Designs become the driving force

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By Jane Hugues

By Jane Hugues

24 October 1999

Good, bad or simply indifferent, design used to be viewed by most companies as an additional cost rather than an investment. With a few notable exceptions - Concorde, Habitat, the Sony Walkman - the products that captured the imagination of the mass market came about more as a result of accident than intention.

Think of the Mini. Alec Issigonis's revolutionary design was a response to demands for a small but spacious, low-budget car. No one envisaged the scale of its subsequent success, nor that it would gain almost iconic status in an otherwise notoriously dull period for design in the British motor industry.

But The Product Book, a new collection of essays from leading innovators, suggests product design has not only shaped the culture of the 20th century, but is set to become central to business activity in the future.

The book's editor is Catherine McDermott, a consultant curator at the Design Museum. Her argument is that product design and brand development have now "converged" to communicate the identity, quality, function and significance of the object.

Pulling together the philosophies, strategies and concerns of 32 key designers into a commercial agenda for the next century, The Product Book is a wake-up call for businesses which still think of the discipline as an appendage to their core activities.

Richard Seymour, the president of British Design and Art Direction (D&AD), a professional association and charity, claims that design is set to become the big new investment for companies and the key to commercial success.

It's a bold assertion but, as a world-renowned product designer whose company created the world's first cordless kettle as well as the Baby G watch for Casio, Mr Seymour speaks from experience.

"Ten years ago", he writes, "many British clients were turning their backs on high-quality design because they didn't understand the powerful industrial catalyst it represented...

"This misconception has evaporated in most corners of the country, but not in time to counteract the decline of our industrial base."

Indeed, at a time when manufacturers and service providers are operating on what is increasingly a level playing field in terms of performance, delivery and customer service, design is one of the few areas which still has the power to differentiate a product.

According to Mr Seymour, "Good design is good business while great design, in the form of the Apple iMac and the Audi TT, creates an emotional and practical link with the consumer that transcends mere functionality." The iMac, of course, was responsible for reviving Apple's fortunes while the Audi TT has a waiting list so long that few will be seen in this country before the millennium.

Britain is a world leader in the industry. Its designers are already capitalising on one of the greatest growth sectors today, online services. But while we excel at producing entrepreneurial types who go on to set up small consultancies, we have some way to go when it comes to incorporating design into daily business life.

Design plays a "significant role" in 67 per cent of large firms but only 47 per cent of smaller ones, according to figures from the Design Council.

However, design staff or consultants are now employed by 84 per cent of businesses compared with last year's figure of 75 per cent - a significant leap.

The Product Book will be launched on Thursday as part of Design in Business Week, and includes contributions from small offices like JAM and tangerine, individuals such as Karim Rashid, Marc Newson and Ron Arad, and internationally known manufacturers such as Philips, Renault and Dyson.

"Products used to identify nations," writes Ms McDermott, "but in the new techno-world the product designer is a nomad in the global marketplace."


* 'The Product Book' is published at £37.50 by D&AD in association with Rotovision.