These days, designers don't just make a product look nice - they decide what it is in the first place. Rhymer Rigby visits PDD, a radical example of how a design firm can spearhead innovation.
Every bit of video that comes back is the same, says Paul Pankhurst. 'They're on their hands and knees. The whole bloody population is on its hands and knees.' Lest you get the wrong idea, we are talking about washing machine design and the problems associated with the traditional front loader. The video footage in question is part of how PDD approaches the design of a new washing machine - or indeed any other product.
Rather than just looking at a machine and saying: 'Let's shove an extra couple of knobs on here and add an extra spin cycle' (which, research suggests, is unlikely ever to be used anyway), the company sends its psychologists to live with users for a week or so. They watch and video consumers interacting with their machines, and after a while the users (a la Big Brother) forget about the cameras.
This 'real footage' is how PDD came to the conclusion that most washing machine owners spend a lot of time uncomfortably close to the floor, grubbing around for socks stuck at the top of the drum. Despite this ubiquitous inconvenience, almost every washing machine in the UK is a front loader, even the revolutionary Mr Dyson's. So PDD's designers came up with a machine that loads like a dishwasher, with a clear view into the drum for smalls that have gone AWOL. In retrospect, it sounds obvious but, obviously, it's not that obvious or someone would have done it already.
PDD doesn't just 're-imagine' washing machines; it is a design consultancy and will turn its hand to anything from medical kit and audio bits to hiking boots and yacht rigging. Like many such businesses, it started out small - in a garage in 1980. Then it chucked out its drawing boards and surfed the CAD wave of the late '80s and early '90s, exploiting the speed these new tools afforded 'back when it was all about getting your product to market fastest'.
But, by the late '90s, the company realised that being first on the shelf wasn't enough and that many products that seemed sound at first were still failing because client briefs were flawed. This epiphany coincided with Pankhurst visiting a university in California that was doing behavioural research. 'We then realised that we could link behavioural research with engineering. We saw that we could better understand the customer and that we could design the product right the first time.'
Indeed, what clients want from designers nowadays has become much more nebulous - they don't just want to be told what their product should look like, they want to know what they ought to be selling. Explains David Humphries, director of design strategy: 'In the last three years, the brief has changed. It used to be: 'Here is a mobile, redesign the outside'.
Now it's not just about technology for technology's sake and extra unnecessary features. Clients will say: '3G will have this functionality in two years - what should the product be?''
PDD certainly has the feel of a firm that gestates the consumer future.
Despite being housed in a rather curious-looking green-tiled building in backwoods Hammersmith, west London, the interior has a design feel to it. Weird and wonderful products litter the place: here a sucker device that converts a pane of glass into a loudspeaker, there a vacuum cleaner that looks like a prop from The Matrix, and everywhere mobile phones.
After all, there are a lot of new mobile phones around at the moment, and someone has to design them. A media suite allows the viewing and analysis of untold hours of consumer behaviour videos. Meeting rooms with thought-provoking names are dotted around; we are sitting in one called 'Quest'.
Downstairs is the guts of the place. Young designer types (all trendy T-shirts and Hoxton hair) sit at computers, deftly manipulating 3-D images.
Over in another, more practical-looking room, floating on a whiff of industrial adhesive, people are lovingly hand-building prototypes. Perhaps coolest of all, though, is the 3-D printer. It allows designers to print solid objects that are built up out of layers of white plastic. As yet, you can't print a functioning mobile, but you can print something that looks like one.
The business, says Pankhurst, consists of 80 people, roughly one-quarter research (including the six psychologists), three-eighths design and lateral thinking, and three-eighths engineering. Rather than work in separate, permanent teams, the project groups are formed as and when they are needed - and any individual will be on a team only for as long as necessary.
'A large company,' says Humphries, 'will put a team on a project and they'll stay on it from start to finish. But our teams constantly break up and re-form. A project will see behavioural researchers, designers and engineers - it may touch 20 people, but they won't stay with it the whole time. The only person who does is the project manager.'
This constant dissolving and remixing of teams, says Pankhurst, is one of the things that gives the business its dynamism. 'We could be eight autonomous teams, but we are not. This allows people to make other connections. It's a bit like the way neurons behave in the brain, and the more you have, the more productive the connections become.'
To further facilitate the flow of ideas, there's an intranet with all the projects the company is working on - after all, who knows what might be useful to someone else? For instance, the flat batteries in Polaroid cameras can also be used to heat ski boots, an application Polaroid would have been unlikely to stumble on.
Then there is an internal scheme called the futures programme, where teams come together to 'crystal-ball gaze'. One intriguing outcome of this is the heads-up mobile phone, the result of two teams meeting - one of which was working on mobiles while the other was looking at the heads-up displays used in fighter planes for the MOD. The problem they were discussing - one many people will recognise - is that no matter how much functionality mobiles pack in, it's difficult to browse the web (or, for that matter, do much else) on a screen the size of a postage stamp.
But, after getting their heads down with the heads-up folk, the mobile team realised that you could produce a phone with a pair of glasses that uses heads-up technology. Thus, mobile users who don these ubershades will be able to see a web page floating three feet in front of them. 'We exhibited this in Cannes,' says Pankhurst, 'and the interest was enormous.' It does mean, though, that we can look forward to people not just talking to themselves in the street but interacting with something that isn't there at all.
Interestingly, the people at PDD are not experts in any particular area of design - they work with very different businesses in the way that consultants do: 'It's a very collaborative process,' says Humphries. 'For example, if we're designing a razor, the client brings the razor knowledge and we soak that up. It's a partnership.' Thus, he says, PDD finds itself working for businesses of differing sizes. For a small concern, PDD may represent the R&D it cannot afford in-house. And for a large firm, it may represent a fast, cost-effective way of developing new products that is impossible when your expertise is scattered across the globe.
In such an environment, of course, good ideas with no obvious home are likely to appear. 'This was something that had frustrated me for ages,' says Pankhurst, 'so at the end of last year, I handed the role of MD over to Helen Gray and set up a separate company to look at these.'
The reason for this is that PDD is a 'fees for services' consultancy and it was felt that mixing it with speculative research wouldn't work.
'Sometimes these ideas come internally and sometimes they come from clients. We analyse them, we do due diligence and we make sure the intellectual property is there. And if we can tick all the boxes, we'll invest in the product.'
One such product was an exercise bike that allows you to play video games as you pedal - and play better the faster you pedal.
'In this case,' says Humphries, 'we traded design time for equity. It's about sharing risk and collaboration. Companies are looking at innovation very differently these days. It used to be a core activity, but now they're seeing that their core activity is managing their brand and distribution channels.'
And, thinking about it, much as some might decry it, the outsourcing of new ideas makes perfect sense - as few companies do it brilliantly in-house. As Humphries says, in an increasingly undifferentiated market, it all comes back to building a better washing machine. 'You used to buy brands for quality, because they didn't break. But now everything's quite well made. So you started buying them for style. But now, everything's nicely designed. What does that leave? Innovation - and that's what we bring.'
KEEP YOUR COMPANY ON THE CUTTING EDGE
- Get to know your customers. Look at how they interact with products over a length of time and study their behaviour in depth. They may not actually know what they want or need because 'you don't know what you don't know'.
- Constantly re-mix your teams. This ensures that ideas get passed around the workplace; see that people work on projects only when they are needed.
- Make sure everyone in the office has access to information on everything the business is working on. Just because somebody isn't on a project doesn't make the information useless to them, or mean they can't contribute.
- Mix ages in the workplace. Young people have flair and enthusiasm; older people have experience. Each group benefits from having the other around.
- Look at different ways of innovating. Exchange your expertise for equity, say, or partner with other companies in the same field to achieve what you couldn't do alone.