Designing the best role for Britain: Design is a British success story, but one that is not always exploited to its full potential, writes Diane Coyle

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The Independent Online
ZOOL, the Ninja from the Nth dimension, Casio watches, NSK aero- engine ball bearings and Pentel pens have one thing in common: they are designed by Britons and manufactured by Japanese companies.

These and other fruits of the combination of British creativity and Japanese production skills are the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at the Design Museum. It celebrates the export of British design skills - but also underlines the failure of British manufacturers to exploit this advantage.

This is a timely reminder, for the Department of Trade and Industry is celebrating the Design Council's 50th anniversary this year with a review of its funding and operations. Due to be published soon, it is likely to recommend slimming the design advice and support quango.

NSK, the Japanese bearing manufacturer sponsoring the Design Museum exhibition in London from 8 March to 5 June, has been producing in Britain for 20 years. Hiroshi Takada, chief executive, says: 'We believe that national boundaries will have less and less impact on design and production in the next century.'

Other Japanese companies that use British designers, in Britain or Japan, include Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Casio, NEC, Sony, Nissan and Honda - indeed, almost all the well-known names. Nintendo and Sega dominate the market for computer games, but Britons design more than two-fifths of the software.

NSK has recently built a large research centre in Nottingham that works with its other centres in Japan and the US to develop products for sale around the world. Mr Takada says it can take advantage of 'new dimensions of design and technological interaction between Britain and Japan'.

The interaction is, unfortunately, pretty much one way. Dick Powell, of the design group Seymour Powell, recently developed a range of watches for Casio and has worked for Yamaha and Pentax. He says: 'If British companies see the need to use design then they do it well. The essential difference is that the Japanese always see the need for it.'

Colin Mynott, the Design Council's industrial director, despairs of British companies' failure to take design seriously: 'The companies that do not succeed in international markets are those where the senior managers are not really interested in the product and its development. This appears to include the majority of British firms.'

British managers, Mr Mynott says, still think design is about an arty type in a loud tie dreaming up decorative patterns and go-faster stripes. To crash through this mental block, the design community is beginning to avoid the d-word, preferring to speak of 'innovation' or 'development'.

Mr Mynott adds: 'There is an awful lot less product design taking place in Britain than in Europe or elsewhere. If a Continental company finds sales are not going well, it immediately looks at re-engineering the product. You have to ask what we mean by calls for more investment in industry in this country - more investment in making things people don't like and don't buy?'

There are exceptions. One example of Anglo-Japanese collaboration that has benefited the then-British partner is the development of the Rover 600. This model and the Honda Accord have the same basic design. They diverge only on the surface. Since its launch in Britain last April, the Rover 600 has outsold the Accord three to one. Since its late-summer launch on the Continent, sales have grown sharply in falling markets.

Jay Nagley, director of the automotive analyst Marketing Systems, says: 'Rover did a great job of turning a bland Japanese design meant to offend no one into something that can inspire. The chrome harks back to traditional values and gives it a look of classic elegance. They have invested it with almost a fake British heritage.'

On a smaller scale, Nomix- Chipman, a manufacturer of herbicide dispensing equipment, has trebled turnover since an award- winning redesign of its products to launch them in overseas markets in 1991. Eren Ali, the technical director, was a design consultant recruited by the company chairman to turn around its fortunes.

Mr Ali says: 'Most British manufacturers do not understand that design is a resource rather than a cost. You can turn it into revenue.'

Paul Thompson, the Design Museum's curatorial director, agrees: 'We have for a long time been pointing to overseas manufacturers using British designers, to their obvious competitive advantage. There are still very few British companies that have sought to create a premium brand through design and engineering.'

Apart from helping achieve higher sales, effective design brings less obvious benefits. Reducing production costs is one. Just as important for a company's competitive edge is a reduction in the time it takes to bring a new product to market.

International collaboration on design adds the prospect of sharing development costs, learning about other technologies and gaining a better understanding of what will sell in overseas markets. According to Mr Thompson: 'The Japanese know that European culture is different, and they are very conscientious about making their products suitable for that market.'

Paul Rodger, a director of the design consultancy Bull Rodger, agrees that sensitivity to cultural differences is important: 'Multinationals tend to want a homogeneous advertising campaign to build international brand strength, but you can only do that with a few products. You can do it for Coke but not for Horlicks. The messages will become more standard, but that does not mean people will buy the same products.'

This suggests that the emphasis on cross-border design can be overdone. The world's consumers are not uniform - yet. On the other hand, British companies' home market is one of the most open, making it perhaps more important for them to design products for the international marketplace.

Movers and shakers in the design world are optimistic that there is more official recognition of this need than ever. The impending DTI review will reveal how far the Government is prepared to back industrial design with funding.

Whether it should do so is another matter. Design itself has become a British success story. The forthcoming exhibition concludes that acting as a hothouse of ideas for other nations' corporations to manufacture could be the best role for Britain.

(Photograph omitted)