Strong design is as important as the hi-tech wizardry behind big- name products, says Michael Evamy
Not so long ago, all that manufacturers did was make things, find shops or other people to sell them, and then think about how to make the same thing better next time round. Manufacturers made things and, on the whole, kept a low profile. Retailers, in contrast to the manufacturers' lack of marketing oomph, concentrated on packaging, presentation and pleasing customers: their brands, and how they were perceived by customers, were all-important.

That was then. But now, as international businesses across the board commit their all to winning and keeping customers, everything is getting mixed up. It's what business gurus call "convergence", and it is taking place on two fronts.

According to new Design Council research, 84 per cent of firms now use design staff or consultants in some way, compared to a survey last year which said 75 per cent of companies use them. Manufacturers are following giants like Sony and major fashion labels, and waking up to the potential of a strong brand in adding value to their products and generating loyalty among their customers. They are using design to make their products more distinctive and desirable, and offering services to support their brands.

An example is Apple computers, whose revival as a brand and growth at twice the industry rate has been fuelled by its hottest ever design: the iMac, whose fruit-coloured casings have made computer hardware look as interesting as the software. Service companies, meanwhile, are investing more in the design of products, or hardware, to make their services stand out. Examples include airlines competing on the comfort of their exclusively designed seats, and companies whose services, available down phone lines or the Internet, can only be accessed via boxes of electronics or other bits of kit.

One way or another, despite everything we have been told about technology becoming invisible, technological products are becoming more visible; their design, say marketing experts, will be as much a part of the way we receive big brands as logos and advertising.

The people seeing convergence from both sides are Britain's leading product designers. Used to dealing with a conservative British manufacturing sector, they are adjusting to a new environment where their skills are wanted by both traditional producers and service companies. Tim Brown, a director of IDEO Product Development, says manufacturers are learning from the likes of Sony that a finely tuned brand is a perfect framework for selling finely tuned products, but that the change of mindset is taking time. "It's incredible it has taken so long for most manufacturers to realise that what matters is the relationship they have with each and every one of their customers. Most of them are just worried about getting their next model out."

It was with the intention of tackling the peculiarly British knack for coupling technical inventiveness with nil marketing nous that Blue Science was formed in May. A coalition of Scientific Generics, the Cambridge-based science and technology group, and Identica, a leading brand design agency, the company wants to realise the full potential of good technological ideas through the "emotive advantage" created by skilful branding.

John Butcher, the former Tory design and technology minister who is chairman of Blue Science, claims: "The potential of bringing together two of the most powerful vehicles for building new and improved commercial value - the immense power of branding and the advancements that science and technology enables - is staggering."

Mike Rodber, a former car designer whose product consultancy Jones Garrard designed the Eurostar train's "front end" and luxury seats for British Airways, recently established Think, a consultancy for developing brands, services and products. "Ultimately, what turns a lot of product designers on is creating a nice object. It's a craft thing. What a car designer wants to do is produce a beautiful car. Designers will always produce beautiful objects but what people have learned is that sometimes those objects don't count for much without the brand context."

IDEO, a global network of design offices that has consistently won awards, is working increasingly with brand-oriented service companies. Recently it has designed pieces of high-tech hardware that offer a gateway to services delivered wirelessly or over the Internet, in the same way as the telephone was designed to allow people to talk over phone lines. These services are spawning a new generation of products.

"For a while I've been thinking of the product as just another medium," says Tim Brown. "A medium for brands and experiences." When the BBC needed to develop awareness of its new digital radio service (Digital Audio Broadcasting) it asked IDEO to come up with design ideas for digital radios - a totally new genre of product with a host of new functions. The designs gave meaning to a fairly abstract concept and encouraged manufacturers to enter the market. was an Internet-based service needing a product: this time it was a pocket-sized device for storing and playing back spoken- word books downloaded from the Web.

For customers of companies like these, the little bit of hardware is their only point of contact with the service. The services may be unique now but they may not be unique forever, and the companies understand the need to build brand loyalty early, before the competition appears. A good product can do that but, says Brown, designing products for service companies "can be frustrating, because they have absolutely no understanding of creating things. Banks, airlines and so on deliver their service through a combination of advertising, media, communications and people. They don't have to do a lot of developing anything. There's a bit of an education process for them to go through."

For manufacturers, service companies, marketers, designers, and for most of us consumers about to be bombarded with brands, it seems "convergence" is going to take a lot of getting used to.