Design in Britain: A vision for the future

As British industry moves towards the 21st Century, more and more companies are realising the need for innovative design.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When asked by the Museum of Scotland to pick an object for their 20th Century Gallery that best represented the century, Prime Minister Tony Blair chose a Fender Stratocaster. As he said, "It reminds me of a time when everyone in the world wanted nothing more than to be in a rock band."

Pop concerts are the only huge events where people don't take sides, so the PM's choice was non-partisan as well as entertaining, if incomprehensible to anyone born before the Sixties. Either way, his choice puts a spin on his endorsement of the Millennium Products collection he launched two years ago. Then he challenged British Industry to demonstrate world-class products - and services like Eurostar - that "exemplify our strengths in innovation, creativity and design" and to submit them to the Design Council to be selected as one of 1000 Millennium Products.

Now the Design Council has 777 products sporting its spiralling kitemark, which it will show off both inside and outside the Dome, on its website, and at expos worldwide.

In his wildest dreams the Prime Minister could not have anticipated a pair of socks being a Millennium Product that best represents invention and innovation, challenges conventional thinking, and is environmentally responsible. But the GTX Summit socks which have just been awarded Millennium Product status are not just any old socks. Technical innovation is woven into their wool with a product called Isofill - a brilliant alternative to bulk that ensures warmth and dryness.

Intended to be worn with Goretex-lined boots or fashionable trainers, GTX Summit in Bridgedale's Extreme sock collection take moisture from feet sweaty from pounding pavements or cliff faces, and dry it off in fibres in the sock. The manufacturers in Northern Ireland call the technology Moisture Transfer System, which is the sort of mouthful that answers all the Design Council's criteria for a Millennium Product. The socks are certainly innovative, creative, forward thinking and pioneering. Whether they answer the double whammy the Design Council asks at its selection panel - "Does it tell a story?" and "Are you proud of it ?" - is up to the individual to decide.

The Design Council initiative - to talent spot and promote British design internationally - is not a jingoistic exercise. Rather, it is an attempt to catapult British industry back into centre stage. The GTX Summit socks weren't invented when Edmund Hillary made his chilly ascent of Everest in 1953, an event that captured the public's imagination and was a source of national pride. However, like explorers, British inventors in the machine age have always been celebrated: Baird for his TV, Watts for his steam engine and Faraday for electricity. Charles Babbage's computer of 1838 is the object of such desire amongst Microsoft executives that Nathan Myhrvold, second in command to Bill Gates, has commissioned one to be built and shipped over to his Washington home.

All these inventions took a lot of explanation and presentation, and sometimes rejection before they caught on. Now that electronic circuitry has silently replaced the clank and hiss of moving parts, and innovative programmes are often global, it is harder to find something that really does change our perception of the world, save lives or even simply improve them. The Design Council's initiative is to show us how great minds in British industry come up with solutions to everyday problems. Like the Oxfam bucket for drought-stricken areas. Or Reuters disaster website, which marshals international aid instantly. Both of these are now Millennium Products.

The Design Council requires every entrant to write a 25-word description of the product or service, and then the product is tested before being presented to a panel of experts. The panel includes computer programmers, medical experts, food specialists and farmers (who know why Cowslips Gumboots, a Millennium Product designed to stop fallen arches in dairy herds, really do improve milk production).

Innovation in the fields of medicine is where Britain is forging ahead, with Helica keysurgery; the Integra, which removes brain tumours; and Cellapor, which neutralises microbiologically dangerous diseases. The Intelligent Prosthesis artificial limb is programmed to the specific needs of each user, and adapts to speed changes under different conditions.

Britain also leads the field in computer software programming. Iris Recognition, from the boffins at Cambridge University, looks you straight in the eye as it identifies you using a mathematical calculation from the iris which makes fingerprinting redundant.

Sometimes the product is as heavy duty as a JCB digger, sometimes as simple as the Grippa (designed to help plumbers put a bung into leaky pipes and conserve water). Innovative technology often turns out to have many more uses than that for which it was originally intended. Gorix, a material in which individual fibres can carry electricity, is a source of warmth for deep-sea divers. Now it is challenging for a place on NASA's product line to be used for astronauts' gloves. VCS worldwide is an eye tracking system that controls computers by eye movement alone, replacing the mouse. Invaluable in training pilots, it is now a useful computer control tool for the disabled.

The need for Britain to go out and sell its technology is why the Design Council networks across a world stage. Chief executive Andrew Summers is keen to help small businesses overhaul their products with a designer- led package that raises the profile of design, increases profits, and regains customer confidence. Many small companies still see design as an add-on accessory, the pretty face of packaging.

A MORI poll proves that in 1970 three-quarters of businesses interviewed thought that a company with a good reputation wouldn't sell poor products. Now only 58 per cent think so. The public is also increasingly cynical about business. In 1970 almost half believed that "the old established companies make the best products". Now only 37 per cent believe that.

Changing perceptions of design is what the Design Council is about, and the Department of Trade and Industry funds it with pounds 8m annually to get the message across over the Internet - its website has 300,000 hits a month - and by workshops.

The Design Council's Cogent campaign with Nissan Marketing got car parts suppliers to produce "right first time" technical drawings and trial components and saved pounds 4m by ending duplication. Yet the CBI's 1998 Innovations Trends survey sponsored by NatWest showed that manufacturing spent just 4.9 per cent of its turnover on innovation in 1997, down from 5.9 per cent in the previous year.

Former industry minister John Battle was apocalyptic about the survival of those companies who do not embrace design-led thinking: "Standing still is no longer an option. Successful companies build design and innovation into their culture, particularly during the development of a product or service and hook this to their competitive drive. They will be the ones to prosper and develop in the next millennium."

The Design Council's Annual Review and its annual compilation of facts and figures on the design industry, `Design In Britain 2000', are available now.

Call 0171 420 5200 for details.

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