A spot of designer research

Hugh Aldersey-Williams looks at efforts to benchmark creativity
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The Independent Online
DESIGN is recognised as a British competitive advantage. But many companies value designers less highly than foreign competitors. Could benchmarking persuade them otherwise?

The Judge Institute of Management Studies in Cambridge has embarked on a project to benchmark aspects of the design process, the first such in Europe. In America eight firms have already benchmarked product design and corporate identity.

The reward is potentially enormous. Perhaps 80 per cent of the cost of product development is set by decisions made during design, for example. The design determines the technology content, the materials, and manufacturing and labour costs, says Duncan Matthews, head of National Westminster Bank's Innovation and Growth Unit. Yet the focus of business, and of benchmarking, has been on manufacturing and distribution, which take most of the time but govern only a fraction of the total cost.

For designers, award schemes provide the conventional measure of creativity. These, of course, are subjective. A complementary series of Design Effectiveness Awards (to be presented next month) rewards design that can demonstrate increased sales, market share or company growth. There is often little correspondence between the two kinds of award. Mary Lewis, of Lewis Moberly, a packaging designer that regularly scores in both categories, says that "in their attempts to be taken seriously by clients, many designers lose sight of their real strength - creativity". This, she adds, "is often more accurately judged emotionally".

Others believe the design process can be dissected. Nick Oliver at the Judge Institute has compared four electronics manufacturers for the Design Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The study is being extended to include comparison with Japanese and American firms. Mr Oliver looked at 18 design projects, assessing productivity, quality and duration. In quality, for example, his chosen yardsticks were the number of specification changes made during development, the proportion of scrap material, and marketplace returns.

Two projects were chosen for closer analysis. One seemed to be a model example; the other a disaster, an innovation bedevilled by changes, delays and overspends. But it was the second product that succeeded in the market. "That sounded a salutary note for us," says Mr Oliver. The greater the innovation, the less relevant measures of process minutiae become.

The international exercise will adopt more sophisticated measures. "Development hours per new part", for example, represents an attempt to measure the novelty of a design. But on occasion (the Sony Walkman?) novelty is achieved without a lot of new parts. Mr Oliver admits: "I'd be very surprised if we could get any handle on breakthrough products."

An American study, by Ted Shida of the Design Management Institute in Boston, was more qualitative, using questionnaires to compare the status of design in companies such as 3M, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and Raychem. "What emerged was a sense of where design was positioned along the chain of command," says Mr Shida. In three of the companies, design managers had a direct line to the top. Realising that successful companies were those where design enjoyed the closest links with senior management, other participants agreed that such a link would promote more effective use of design in their firms.

British design managers believe a similar exercise could persuade their top management of this connection too. "We need to link the growth of influence of a designer within a company with the number of products brought out in a year," suggests Les Wynn, a design project leader at Rank Xerox, the company that championed benchmarking in America. "The only way I can see that design will be forced up the company is by having benchmark data that proves its worth."

The common factor for all companies that are managing creativity is the need to assess risk. Some measures are limited. What is learnt about total design quality by measuring the quantity of scrap, for example? Elsewhere, people may not be able to find a basis for comparing risk or they may care about similar risks to different degrees. "People with a lot of cash may rate aesthetics highly and those without will look at cost- driven factors," explains Keith Lawson, a consultant with the University of Westminster.

Yet even assessment of risk may serve to set some minds at rest, though set against this is the danger that semi-quantitative procedures will so impress some managers that the unquantifiable side of innovation will be neglected or disparaged.

All agree, however, that there are aspects of the creative process that are beyond the reach of benchmarking techniques and likely to remain so.