The decline of product design in the UK has slowed, but industry is still wary of investment, says James Woudhuysen.
Britain's battered design "industry" knows the problems all too well. This country's product designers, ignored by manufacturers at home, now work more and more for foreign clients - who then add to the UK's balance of payments woes by exporting their goods back to us. In France, Seymour Powell develops cookware for Tefal, and Fitch-RS designs computers for Groupe Bull; further afield, Hollington Associates consults with the American furniture giant Herman Miller in office desking and chairs, and youthful upstart TKO boasts a ghetto blaster for Sony which comes across like a Jules Verne submarine.
The foreigners love us. Yet, despite all of the changes to the high street wrought by designers in the 1980s, British industry still believes product design to be over the heads of "the punters", who are held, now more than ever, to buy solely on price. There are exceptions, it is admitted: yellow JCB in excavators, orange Lancer Boss in forklift trucks. But the Design and Art Directors Association has had trouble finding stars for its new category of awards in product design; and the Design Council has met with a similar problem in the consumer products section of its own annual prizes. British industrial design may not, like the professions of retail or corporate identity design, now have a reputation to live down. But that, everybody believes, is because it simply does not figure in the average UK engineering or marketing director's calculations.
Is this familiar lament, however, really justified? Not long ago, at a trade show, I accosted the managing director of a company which makes a product that every reader of Management Today encounters frequently. I enquired whether he thought that his machine, whose appearance and controls are akin to a Wimpy Bar interior or menu circa 1961, needed a rethink. No, he said; it had made lots of money and there was no need to change it.
Ah, you say, that just confirms how bad things have got. Yet you would be wrong. After inviting the MD, by a later letter, to appreciate the non-aesthetic merits of design in defending his product's market-leading position from overseas rivals in the future, the firm which I work for has been invited to do a critique of his product. Indeed, we have a sample in the studio, and are putting it through its paces right now.
The point of this is to show that things have changed in British manufacturing - and for the better. It is true that expenditure on brands, advertising and packaging still exceeds that on industrial design. But though clients for the latter are still tightfisted and sceptical, they have had enough of a battering from foreign competition to know that they ought to be doing something. They now know, too, that product design is much more than just a last-minute application of style.
Ten years ago - even more recently, in fact - such a realisation could be found almost nowhere. Today, though, a generation of more youthful and more aware industry managers has grown up. The best members of that generation see industrial design as a process which, because it spans engineering, the man-machine interface, user psychology and much else besides, can speed new product development.
For every naff rear end of a turn-of-the-decade Metro there is a bus shelter for More O'Ferrall (designed by Pentagram's Kenneth Grange), a highly exported set of professional power tools for Kango (Product First) or a yachtsman's inexpensive, splash-proof, digital reader of Admiralty charts for Yeoman Marine (Moggridge Associates). All of these products have recently been designed for UK manufacturers, none of which has the long design tradition of, say, Heal's furniture or Kenwood food mixers. So compared with the missionary spirit that surrounded product design in 1981, there is reason to celebrate.
True, an awful lot has still to be achieved. A particular problem may lie in the fact that most British product designers are geographically distant from this country's centres of manufacturing - something which prevents them from forming, with their clients, the kind of geographical cluster of export-conscious expertise recommended by Harvard's Michael Porter in his "The Competitive Advantage of Nations". Our product designers cluster not around Birmingham or Glasgow but in the metropolis of financial services: London. Perhaps this is why they are still regarded with some suspicion.
Nevertheless, the decline of product design has been arrested. At last, in the majority of British industry, the spirit is willing - even if, for the present, the budgets are not.
(James Woudhuysen is managing director of the Exploratory Design Laboratory at Fitch-RS.)