Adding Style to High Street: The Decline of Product Design in the UK Has Slowed, but Industry Is Still Wary of Investment

By Woodhuysen, James | Management Today, April 1991 | Go to article overview

Adding Style to High Street: The Decline of Product Design in the UK Has Slowed, but Industry Is Still Wary of Investment


Woodhuysen, James, Management Today


Adding style to the High Street

Britain's battered design 'industry' knows the problems all to 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 exporing their goods back to us. In France, Seymour Powell develops cookware for Tefal, and Fitch RS, computers for Groupe Bull; further afield, Hollington Associates consult with the US furniture giant Herman Miller in office desking and chairs, and youthful upstarts TKO boast a ghettoblaster for Sony which comes across like a Jules Verne submarine.

The foreigners love us. Yet, despite all 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 not 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 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. …

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