TECHNOLOGY: Get with the program

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

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.

Electronic handshakes

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

senior level.

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



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