance, or extending entrepreneurialism and developing new businesses themselves, became our objectives. As designer, it was my job to create and visualise concepts that might solve these issues. As a result, we created the Wisdom Bank, an online platform where people can upload their “wisdom” – the accumulation of skills, knowledge, latent and otherwise – and connect and mentor others.
All the tools of design were needed to created the concepts, visualize them through stories, mock them up and create a prototype that could be tested and improved by user involvement. Showing how understanding your own knowledge and wisdom and helping people collaborate together is probably the most satisfying and surprising design project I have ever been involved in, a certainly a long way away from designing mobile phones, toasters or car radios…
We must be careful not to claim too much for design. But I experience every day how design methods and processes, that were formed in designing artifacts and objects, help us make decisions that are better informed about people, their emotions (so important and so ignored in conventional development processes), easier to test and learn from and easier for us all to adopt, engage with and enjoy. For me, there is no limit to the application of design skills to the smallest or largest issues in the world, and they have a huge role in ensuring that the intellectual, economic, strategic, organizational, industrial and technological efforts of mankind will be effective. As the great man said, there is nothing made by human beings that does not involve a design decision somewhere.
Clive Grinyer, January 2013
The demise of Wedgwood - Crafts Council Magazine February 2009
Wedgwood is of course a very evocative brand name and the news of their demise was announced in hushed tones on the Today programme as if it was an event of huge national importance. And in terms of Wedgwood’s place as a historic patron of design and social innovator, it is very sad.
But not so surprising. I worked with the ceramics industry at the Design Council 7 years ago where I set up Design Immersion days with a range of manufacturing companies in the “homeware” sector. There were several big brand names involved, who shared a strong tradition and a place in the public heart, including Aga and Portmeirion, famous for their botanic themed ceramic tableware. These type of companies, that have survived on the basis of very successful core product range, struggle to diversify and keep up with changes over time. Taste and fashion, environmental concerns and changes in our lifestyles can provide challenges for longstanding successful brands.
Famous ceramic brands such as Wedgwood and Portmeirion share a type of customer who are collectors and religiously buy every piece issued. But such loyalty is never enough to base a whole business on, so the brand is under pressure to build on the core cash cows and diversify and spread. One feature of the ceramics industry is that it has a relatively low capital cost, compared to the tooling and development costs for a consumer electronic product for example, and this means that design becomes the single core differentiator and many variants can be tried out easily and rapidly.
When you look at the ranges Wedgwood offered, you see a huge variety of styles and products to choose from. As you might expect, they have tried to go contemporary and there is the list of modern famous name “designers” you can chose to align your taste to. But not one of them is a ceramic designer. A high street fashion designer, a bridal gowns designer, a celebrity cook and an interior designer, with a heavy US lean, do not do it for me. This is not design, it is celebrity decoration, and I suspect a million miles away from Josiah Wedgwood’s concept of design, anonymously classically orientated though that was.
For me Wedgwood is another example of management that is incapable of understanding true brand values and instilling them into every piece. Strategy has been to diversify, spread the brand across as much as possible and buttress it with celebrity decorators. I can get a Jamie Oliver bowl at Sainsbury’s, thanks very much. Compare Wedgewood to great European ceramic brands such as Rosenthal, where you see true innovation and creativity in form rather than decoration, and you see what I mean.
Like we see in our reduced desire for cut glass, fashion often challenges and dismisses what we once valued. But fashion is what Wedgwood fed on and created in the first place. Like so many brands they freeze in the headlamps of change and find it impossible to sustain their creative leadership, with the tragic results we know see.
Portmeirion seem to understand this better, they show their history on their website where Wedgwood do not. I hope they survive difficult times and carry on their innovation and differentiated brand with more success than Wedgwood.
KEF Muon Speaker Launch, Milan – Article for Design Week 21 April 2007
The Sala delle Colonne, the monastic library that is now part of the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo de Vinci in Milan made a suitably sumptous setting to worship the latest project of Ross Lovegrove. Muon, an exceptionally high quality pair of speakers, named after a powerful and exotic elementary particle that arrives on earth from outer space, sat as megaliths on the animated light floor, their stature only matched by the barefooted, bluely attired Lovegrove. This was a true Milan event, photographers, journalists, designers and, unusually, audiofiles, debating the relationship between sound and shape.
But what was truely impressive was that this was not Cassina or Vitra. The Muon speaker was commisioned and built by KEF, a UK audio company based in Maidstone, Kent. The UK audio industry is famous for the quality of the sound but rarely for visual design, usually lowest on the list or priorities. But here is a UK company hiring one of our most exciting and creative designers, who is treated like royalty abroad but largely ignored by UK companies, to combine with their sonic expertise to create something truly incredible. Hurrah !
And Muon is incredible. The two speakers are huge , standing over 2 metres tall and formed from superformed aluminium, a process similar to vacuum forming plastic that allows the sculptural forms we associate with Ross’s work to be reproduced the 100 or so times that will be the limited run of this speaker.
Designing for sound is a complex business, with considerable physical and mechanical parameters required to create the acoustic realism that audiophiles demand. The size, the flat front surface and the array of large and small speaker drivers required to deliver the frequencies the human ear can detect as accurately as possible are of course the most dominant features of Muon. At the end of the day, a speaker is still a cardboard cone and there’s little even Ross Lovegrove can do about that. But the science of the sound engineer and the creativity of the designer do come together in the physical shape. Here, constantly changing surfaces removing any chance of internal resonnance plus strength and solidness are the main requirements, which have allowed Lovegrove to create swooping surfaces gripped in tension but held by the flatness of the top and bottom. The Museum hall was not choosen for it’s acoustic qualities, this was a celebration of material and form delivering the final element of the trinity of music, sound and shape.
But don’t be fooled by the gorgous photographs you will see. The finish is less glossy and shows the imperfections of the tortured aluminium surface, which in all but the most perfect lighting can be bothersome. This is a design that is imposed on the speakers, but has to occasionally twist to get round reality, and those curving highlights are suddenly lost . But from the side and rear, the beauty of the concept and the shape is more clearly seen.
Like any speaker at this end of the market, the sound quality is only one of the drivers and at 100,00 pounds, Muon says as much about the owner as it does of the sound. But for KEF, this is a brave and audacious statement of their intent to combine excellent audio quality with the highest level of design and take a lead in a competivive international market. That is fantastic to see and I only hope other British manufacturers take note. Muon is an exotic addition to the hifi world, and to Ross Lovegrove’s portfolio but whatever it sounds like, beauty will surely be in the eye of the beholder.
Keynote Speech to Include 2007, Royal College of Art, London
Search Engines for Real Needs – the interactions between users and designers
The theme for this afternoon’s session is Interpreting Needs and Aspirations. This is an interesting title as it encapsulates the key problem at the core of product development and innovation.
For why do we have to interpret needs and aspirations. Why can’t we just ask people what they want and build what they ask for?
Well, there are, as we all know, many reasons why asking people what they do or want does not automatically lead you to what they would actually buy or use. In fact the world is full of stuff that people said they wanted, but when it came to the crunch, didn’t. It is also full of stuff people said they didn’t want, but when they understood how it might be helpful, or useful or desirable, decided it was OK after all.
And mixed in with this are a lot off innovative ideas, services and technology that does stuff people are not really sure they want or not. Genetically modified food is one example, we weren’t sure until we saw a metre round tomato. The internet might be another example, would it be possible for users to realises how valuable it would become to so many? And, in the technological world, especially the mobile world that I live in, we provide amazing technology of great value, that is often so difficult to find or use, that enormous investment and effort of development remain unused or even rejected.
So the title of this session is important, for there is an act of interpretation required when you take the trouble to include real people, of all types, in the development process. Seeing and understanding what people do, the problems that have, their expression of emotion and what is functional and what is desirable, is rocket fuel to the design process. And by design process I mean the actions that are then taken to create what people want and can use, to enrich their lives, make them easier or make stuff possible which was before impossible.
The design industry has been at the forefront of championing the involvement of users in the design process. Companies such as IDEO developed pioneering approaches to discovering human needs by observation, what do people do, what do they do to get round the problems of inadequate technology or physical constraints and then connect this to the design process. This combination of observation and design has left old fashioned style gurus beached high and dry and fuelled the success of the design industry and is at the heart of many corporate design teams, through this democratisation of the design process and the desire to both identify and deliver innovation that has real value, satisfies real needs and helps filter what we should do from the what we can do, but shouldn’t.
Further than that, the value of observing not just the majority percentages of users, but understanding the needs of those at the edges of the bell curve, older, younger, inclusive of all human conditions, has led to innovations that are of benefit to all. From good grips to remote controls, we have better products, better packaging, better web accessibility, better trains, better public spaces, when designers, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming it’s true, have been forced to understand the needs of a wider audience.
But we are at this conference for a reason. Despite the wealth of expertise and good practice around us, these are still early days for both usability and design thinking. Ironically we live in a world where it is well understood that the customer is king and that they know best. Indeed the vast amounts of corporate money spent on market research should be a good thing, surely. Companies are desperate to understand what their customers want in order to reduce the risk of investments and ensure success. But despite this amount of effort, we still are faced with a world where countless service innovations flounder and technology remains resolutely unusable.
Again, from my mobile communications standpoint, I remain appalled at the amount of poorly designed technology that is launched upon the world in the name of time to market that simply doesn’t work. If something really works in the mobile world, that is differentiation. I don’t use the term usability any more, as everyone assumes this is some sort of nice to have, I prefer workability, does it actually work, and you would be surprised how rarely people actually think through how services or products actually work before they launch them.
How can this have happened, why does this continue to happen. I think there are three reasons. These are.
Take the first one, research. What can go wrong when you ask people what they want?
When Philips developed the first roller radio in the 80’s, they were unsure of the colour scheme they should use. Should it be colourful, stylish for it’s day, loud and expressive. Or should it be conservative, technical, black and silver, in line with other equipment. To help them decide, they commissioned a focus group and asked people which one they preferred. The answer was clear, the vast majority went for the stylish colourful option. As a gift, people were invited to take a radio away with them at the end of the day, Philips were surprised to find they still had all the colourful ones leftover, everybody had taken the black one home with them.
Were they lying? No, they believed what they said, until the decision was made more real and they had to consider what this would look like on the kitchen top, what would the wife or husband say.
Another favourite anecdote comes from our hosts Helen Hamlyn. They worked with BAA on T5. T5 had sensibly done forecasting on the travel trends for the next decades and foreseen that there would be an increase in older travellers as we live longer and with enjoy reasonable pensions. So they wanted to observe the experience of older travellers now in order to understand their requirements when designing the new terminal.
The researchers followed older travellers around and quickly observed that old people went to the toilet a lot. Obvious really, older weaker bladders with higher levels of stress means that BAA would need to increase the number of toilets. But then researchers went into the toilets and found older travellers not using the loos but standing and listening to the announcements. The toilet was the one place they could clearly hear the announcements of departures away from the hubbub of airport noise. So BAA should not only build adequate numbers of toilets but also quite zones where you can clearly hear the flight announcements, we hope.
Insight such as this is, as I have said, rocket fuel to the creative process. Design is the activity that turns this knowledge into actions, to create tangible responses to real needs. Only our definition of design needs to be broad, for me design includes any and all of the decisions that effect and impact on the overall experience we have of a service, product or environment. And this is where so many mistakes are made. Well meaning people, often vastly more technically able than any of their users are, and marketing executives with self defined intuition and a feel for the mass market, rather than the fringe, uncounciously make decisions that will have huge impact on the user. And then they ask for it to be designed, leaving a superficial gloss of brand and or styling. This results in something that I heard described often when I first arrived at Orange as "Lipstick on a Pig", not a pretty outcome and a dangerous one given the huge investments and resources used in creating new technology and services.
There are times when I think that technology doesn’t work for any of us, able or needing assistance, young or old, we all share the same frustrations and difficulties. Any one using the new ticket machines at London stations will have experienced both mental and physical difficulties in what should be a simple everyday activity.
But the world is waking up. It may have taken financial melt down to do it, but the internet has embraced a new willingness to include us all in the design of services and the new rallying call of web 2.0, co-design, open systems and user led innovation has got to the core of institutions big and small.
Web 2.0 is fast becoming applied to all activities, not just those of the web. Faster, more responsive, with direct user involvement. Surly all this will revolutionise how we develop new services. I hope so, but it is vital that now, more than ever, we realise the importance of research and design as two vital components locked together, the knowledge and the action inseperable. For that to me is the key point. People can tell us what they they want, and research will uncover what they cannot say or express. But design is the critical key partner, making the possible tangible to allow that reaction, yes or no, able or unable, love or hate. Showing the unimaginable, the new, the surprising, allowing a real experience to happen, a dialogue with the future, to ensure we create what we want, that works, and reflects all users emotional and aspirational needs. In this co-authored, democratically designed wolrd, design and user observation become the search engine for real needs.
To make this work we need a design community that is open to insight and uses it’s creative toolkit to build real solutions and a research community that works within and seamlessly with the design process, allowing and feeding on creativity and design tools of visualisation and modelling.
This search engine for user insight, because it doesn’t just list all the possible solutions and ask you to tick the box, gives you the means to make tangible, to appraise, to test, to refine your search until you know you have solutions of real value to all, including your business. Design thinking is a Google for life, sifting and presenting real options for success. Design and research minded people must work together to move forward from this world that doesn’t work, that is so full of possibility and good intent, but so laboured by over technical, majority minded, ill designed, never tested until too late madness, and make sure we get no more "lipstick on a pig" for any of our users.
I hope you enjoy and are enriched by the presentations you will see today and all through this conference. It is vital we deliver these tools to ensure that all of us, whatever needs we have, can access and gain benefit from this fantastic and innovative world. Good luck, and enjoy the experience.
UK Manufacturing, Speech to Royal Society of Arts, November 2006
This was first a speech for an RSA seminar on manufacturing and design which I then adapted for an article for the RSA journal.
One of the simplest definitions of design, which separates it from concepts of art or craft, for example, is that it is linked to the means of production. Forming and shaping the objects around us, it is the way in which we combine materials, processes or technology, within economic boundaries, to create things we want, need and can use.
It is not surprising, then, that the different disciplines of design are based around traditional processes of manufacture; so, graphic design relates to print and product design to the manufacturing processes.
But the traditional industrial base of design has now gone. In this century designers work virtually, their work on screen not paper, and products are manufactured on the other side of the world, not in the factory next door.
This raises some uncomfortable questions for Britain’s manufacturing and design industries. How can manufacturing industries sustain themselves when competition is so fierce? How can designers understand the manufacturing processes that make their ideas real, or be stimulated by new processes? Will design be the next service to be off -shored to cheaper and equally able economies?
Swings and roundabouts
The surprising fact is that the decline of our manufacturing industries over the past 20 years has been matched by the impressive and sustained success of the UK design industry. From the smallest design boutiques, single discipline specialists to the largest multinational multidisciplinary companies like Imagination and IDEO and now a new generation of service design companies like Livework and Engine, the design industry is thriving.
Formed as a response to the crisis of reduced demand from manufacturing and the increase in the service sector, the design industry of the UK has become an international, consultancy-based (rather than in-house), exporter of both economic value and of valuable individuals.
It has not all been in one direction. There are many examples where UK design talent has itself attracted in-bound investment: 10 years ago I founded Samsung’s European design team when it moved from Frankfurt to London. They are now a thriving office where we are design the physical products and user interfaces for Samsung’s global product range.
More recently, Nissan set up in Paddington, London and I have my own design team Orange.
All these companies are attracted to the UK by it’s many design advantages. The UK has a plentiful and high -quality pool of design graduates from it’s excellent design education system. London attracts both companies and designers from around the world thanks to its status as a cultural and design centre, within the context of the UK’s liberal economy, mid-Atlantic point of view and, though often forgotten or denied, European presence and perspective.
UK manufacturing endures
On the other hand, it’s also a mistake to think manufacturing has disappeared and is no longer possible in the UK. In fact, it is alive and, in some cases, thriving here. Demonstration Projects and Design Immersions, recent initiatives organised by the Design Council between manufacturing companies and designers, showed that the two industries can work closely and effectively together.
The projects bring teams of the country’s best designers in product, graphics and design management into companies for a single day to come up with a programme of design actions that the company then implements, with the support of mentors. The programmes are expanding still and are tangible evidence of how design adds value and sustains UK manufacturing, without competing merely on cost. Across a broad range of traditional and new companies, from Aga cookers and Shefield -based cutlery companies, to hi-fi or medical equipment manufacturers, design is being used effectively and successfully, recorded over time through a number of measurements from increased profits to greater customer satisfaction.
If more of our manufacturers are inspired by such evidence and wish to take advantage of the skill base of UK design more than they do currently, they can and indeed should. It is right that the Design Council, Sir George Cox and Gordon Brown use the findings of the Cox Review of Creativity in Business to shame or encourage them into action. There are some who believe the decline of manufacturing was caused by governments and taxation, but I believe it was as much the behaviour of manufacturing companies and their reluctance to embrace design as a tool to make products that people want.
Design is now independent of the traditional manufacturing base, it does not rely on it, but has spread it’s wings and is an industry of it’s own.
How can the success of the design industry square with the corresponding decline in manufacturing? How can design sustain itself without proximity to the source of production?
The mistake is to connect manufacturing output with design quality.
There seems to be a closely held belief that closeness to detailed manufacturing processes aids creativity. Perhaps this is true of particular industries such as ceramics, but, in most cases, manufacturing, engineering and technology and barriers to be overcome. For too long our engineers and technologists have restricted and prevented a customer-centric design process and that is one of the reasons we have lost our manufacturing output and can invent, but rarely deliver, technical innovation to the mass market.
During the traditional development processes used in the UK it is not designers who shape and form, but the many engineering and technology decisions made early on in the process, which are based on assumptions and guesses about the people who will use products and services. Design is habitually brought in too late, used simply to paint and decorate products for which the major decisions have already been made. Thus we have products that are easy to build, designed by technically minded people, but are not desirable or usable.
Our car industry is an obvious example. We can make great cars for more customer -centric international companies, but our own companies did not know how to design cars that competed internationally.
Know your customer
The reason UK designers are so successful and are likely to remain successful, is their intimate knowledge of customers in the local markets of Europe. Products designed with the western market in mind can be manufactured in China for globally minded organisations based in Korea, Japan or Taiwan, but they have to appeal to people in Europe and the US.
Similarly, it is difficult for us to design for Korean or Chinese markets, unless our own cultural values are desirable in that market. In the world of luxury goods, our values often are, but in the world of consumer products, attitudes to technology, behaviours and even basic needs are very different.
In Europe, we have different cultural values, fashions, social behaviour and acceptance of technology. We have different aesthetic tastes, a desire for understatement and simplicity of use, suspicion of technology, an ageing population, multiple cultures, an environmentally conscious attitude and many other drivers that require specific design empathy.
So, what is important is not how close we are to the source of manufacturing, but how close we are, physically and mentally, to our customers. The designer’s ability to empathise, observe, uncover and deliver solutions that fit the real people around them is what is valuable to global manufacturers who need to make the right thing for markets that are unfamiliar and subject to changes that are difficult to anticipate.
When Korea or China draw their design map of the world, they will look for designers who understand the markets in which they want to succeed. Is it the historic design nations of Germany or Italy? Is it the new spirit of Spain or the Czech Republic? Our historic design tradition is still cliched, a combination of Conran and E-Types, with a hint of wind-up radios and Dysons and perhaps now a sprinkling of the Ive factor. Eccentricity and introversion combined.
Finding our strong points
The challenge is to build on the strengths we do have: Pragmatism, an inventive and challenging approach to creating solutions, a desire to make technology usable, a sense of customer service, professionalism, tolerance, a relative lack of national pride and a willingness to contribute internationally.
I think the UK does have the greatest design consultancy industry in the world but, if we want to sustain our global design presence, we must not rest on our laurels. Our academic institutions, for example, do not represent the cutting edge of design thinking. The Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago works closely with industry to bring user -centred design processes to their heart. Stanford University in California has opened the D-School, teaching design thinking and methodology to businesses and, closer to home, IVREA and Domus Academy in Italy show us how to put technology into our real lives. Our academics show no such leadership, confidence or desire to impress at a global level.
The UK design industry itself is fragmented, vast in numbers but with few big international names. It is too reliant on specialisms and specific disciplines such as product, packaging, web or user interface design. It's business model, of paying simply for the time it takes to design, does not adequately reflect the potential benefits or indeed risks associated with the end product and does little to encourage long -term relationships that are the basis of most great design.
Design is increasingly being valued as a strategic tool. Companies are likely to appreciate, for example, that design co-ordinates products and services to create the customer’s total experience, which can then deliver the promise and differentiation of a brand. This means designers need to take a broader view, balancing business objectives with brand and customer needs, rather than just designing an object or service in isolation.
But I am optimistic. Our designers remain flexible, entrepreneurial and ready to respond to both threats and opportunities. They will get on planes and go wherever they need to, so that they retain the right to design the world’s products and services, from airports to iPods and from vacuum cleaners to information services. I now work in Paris, building a design centre for my parent company France Telecom. With an international team, I will be working out “what’s next” for a world where you’ll get TV on your mobile and text messages on your TV. Batting for Europe, keeping us ahead of cheaper and equally competent competition from the US and Asia.
Is this the basis for a long-term future of Britain? Absolutely. Better to be a contributor to global success than the keeper of our own failures. Whether in manufacturing or services, red brick or virtual economies, the position of the UK design industry is vital to our economic success and global position. Feed it, sustain it, forever update it but, most of all design it, our design industry will remain successful.
In House Design, Design Week Oct 2006
DesignWeek's annual survey of the UK design industry
In-house design is a rare and uncelebrated aspect of the UK design scene. It’s a simple fact that most designers in the UK work in consultancies. The UK is unique in having such in-balance between design consultants and designers who work inside companies. This was not always the case but in the last two decades the growth of the UK consultancy industry has been mirrored by the decline in numbers of in-house design teams.
The growth and success of the UK design consultancy contrasts with the decline of manufacturers, the traditional employers of design. But the UK trend away from in-house design is not shared internationally. In the last decade it is corporate design teams in continental Europe, Japan and the US who create the trends, anticipate the future and set the benchmark for design across many disciplines.
In the fifties and sixties it was the corporate teams led by the likes of Dieter Rams at Braun but in the seventies it was a new breed of independent gurus such as Sotsass for Olivetti and Richard Sapper at IBM who held sway in global corporations. In-house design teams became boring, uninspirational, too close to production reality to be innovative. But in the last ten years a revolution has taken place in corporate design teams and the teams at Apple, Nokia, Samsung and Philips now represent the pinnacle of design achievement, replacing individual design gurus of the 80’s like Philippe Stark or envelope pushing consultancies in the 90’s such as IDEO.
In sheer numbers, in-house design teams represent a small proportion of the design industry. Design teams at Nokia or Philips can be up to three or four hundred strong, but others, even Apple, are closer to twenty or thirty in size. In-house design teams are valued by companies because they have knowledge of brand, understanding of the company’s implementation capabilities, technical and financial, and can build differentiation across many different products or services. That knowledge however can work against a companies interest when it limits innovation, is unable to see the wood for the trees and is myopic or unable to sense trends and changes in customers. For that reason, consultants continue to play a major role in most in-house teams with their fresh, away from the politics, input. The revolution in in-house design teams in the last ten years is how they have become as creative and fresh as consultants as internal culture has changed and business leaders have understood that design creates differentiation and delivers the promise of the brand.
In recent years the UK has become the home of several global design teams. Traditionally strong in house teams such as Black and Decker, led by Laurie Cunningham in Spennymoor in Durham, have been joined by newer brands that see the UK, and specifically London, as a natural centre for international design teams. Philips have had a studioin London for many years, as an outpost for the campus in Eindhoven, Holland. The Samsung studio led by Clive Goodwin thrives and although the Ford Ingeni studio came and went, Nissan look firm in Paddington under the leadership of David Godber, with Andrew Mcgrath’s Orange design team nearby. Nokia’s head of design Alastair Curtiss recently announced their move to London in the next few months.
The UK also boasts a strong tradition of retail led in-house graphic and packaging teams.. Boots, the Body Shop and Waitrose are award winning, innovative teams who have built a global recognition for design excellence.
But in house design is not just a story of large design teams working for global brands. A multitude of smaller companies employ individual or small teams of graphic, web or industrial designers to help them with the everyday requirements of packaging, website and product design. These are the unsung heros of the design industry, but pulling together the diverse design activities that many companies forget about, with limited resources but able to create awareness across the company and build up empathy with real customers make them highly valuable people. We rarely read of the design team at manufacturers such as Richard Burbidge or Don Whitley but these individuals and teams are regenerating and sustaining traditional manufacturers and developing new service innovations.
One developing trend for in-house design is their role as design managers. Most companies do not have the rate of product or service development to justify large permanent design teams, but managing brand, co-ordinating briefs and identifying and instructing external agencies is a key role for the design manager. In the airline industry figures such as Joe Ferry and Mike Crump have instigated innovation, created differentiation and achieved great success for their respective companies Virgin and British Airways. But when costs have to be cut, BA were quick to dismantle the design management team that created the company saving Club World flat bed.
In Britain and the rest of the world, in-house team s are in ascendance. Stewardship of brand values, creative facilitators within companies, bridging marketing briefs and implementation, generators of innovation and with the time to consider the future, designing from within is no longer the boring or safe option but increasingly attractive to young creative designers keen to see their work delivered. At the same time consultants have discovered that in house design teams are good clients, sympathetic and able to interface with the rest of the company. Consultant and corporate designer, whether they work for global brand or local SME, look ready to forge new relationships to the benefit of both.
Apple's iPhone, New Design, January 2007
"I’ve been waiting two and half years for this moment" were the words of Steve Jobs as he launched the iPhone at his global keynote speech in San Francisco. So had we all, the rumours of Apple’s entry into the mobile phone world had been around just as long, to the point were we thought they wouldn’t do it all. But suddenly it was here and within hours the share price of Nokia and Motorola had taken a severe thump downwards as the world collectively gasped at the cool simplicity and elegance of Apple’s solution.
As Jobs said in his intro, “if you want to do great software, you have to start with hardware”. Apple have taken this literally with every major product innovation; the Macintosh with a mouse, the iPod with the wheel and now the iPhone with our natural pointer, our fingers. In each case, they have stripped our preconceptions of what a product should be and gone back to first principles. What do weuse it for and how do we really want to use it?
The iPhone does this again. In competing with industry giants such as Nokia, who sell in vastly greater numbers than Apple, mainly because the network operators hide the true costs of handsets through subsidies, Apple thought out of the box. iPhone is a screen you touch, with an interface that concentrates on doing stuff you actually want to do and no more, beautifully. It’s design is almost invisible, the camera a simple hole in the back. It does things conventional phones don’t even think about, like allowing you to connect two calls with exquisite simplicity, or go directly to a voice message, without having to listen to a voice mail box telling you how many calls you have and then listening to each in turn.
We know that only 10 percent of phones functionality is used. We know that most people hate the way their phones work. Even Nokia, the worlds favourite phone brand, suffer from returns due to people not being able to use them. And yet, in the mobile phone world, usability means revenue. Some phones are used 5 times more than others for texting, simply because they are easier to use. For the operators, this means income. Usability is not just a nice to have.
But despite the importance of usability, manufacturers have been unable to step outside their boxes and take the perspective that Apple have. They insist on confusing soft keys, tiny navigation cursors, strange icons; inconsistent meaningless and infuriating terminology, the separation of physical form and on screen interface. Into this myopic, technology and feature stuffed madness, Apple have cast light that will make others cower.
Of course Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Samsung and the rest massively outsell Apple. And of course this expensive, possibly fragile but impossibly cool iPhone will not make a significant dent into their market performance. But they need to watch out, people will see that it doesn’t have to be the way it always has been. The mighty Microsoft will admit to the impact of Apple on the quality of PC software. Now the phone manufacturers will be forced to respond, to think out of the box and remember that it’s not the technology, it’s how you use it, that is everything.
There are people who get bored with those who praise Apple. They can show you countless products that have more features, to a higher specification and at a lower price than an Apple. You can have what ever you want in a mobile phone, a music player, TV, internet, Instant Messaging, but that is not the point. Apple have shown us yet again that it’s how you make it work that makes the difference. So the iPhone is important, it shows that there is another way, you can design and innovate to achieve that thing that technology never provides, simplicity, joy and beauty, the greatest drivers of commerce and success. But most companies, struggling to find their imagination, tied to feature led competitor matching with little effort to gain insight in what their customers actually want, and frozen in collective inability to strike out, will be scratching their heads wondering how to do it better, but at least they have something to copy now.