Trust me, I’m a designer

If designers are involved in product development from concept to production line, they can give companies a competitive edge.

To many people, a designer is someone with floppy hair and frilly clothes who leaps around on our television screens making perfectly presentable rooms look ridiculous.

Even in manufacturing firms designers are often the people drafted in at the last minute to ‘tart up’ a product, and are looked down on as unqualified to deal with any of the technical issues.

In many cases there is a big difference between the lip service companies pay to the importance of continued innovation and their effective use of design in everyday operations. Designers are often involved in a project only when it is too late to make any fundamental changes and after most costs have been set.

But by making design a part of a company’s product development processes and procedures, the overall performance of a business can be improved, and substantial cost savings made. Design, its proponents argue, can lead to much greater innovation, and offers a way of differentiating firms from their competitors – but only if designers are involved throughout the process of creating a product, from concept, development and prototyping, right through to testing, using, marketing and even selling.

Part of the problem is that the word ‘design’ has many different connotations, while engineering design and aesthetic design are seen as separate disciplines. A more rounded and creative approach to the way engineering is taught at degree level could produce a new breed of designer capable of embracing all aspects of the subject.

Good design is not just about choosing colours or making the product look pretty: it can be a matter of life and death to fledgling firms, says Rob Holdway, design specialist and director of innovation at management consultant Giraffe. He says that only 55% of newly VAT-registered firms survived for more than three years during the 1980s and 1990s. So if companies are interested in remaining alive they must become more competitive by learning to stand out from the crowd. Design has a role in this.

‘Companies that are flexible enough to adapt are the most likely to survive,’ says Holdway.

But even if firms accept the commercial importance of design in theory, how do they go about adapting their business to make themselves more innovative in practice? Firms should see themselves as more than manufacturers developing and ‘shifting’ products out of the factory. They should begin to look more closely at issues such as the branding, image and functions of their products.

Caveat the copycat

To make a product stand out from the crowd, companies need to focus more closely on their customers’ needs and ignore what their competitors are doing, says Mike Watkiss, technical director of Watkiss Automation, a small, family-run collating and print-finishing equipment manufacturer. ‘All our competitors are copying each other, but if you copy how can you benefit? Your product will not have any original sales features.’

Watkiss has won two Design Council awards for his firm’s collating machines, and says the secret of good design is often simplicity.

‘If something is not working, there is often a temptation to add to it. But the best thing to do is start again. If you keep it simple, it is easier to make, and you keep manufacturing costs down.’

Working for a small firm, Watkiss’s designers are of necessity involved in other aspects of the business, such as development, testing and manufacture. But this can actually be one of the best ways of ensuring design is integrated into the culture of an organisation.

The pioneering vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson Appliances has based its entire business strategy on technology and innovation, and invests heavily in product development. Company founder James Dyson has criticised manufacturers for relegating design to a mere afterthought. Dyson believes designers should be involved in all areas of development, including building, testing and using the product.

Design is the engine room of the business, said Simeon Jupp, director of group product development at Dyson, in a speech at a recent seminar marking 21 years of the Royal College of Art’s Industrial Design Engineering Course, run in partnership with Imperial College. ‘We don’t just have a product team – we have a team that tackles the product, the manufacturing facilities, the marketing, the sales, all working in tandem.’

The company employs nearly 2,000 people, with almost 300 directly involved in product design. They cover disciplines from design engineering to fluid dynamics, chemistry, acoustics and software programming.

Product development can be integral to change in a manufacturing business, says Jupp. ‘New product design is a fantastic opportunity to drive change – you can use it as a full stop and a new start.’

Creating a successful design team can be simple, but sadly not all companies do it well. Dyson’s project teams are allowed to devote their attention and skills entirely to the product in front of them. They are never dragged away to deal with any day-to-day problems, he says.

‘They get to the point where they absolutely live and breathe the product they are working on,’ says Jupp. ‘Our design teams become a miniature business. They are autonomous, and have all the information they need so they can cover ground very quickly. But because of their strong link to the parent, they can integrate painlessly as we move into production.’

Active involvement

Dyson’s design team continues to support the product well beyond the start of manufacturing, and remains actively involved in all improvements and extensions to the range. This offers a great opportunity for designers and engineers to experience every aspect of making a product, says Jupp. ‘Design manifests itself in everything we do. It involves every department, it helps unify, and it provides an enormous catalyst for change, not just from a product range sense, but as a great opportunity to experiment with everything from the manufacturing processes right through to marketing.’

But although Dyson is often hailed as an example of what all UK firms should do to push design through their businesses, the company is not necessarily the best model for smaller manufacturers, says Gus Desbarats, chairman and co-founder of industrial design business Alloy.

‘Dyson has an extremely risky brand position, as its product launches always originate from genuine technical innovation, whereas many UK firms could have far greater commercial success simply by designing their products with their customers in mind,’ says Desbarats. He goes on to say that companies could transform their commercial position just by getting the humanistic details right, by making their products look better and easier to use.

Most UK firms understandably tend to think in terms of cost-effectiveness and time to market, rather than attempting to really understand the needs of their customers. This is partly the fault of degree courses. Student engineers do not learn about psychology, and how this can affect people’s product choices, says Desbarats. ‘Issues that tend to make a difference are typically below the engineers’ radar, such as ease of use and installation, and how people react irrationally to the stimuli they are offered.’

These issues can determine the success or failure of a product, he says, and often designers can present the technology in such a way that – for the user – it doubles in value.

Engineering courses are also criticised for failing to teach design in a more creative way, leaving many graduates disillusioned with it.

Creative as art

But engineering is every bit as creative as art, and more professionals should think of themselves in creative terms, says John Drane, professor of Industrial Design Engineering, the course targeted at postgraduate engineers. The course aims to make graduate engineers more rounded, taking in issues such as the ease of use of products and how they can use their skills creatively.

‘A lot of graduates wonder how they can apply their engineering knowledge in a creative way,’ says Drane. ‘Coming into an art school is a very good way to learn about the design process, in a practical, hands-on environment, which helps them to be more successful when they go into companies.’

Many firms are unaware of how easy it is to develop ideas quickly without spending much money on expensive technology, he says. Students on the IDE course use various modelling techniques, including rapid prototyping, to allow them to see the product they have designed take shape very quickly. ‘It is not an expensive operation,’ says Drane, ‘and you get a product at the end of it from which you can learn an enormous amount. This can advance designs much more quickly than companies realise.’

The IDE’s 21st-anniversary exhibition demonstrated this. Among exhibits was a range of entirely professional-looking products designed within six months as course projects.

Drane is hoping to develop partnerships with industry and to set up a centre to study how design operates within business. This would allow firms to learn more about techniques used on the course, and enable the students to develop a greater understanding of companies, he says. ‘Our designers need to know much more about business constraints, particularly from a financial point of view, so there is a lot we need to learn from each other.’

Despite the lack of understanding in some sectors of industry, there is still hope for the future of creative engineering design, Drane argues. Through design and technology and engineering GCSEs, schools are finally beginning to inspire a new generation of young people with a fascination for seeing their designs made, while some five-year degree courses are teaching the subject in new, more creative ways. But if engineering design is ever to achieve the status it deserves, all companies must accept its genuine importance in their long-term survival, and engineers must realise their work is every bit as creative as that in the Tate Modern.

Sidebar: Prescription for health

Understanding the importance of design in selling a product or new technology can help small firms to compete with large multinational companies.

Mike Cane, a graduate of the Industrial Design Engineering course at the Royal College of Art, was running an engineering research and development firm, Cambridge Design Partnership, when he heard about a new imaging technology for detecting skin cancer in its early stages. Cane invited Simon Cotton, who was working on the technology for his PhD at Birmingham University, to come to work with him, and the pair spent the next nine months turning the thesis into a working prototype of the device, called the Siascope.

Once the prototype had been built and tested successfully, they set up the company Astron Clinica, and began designing the product for clinical trials. To develop it the design team had to go back to first principles, as they had no similar machine to base it on, says Cane, now technical director of the company. ‘A device like this has never existed before. It is the first of a new generation of imaging devices in skin care.’

Presentation matters

As a small company entering the medical devices market, which is dominated by companies such as Toshiba, Siemens and GE, designing a product of a high enough quality to match those of the larger firms was crucial. ‘We wanted to have a very well-finished, high-quality device,’ says Cane.

‘If you are making caseworks for a machine you might as well make them of a quality and a standard that is attractive and professionally presented. It doesn’t cost much more to do that than to make a horrible square box,’ he says.

Working on a completely new product allowed the company to set the industry standard for devices of its kind. ‘In certain areas of medical devices there are very sophisticated bits of equipment being designed, but in other areas the standards are very low, and a lot of hospital devices are appallingly designed. To some extent it is what the market expects, and when you have a clean sheet of paper you can set that level of perception,’ Cane says.

The company is now working on a smaller, cheaper version of the device that will enable GPs to make accurate diagnosis of skin cancer earlier.