Designers can no longer afford to ignore the rapid pace of scientific
change and should open their minds to a range of technologies if they
are to keep up, writes Robert Dwek
Geoff Crook, head of graphic design at Central St Martin’s College of
Art and Design in London, senses change in the air. Technology is
altering the nature of design and designers are failing to anticipate
its effects. ‘As we move into the new millennium, we should be thinking
about a much more sophisticated kind of design, more research-led and
less reliant on the old mystique.
Design should be much more about life-changing experiences,’ he says.
It may be hard to shake the mystique of design, but that is what seems
to be happening. The first blow was the widespread introduction of
computer-aided design technology. In 1990 designers were positive about
CAD but said it was ‘just a tool’. Some maintained CAD would never
replace a pencil and paper. How wrong they were.
Computers are now part of the lifeblood of design and have penetrated
deep into its psyche. Designers can no longer afford to ignore
developments in science and technology.
Smallfry, an industrial design specialist, uses rapid-prototyping
technology to create and then produce a working model of its product
designs. Instead of numerous two-dimensional drawings, the design is
manipulated almost from the start on a computer screen. A recent design
for a traffic-warning monitor for car dashboards, called Streetwise,
began this way.
This technology allows a product design to be manipulated in a multitude
of ways, even animated. The data can then be fed directly into a
computer-controlled laser which burns into a puddle of resin to produce
a working model of the concept. This process can take hours rather than
the days and weeks of the old paper and clay approach.
‘The nature of the job today is completely different to what I was
trained in,’ says Smallfry managing director Steve May-Russell. But
there is a high cost of entry for designers wishing to set up their own
state-of-the-art workstation - around pounds 50,000.
Despite this, May-Russell says designers ‘have got to start looking at
ways of cross-fertilising technology’. His company, for example, got the
seed of its idea for flashing lights on training shoes from a
piezoelectric crystal gas cooker lighter.
May-Russell is also a big fan of the leading-edge computer-generated
animation technology behind such films as Terminator II and Jurassic
Park. ‘It has huge potential for designers,’ he says.
Sebastian Conran, son of Terence and founder of his own industrial
design consultancy, Product Identity Design, also advocates a magpie
approach. In 1987 he designed the Via pushchair, which used ski-boot
technology to give it a lightweight and stylish edge over the
Recently, his consultancy has been working with computer giant ICL to
develop a self-service till for WH Smith, bringing a personal-computer
culture into the retail environment.
Conran believes the cost of entry to this hi-tech world is a big problem
for medium-sized designers. ‘I don’t think it’s fair to call them
Luddites. New technology may be very appealing to designers but they’re
often constrained by clients who associate it with extra risk.’
Felix Scarlett, a director of packaging design specialist Webb Scarlett,
whose clients include United Distillers, Schweppes and adhesives-maker
Evo, thinks some types of design will always remain outside the reach of
new technology. He points to examples where new technology is not always
a benefit to designers, such as the plethora of lookalike car designs
that emerged in the wake of CAD. ‘Designers allowed their imaginations
to be restricted by a limited palette of aesthetic devices,’ he claims.
There is also the danger that if a designer commits too much to one
particular form of new technology, he will lose imaginative flair,
recommending one high-tech solution over and over again.
John Sorrell, chairman both of Newell & Sorrell and of the Design
Council, agrees that technology is too important to ignore. ‘The way
the design industry is changing through technological developments means
design consultancies will have no choice but to be aware of all these
things. It’s not a question of whether they want to get involved with
technology or not, it’s simply a ticket to the game in the future.’
He advises designers to forge links with technology specialists, so they
can learn first-hand about the rapid changes going on around them. Two
companies which have already done this are Identica and Dragon
Identica was set up in 1992 by Michael Peters, former head of the high-
profile Michael Peters Group. In his new incarnation, Peters is less
keen to act as a spokesman for the design industry and much more eager
to develop the strong link he has forged with Cambridge-based technology
firm Generics Group.
The two companies have invested in a joint venture, called Identica
Generics, billed as a brand- and product-development consultancy. Two
years ago, it accounted for 10% of Identica’s total turnover. This
year’s forecast puts the figure at 50%.
Clients of Identica Generics, which include Nestle, Unilever, Quaker and
Sellotape, appear to be hooked. Peters explains: ‘These companies are
finding that because they have such limited R&D resources, they are
having to bring in a complete turnkey operation to help them develop
their product portfolio. We have had consistent product breakthroughs
because we’ve been able to transfer technologies from one industry to
An example of this was the development of a radical manufacturing
process to add flavourings to a confectionery product. The technique was
taken from a Korean manufacturer of metal ropes.
David Lowings, senior consultant at Dragon, can claim a greater pedigree
of technological tie-ups. His company has, for 11 years, worked closely
with the PA Consulting Group through a joint venture called Integrated
Innovation, producing such brands as the low-calorie Lo Bar and the
Femidom female contraceptive.
‘Having designers and technology people working together can create so
many new opportunities,’ says Lowings, ‘and if you add to this a team
from the client you can achieve some remarkable things.’
While conceding this approach ‘is a premium service and not for
everyone’, Lowings believes more progress could be made on the design
and technology front if more UK-based clients showed interest.
Nevertheless, he sees some hope, with signs that the design industry has
forged links with packaging manufacturers. ‘Some of the recent labelling
technology - holograms, for example - is very interesting and
innovative,’ he says.
Wally Olins, chairman of corporate design giant Wolf Olins, is more
confident than many that the design industry is keeping on top of
technological change. ‘There are a few designers out there still in the
arts and craft tradition, but the majority are pretty sophisticated and
very conscious of new technology,’ he claims.
But he also concedes it is ‘perfectly possible’ that design people have
not been quick enough to take on the new technology, especially at the
Olins argues that the design industry has already travelled a very long
way and should be applauded. ‘Twenty-five years ago it would have been
inconceivable that the average design studio would not include a drawing
board,’ he points out.
Perhaps so. But in today’s economic climate there may be no time to rest
on one’s laurels. Nick Lerner of Crocodile Design & Marketing, which
creates software for the design community, believes the industry is on
the verge of enormous change.
‘We visualise a future in which design companies are no longer
considered in the same way as they are today. They will have to find
ways to compress the period between conception and production, because
the race to market is becoming the dominant factor among clients,’ he
Technological advances will continue to accelerate, he believes, because
they are being driven by the entertainment industry, and of films such
as Toy Story, rather than by the more sluggish military, which used to
be the barometer for technological change.
One way or another, designers will have to leap over the communication
chasm that separates them from engineers and computer programmers.
Creative types must learn to cosy up to boffins and nerds.
This scenario may be a far cry from those lazy days that some fondly
recall in the ‘designer’ 80s. But if the anxiety induced by all this
change doesn’t make designers lose their heads, they may yet find it is
a much more rewarding environment to work in - creatively, if not