Dance like nobody is watching

I know, I know. It’s been over a year since the last one. I make no apologies. We’ve been busy. Very busy.

There has been a glut of new eateries opening in Cheltenham town centre this past year or so. For those that don’t know, Cheltenham is the home of Square Banana and serves us well for lunchtimes and evenings. Notwithstanding the fact that there appear to be more restaurants, bars and other such establishments than the population of Cheltenham can support, it is also interesting to note the ‘normalisation’ curve of each and every one. By that I mean that with every new opening comes a flurry of PR activity, a few months of exemplary quality and customer service, followed by a normalisation of service – a flattening of the eagerness curve if you will. The point at which any extra effort that may have gone into impressing the new customer base is removed, leaving behind the normal level of effort from each establishment…. which obviously varies.

I was also prompted to write this following an insignificant trip to a local motorway services. I was on my way to a meeting and running ahead of schedule. I decided – rather than get to my destination and wait around for 45 minutes – that I would pull in to a new-ish, ‘breaking the mould’ motorway services which makes much of its farmhouse roots, local trade, earthy connections and creative differences to all those other ‘dull and soulless’ services peppered across our motorway network. It is quite special. It nestles in the landscape like something from the Teletubbies and you enter an aircraft hangar like atrium with all the lovely foodie cues you would expect of a scaled-up bakery and coffee house. All good. I’ve been a few times since it opened and it is as pleasant a place as a motorway services can probably be. It’s worth a visit.

However, this most recent visit left me feeling underwhelmed in a land of overpromise. I decided to grab some hot breakfast and a coffee whilst answering a few emails. The bacon and egg bap was decent enough but nothing more than you’d find at a local café or stall on bonfire night. The coffee was too hot, burnt and resembled an over milky cup of tea, rather than the flat white I’d ordered. The free Wi-Fi was a farce. By my reckoning, I spent 35 minutes of my 45 min stop, attempting to sign up to the free Wi-Fi, preventing it from automatically accessing my twitter and Facebook accounts, it telling me I’d already signed up and then attempting to second guess the hasty password I’d obviously thrown together last time. Not to mention that once I’d given up it decided to send me a reminder of my password to my email account, which I couldn’t access because I had no bloody Wi-Fi and I’m in the back of beyond with a struggling GPRS signal.

I don’t mean to overlabour the point (you should be used to that by now anyway!), but you get the picture. What should have been a relaxing, restorative and productive 45 minutes in my business travels, turned into a swear-fest with me feeling short-changed for being charged nearly £8 for a below par coffee replicant and a tepid bacon buttie. What no doubt started out in the minds of those who devised these services, as an oasis of calm has ‘normalised’ into the same as we have come to expect from any other services. Yes, the décor is still lovely, but the tables are still filthy and I’m leaving in a worse mood than when I arrived. Epic fail.

It is something everyone in the service industries suffers from. Ambition and the vigour from the starting blocks may be enormous but the realities of day to day delivery of the service gradually erodes that passion and ambitious enthusiasm little bit by little bit. The ‘normal’ level of delivery soon emerges, despite best efforts to the contrary.

I suppose what separates the good from the great is their ability to resist that erosion. To approach each project, problem, brief and conundrum with at least the same eagerness to do their best. To actively overdeliver. When baseline ‘normal’ is certainly not average.

But how do you resist the curse of normalisation?

We are fortunate in this industry to be afforded something that many in other industries do not…variety. Variety is one of the main reason I love what I do. It keeps the brain juices flowing and the mind alive. By constantly having to switch mental highways and absorb huge amounts of new information, it makes it easier to stay energised about what you do and to maintain positive focus. Variety certainly helps to stem the risk and rot of humdrum. It reignites interest. Hopping from medical to confectionery to frontend consumer tech to heavy duty industrial certainly keeps the ‘normal’ wolf from the door.

Having said that, it is all too easy to deliver fantastic work for a new client, establish a robust and trusting relationship and then turn down the gas, unknowingly. We’ve all done it – anyone that claims to the contrary is lying. We’ve entered into a commercial marriage and started trusting one another a little too much. We expect the client to like the work. We assume the next project will come our way. The client has justified their choice of agency to their superiors. We’ve delivered that killer idea. We’re doing great work. Every idea henceforth is just as good isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

No design business, regardless of size, can ever assume they should get the work. On the one hand, it is incredibly self-affirming when a client defaults to your services, but you should never assume this ought to be the case. The escalator is always moving…the stairs ever disappearing into the void below. You can run up the escalator and take a breath but eventually you must pick up the pace again and get ahead.

I’ve often described the lot of a small design business owner being akin to Thelma and Louise sitting in that car at the end of the movie, hurtling headlong towards the edge of the cliff (apologies to all those Millennials who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about…. go and Google it kids!). On a good month, the edge of the cliff is a fair distance away and you can confidently enjoy a bit of the scenery. On a bad month, you are precariously close to and focussed entirely on the edge. Whilst not always the case, your abilities to avoid that constant erosion mentioned earlier and maintain a pro-active, energised and positive approach to your client base helps to keep you away from the edge.

But it’s healthy to keep yourself on your proverbial toes. We hear about failing marriages where couples take each other for granted. They start to assume everything is OK with the other. They start to get on with their own agendas and slowly fall out of interest with each other, despite still declaring a love for each other. They’ve lost the spark. The engine is idling. Invariably, the advice is to ‘make an effort for each other’ for things to improve*.

The danger of normalisation is that it is often in stark contrast to the delight of the initial impression when things were artificially amplified and exciting. As an example, we are undergoing a kitchen renovation at home, so we decided – in an attempt to eat at least one healthy-ish, home cooked meal a week – that we would go out for Sunday lunch every weekend and try a different pub each time. We tried one a couple of miles from us a few months ago and were greatly impressed. It had not long opened, the roast dinner was spectacular, the furniture suitably quirky, the staff appropriately attentive and charming and the ambiance warm and accommodating. We left contented and determined to come back soon. We did so a few weeks ago and it couldn’t have been more different. We were crammed on a table that was unsuitable for us, the service was slow and the meal was average to say the least and was just about warm. We left vowing never to return.

I fully appreciate that you cannot maintain artificially high levels of service from all involved, 100% of the time, but it is important to ensure that the difference between the highs and the ‘normal’ are not so noticeable as to prevent a return or leave a sour taste. Beware the expectation gap.

Like those horrid self-motivational statements peppered throughout our various social media feeds often tell us…. dance like nobody is watching.

*Please don’t assume I know anything about marriage guidance or counselling!

Delightfully dull

Happy New Year!

I look back at my previous blog post and notice it’s been 6 months since I put fingertips to keyboard. The only excuse I have is the complete lack of any time. It’s been utterly manic. Good manic…..but nevertheless manic.

I could so easily spend another blog post lamenting the recruitment process I have attempted to find a new Square Banana designer. To make a Star Wars reference, it feels like I’ve entered the belly of the Sarlacc monster with a Groundhog as a pet …slowly left to endlessly endure interviews and negotiate terms before being notified of a change of heart or finding yet another way to let someone down. That is for another day. Today I’ve decided to write about something much less stressful but no less important.

The – so called – dull stuff.

With every New Year, we are bombarded with column inches and news feed items telling us how to simplify our diet, clean ourselves up, detox and go back to basics. Well, to draw a very poor parallel, I’d like to talk about a similarly tenuous aspect in product design.

The innards of the product.

Much of what we see as a result of fervent product design activity is the ‘face’. The outer shell of the product. The colour, finish, form, interface, branding, texture, messaging and style. The visual, tactile and emotional side.

The face, smile and handshake of the product.

Whilst I’m certainly not belittling these facets of product development and refinement – they are hugely important – I would like to focus more on the hidden treasures…the inner workings of that very same product that will never see the light of day to anyone other than either the robot or assembly worker who was responsible for putting it together. The tiny screw bosses, location ribs, snap fits, alignment widgets, sub-assembly gizmos and cable tidies that some poor sod has had to cram into a space that probably isn’t ideally suited to and has been changed and relocated countless times, based on feedback from people that will never care.

I have to admit to finding this stage incredibly fulfilling. I know that I could so easily place that rib or boss in whichever position I choose and as long as it does the job, no one will ever notice, but there is an obsessive little corner of my brain that wants that specific rib or boss to have an inherent logic, beauty and poise in its position and location. If, on the rare chance – that someone may indeed open the product up, they *might* just notice that the internal skeleton has been considered just as much as the outer skin, if not more so. It is what makes a little bit of me die a little death every time I open up a ‘quick and dirty’ copycat product from China. It has been bodged. Quickly copied with no awareness of the finer nuances of why that boss has been positioned in exactly that place, or why the ribbing has a physical balance to allow for improved mould flow or – even better – to create a subtle yet deliberate sink pattern on the upper surface of the moulding. Using an inherent and in-depth knowledge of the entire product functionality and manufacturing processes to create geometry that has purpose and meaning. Deliberately. Purposefully. Carefully.

To use the excuse that ‘no one will ever see it’ is admitting that you have not given that product the time and consideration it deserves. There have been countless products I have designed into which I’ve built all manner of little, deliberate features and logic, that will not only go unnoticed by the end user, but often go completely unnoticed by the immediate client. The beauty in a well balanced fillet in a complex internal surface, or the consideration given to the smaller internal angles so that the tool will last that little bit longer. The clever way that a light pipe fits snugly into a plastic feature without the need for fixings or the fact that you’ve managed to create a whole suite of tools without a single side core, snap fit or undercut…no matter how cheap it is to do. No bugger will ever know…..but I know.

People often say that great design is stuff that goes unnoticed. If you don’t get annoyed by it, or it simply does its job without interrupting your day, it has served its purpose. It has done what it was DESIGNED to do. So too the unseen details. Just because it isn’t seen, understood or talked about, it doesn’t make it any less worthy.

It’s a bit like having visitors to stay in your home and cramming all the rubbish in the various nooks, crannies, cupboards and under bed drawers to get it out of sight and to give the outward impression of harmony and togetherness. It’s a sham. The place was a tip 10 minutes before they arrived! The same can be said of product design. If you treat it like you treat your home with visitors, eventually those proverbial drawers will open and the wardrobes will creak revealing that prior panic, sloppiness and lack of integrity.

It’s similar to a magnificent story having spelling mistakes. You are no less a storyteller, but you’ve only managed to go 80% of the way. You’ve failed to commit and complete properly. It doesn’t matter if no one will ever see your handiwork and admire the careful consideration of the minutiae. What matters is that you gave every inch of that product your undivided attention and no part was more or less worthy or meaningful than any other.

On a more pragmatic note, the finer, unnoticed details will give your product the edge over the – more hastily considered – competition. Because of the consideration you gave the tiny aspects of the inner workings of your design: the tooling went exactly to schedule, the parts measured accurately after T1 sampling, part moulding is consistent, the component parts fit perfectly, assembly is seamless and the product ‘feels’ solid. The product has passed through typically problematic stage-gates without fuss or bother. Nobody notices that it was the way the product designer had considered all those tiny, little aspects which come together to ensure that the product gets from A to B as quickly and as true to the original intent as possible. Those hours staring at the screen, seemingly doing nothing, but considering the various eventualities and possibilities before adding that feature in exactly that position. They just assume it is the efficiency of the toolmaker, the complexity of the moulding machines, the skill of the assembly teams and the care of the user. I’m certainly not taking anything away from these ‘others’, but you can be sure that if any one of these stages ‘glitches’, it will be the designer who is called to blame and to find a solution to the glitch! It is our job to anticipate and pre-empt this problematic product journey and ‘design-in’ features, details and subtlety which prevent problems from happening – wherever possible. In all honesty, it makes our job easier.

Measure twice. Cut once.

That’s as much our job as ensuring that the product is fit for purpose, meets the needs of the user, aligns with brand promises, is produced to a budget….etc. etc. but the hidden details are so often neglected. Rushed. Hastily added. Worse still….handed over to a third party to ‘finish things off’. The best designs are those that have had continuity. A steady hand throughout. A hand on the tiller if you will.

It is actually often a very difficult phase to manage – at least in client expectation terms. In an age of prolific and ubiquitous rendering software, products can be visualised at such an early stage to appear fully considered, that clients (quite rightly) expect this apparently complete product to be ‘sent to China for tooling’ soon after. Designers have to be careful to push back against these time compression expectations and ensure that the right amount of time is given to the invisible detailing and development that will ensure the product works as promised – so alluringly – in the renderings. I can well imagine how frustrating it must be to some clients who see no apparent development of the product over weeks and months. What they don’t see are the hundreds and hundreds of tiny component reshuffles, dimension tweaks, assembly modifications, parting line alterations, wall thickness adjustments and other ‘seemingly pointless’ edits that ensure that everything works in harmony and does what it is meant to do. Edits that often come from a throwaway project review comment like “Can we make it 2mm shorter?” or “Can we add this extra battery in please…it’s only small?” and that add countless hours to ensure that product integrity and design intent is ensured.

I for one, love these seemingly ‘dull’ phases of work. It is incredibly satisfying, despite wanting to tear your hair out at times. By the time you have finished, you literally know every square millimetre of your product, inside and out. It has a harmony and balance about it – regardless of styling – because you have considered every aspect, however tiny and (apparently) worthless.

Designers often use the phrase ‘God is in the detail’ to refer to the smaller features and refined aspects of an external product form that delight the user and set the product apart from the market competition, but this phrase is equally relevant to the inner skeletal structure and unseen detailing that silently and efficiently ensures that your product goes that little bit further, works that little bit harder and lasts that little bit longer.

Just because no-one will see it, there is no reason to give it any less consideration.

Dear University…

It’s that time of year again…degree show season. And with each year, I tend to find myself reflecting on the quality of the graduating year and lamenting certain aspects of the University product design curriculum. So rather than simply bitch about it, I thought I’d make some vaguely ‘constructive’ comments – for anyone willing to read this and not dismiss it as the rantings of a delusional middle aged designer.

I will caveat my comments on the basis that they are aimed at graduates and Universities looking to produce bona fide ‘Product/Industrial Designers’. Less so standalone Design Management or Design Research….although there are still benefits to those disciplines too.

1. The ‘Major project’

This is a tricky one, as I remember with alacrity, the anticipation of starting my major project as I approached my final year at University. This was the ‘biggie’, the project which would make all those design agency scouts shower me with business cards and job offers at my final degree show. The project that would be the pinnacle of my portfolio. The totality of thinking to showcase my skills as a shiny new product designer. Maybe not.

The major project has been the stalwart of the design degree show, and without it one might question the very need for a degree show at all, but I have concerns about the relevance of it nowadays. In talking to students over the last 4 years or so of graduating students at their respective shows, they talk of the lack of ‘tutor time’, the difficulties in getting prototypes made on a meagre student budget, the sweeping assumptions that were made in an attempt to progress the project towards a meaningful ‘showcase’ item. The list goes on. I am fully aware that these are aspects that ‘maketh the man’ i.e. these are skills in management, project direction and resourcefulness that are valuable assets in a recent graduate, but I genuinely think the time they have, could be better spent on more focussed, slightly smaller, less onerous projects that more clearly demonstrate the skills we – as employers – are looking for in a graduate. It is entirely unlikely that any single student will be responsible for developing a complete project by themselves in the first 3-5 years after graduating, so why ask them to do so at University. The courses need to reflect the needs of the employer and the employability of the student. I would argue that the major project is becoming less relevant in the guise it currently holds.

I am not suggesting that we ditch the major for a series of assignments per se. More that the Universities enable the students to demonstrate their wider skillset to the design community without the student feeling obligated to put all their eggs in one basket and sit it atop a white wooden plinth at a show in June, to be judged by all. I have seen many a design career misfire and falter because of a few miscalculated selection choices of major project sometime between the third and final years of study, when – in all honesty – the students know little about what they need to do at that stage.

2. Salary Seduction

As a small design agency attempting to recruit a shiny new designer, it is with a heavy sense of disappointment that I cruise the degree shows. Where there is genuine talent, I can almost see the vultures of larger corporations circling. We simply cannot compete. We have lost out numerous times to recent graduates enticed by the variety and opportunity we offer them, but with massive debts, each of these talented students is obviously attracted to the higher salary ‘packages’ offered by the larger businesses. Certain businesses (some that make domestic appliances for instance) offer ridiculously high graduate salaries and the promise of exotic foreign travel, healthcare, extensive training and career growth to naive young things, and like moths to a flame, they duly follow. They are willingly sucked into the career ladder machine, and I watch with interest as they invariably exit a few years later, disgruntled, yearning creative juices, seeking the job they should have taken after graduating from the ‘other’ company, but now with stupidly unrealistic salary expectations. I appreciate I am probably over simplifying things and painting a rather hostile picture of larger corporate business, but it is an issue that small business owners have to deal with.

It is a similar picture with placements. The Universities crave the big name ‘lists’ they can publish in their degree show compendiums. The superstar alliances they have forged with big business brands and top agencies. I’ve given up listening to the rhetoric. The gushing handshakes and name dropping. If you listened and believed it all, you’d think the Universities were placing students in the very management team core of many of these businesses. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the inside of some of these businesses. It is often a very different picture to that painted.

3. The ‘Marketing Team’

Each year, an eager set of volunteers from each University degree course, decides to form the ‘degree show team’. These are the guys responsible for the show ‘brand’, the ever-heavier compendium containing all the graduating year’s major projects, the degree show ‘look’ and the ensuing trip to New Designers. In days gone by, before the advent of email and social media, these guys and gals did this because they wanted ‘first dibs’ on any business who might come sniffing around for graduates to employ. It gave you access to the ‘little black book’ and the first opportunity to impress (or not as the case may be).

In recent years, this team is now a fully fledged marketing machine. Or at least it believes itself to be. They have titles like ‘Marketing Manager’ and ‘Operations Director’ and they seem to spend more time on these aspects than they do on their own project work. I have spoken to countless students who have quite simply let their own degree project slide into oblivion for the sake of getting the degree show book printed. Where is the logic in that??

My personal view, is that it is not at all the fault of the students involved. They are led to believe that involvement in the degree show ‘team’ will somehow set them apart from the rest of the year. It is the entire fault of the Universities who feed this horseshit to the students in an attempt to shift the workload onto an already overloaded, debt laden set of individuals with careers to forge. In an age where institutions are charging phenomenal amounts for these courses, I feel it is their (the Universities) responsibility to ensure that their students are given the best vehicle for their work that they possibly can – to stand apart from the competition. They need to develop a slick and efficient system to allow the students to simply concentrate on their work, and be confident that the University supports them when they come to showcase this work to the wider business community. Its not difficult. It’s the same every single goddamned year. Venue, boards, pedestals, book, website, invites. Sorted. I personally find it shameful that the students are still expected to do this themselves. Any business who hires a graduate on the basis simply of their contribution as the ‘Marketing Manager’ of a Product Design degree show, is talking shit. They should be hiring them for their abilities as a fully rounded designer as demonstrated by the work they have produced, or the person they have become as a result of their time as an undergraduate. End of story.

4. The ‘Book’

It still amazes me that we need a book the size of the Guinness Book of Records to simply catalogue the final year output at a degree show. Even more amazing, is that the bigger the book gets, the more complex it is to understand and navigate. I found myself discussing this with a graduate last year who argued vehemently that their book’s complexity was to allow the University to promote the course to schools and other such institutions throughout the year. Seriously?

There was me thinking that it was in the interests of the University to ensure that the graduating year were given the best bloody chances of finding a decent job and continuing the legacy of the course and the University by being great in their careers. Go figure. Apparently the book isn’t for employers or graduates, but for University promotion purposes! I defer to my earlier point about unfair responsibilities on students (see point 3).

I know there is an element of the ‘yearbook’ about the degree show book. I get that. But the aim of the book should be to engage potential employers and match them with potential employees. Make them easy to find. Help those businesses build strong links with the University. Keep them coming back for more graduates each and every year. Don’t weigh them down with impossibly convoluted tomes. How about something a little more modern…something digital maybe? That way we could simply email, call and connect to the best students and see their work in a medium most of them are designing for in the first place. Much like the major project, it feels like University courses are simply repeating a ‘Groundhog Year’ with an obligatory book. Is it time for something a bit different and more relevant? It seems ironic that courses and degrees that aim to produce radical new thinkers adhere to age old traditions in peddling their work.

5. Relevance

Looking at typical portfolios, there is a clear structure of task based modules followed by a major project. Some Universities include National competition entries or wildcard briefs to provide the students with some more colourful collateral, but there seems to be a distinct move away from demonstrable projects that aim to develop the core skills required of a product designer.

For instance, very few graduating students have a working knowledge of manufacturing processes. I’m not suggesting they need to know a lot, but a bit might be useful. In terms of injection moulding (which most grass roots product designers will have to come to terms with pretty darned quickly in the workplace), there are some simple things that can be taught to ensure that they have an elementary knowledge which in turn means they can design realistic product concepts. This seems to be lacking. I’ve seen plenty of KeyShot renders of surface modelled computer mice or power drills, but not one showing how that computer mouse or drill was put together. Some would argue that this is the stuff that can be learned after graduating. To a certain extent this is true, but a solid grounding in simple processes will produce exponentially better design graduates that can hit the ground running. I would love to see graduates with examples of project work that *really* withstand scrutiny and criticism, not only subjectively, but also functionally and commercially. A truly brilliant product is not only one that satisfies the end user need, but that can be feasibly produced and to a certain price. Teaching the students these simple but critical elements though ‘total’ project modules would be hugely beneficial, and I rather suspect the design undergraduates themselves would love it too. This stuff isn’t THAT tricky.

6. Industrial preparation

I’m well aware of the ‘industry links’ that each and every ‘top’ design university claims to develop. The collaborative projects and partnerships that yield a smattering of major projects or conceptual futures. I’m not suggesting these are a bad thing. On the contrary.

However, these are all ‘managed’ links between a connection within a business and a representative at the University. They are staged and controlled with a view to ensuring the University fosters the industry link and the students get a brand to place alongside their work. It happened when I studied at Uni and it will continue to happen.

I’m more concerned with the lack of industry outreach there is from the students, particularly in the run up to their degree shows. Apart from a very few savvy individuals, there is still the sense that they all have to work like stink (in solitude) towards their final degree show hand-in, and then sit back and expect industry to attend. They all have lovely professionally printed business cards, but very few have a LinkedIn profile or an up to date website behind the URL they have printed on their cards. Following 2 degree shows this year, I have requested digital portfolios and CV’s from 8 individuals, and only 1 has replied with anything attached. The rest (of those who have replied), have apologised for the lack of portfolio as they are currently pulling it together now that the degree show is over. Again, I don’t blame the students. They have a huge amount on their plate (primarily preparing the show that should have been done by the University…in my opinion…see earlier point!). Why can’t the University structure the course to better allow the students to prepare themselves for industry? Delay the degree show by a week maybe? They need to engage with anyone they want to work with, BEFORE the show opens. With so many social media channels available it is stupidly easy to start a conversation with anyone you wish to talk to or impress. Students should be taught (and supported) to take the initiative and promote themselves, their work and their opinions throughout the months leading up to the end of the year.

I know it’s a tricky thing to manage and teach, and it feels all too easy when you are sitting on the other side of the fence. It’s scary going out in to the wider industry community and leaving the comfort of the course, but it is incredibly worthwhile and students need to know that most experienced practicing designers are truly willing to help and guide if there is positive intention and genuine eagerness from the student. We were all in that position at some stage.

7. Teachers vs. Lecturers.

This is delicate and I’ve been debating whether to mention it, but I have to if I am to address the issues I think are relevant. Schools have teachers. These teachers – DT teachers specifically – are usually passionate and have worked hard to become exactly that. They trained to be teachers. Whilst they vary in confidence and skills, they tend to have the students’ best interests at heart and seem to be adapting to the changing technological landscape rather well. Better than some in the industry itself, it would appear!

University lecturers on the other hand strike me as a bit of a rag bag of disparate types. I can pretty much guarantee that most of them never set out to be so. Many have landed there as a result of a number of circumstantial factors. Some are seasoned professionals in the twilight of their careers, wishing to finally hand down their hard earned lessons in patronising diatribes. Some are eternal researchers, drifting from original BSc to MSc to PhD to Fellow (you get the picture) – they simply teach because they are there and it helps to supplement their meagre research salary. Some are failed industry practitioners who attempted to enter the big wide world of design but were quickly jettisoned and decided it was safer to return to academia. Some have managed a modicum of industry experience and trade on it like they were the centre of the design universe….

I apologise for my apparent cynicism. Many lecturers are passionate, well-intentioned, intelligent, savvy people who teach the students incredibly well, but there is a worrying large proportion of the University education system that is filled with the detritus that I have described above. I wouldn’t be so concerned if they were aware of their failings, worked with the wider design industry and pushed the students to forge links with people who can better advise them, but I have spoken to far too many students who seem to have lived under an effective dictatorship of opinion by some of these incompetents. The sad thing is that many of the students don’t know this and believe what the are taught…as they should  expect to.

It would be refreshing to see some of the Universities paying top dollar (not just goodwill and reflected PR) to recruit decent industry heavyweights to – at the very least – critique the work, advise on the course structure and give the students a realistic expectation of what might be expected in the wider design community. I saw an advert recently for a ‘Product Design lecturer’ role that put much more emphasis on academic research qualifications than it did on ANY industry experience. Where’s the logic in that? As you can tell…I feel very strongly about this.

There is more to write, but I’ve just looked at the word count and had a mild palpitation. Good luck if you’ve made it this far! I know I sound like an opinionated sod, but I care passionately about my profession and want it to continue to be fed with talented young product designers that can keep the rest of us constantly challenged and on our toes. However, I get the sense that much design education is churn, and I’m left with a sickening sense that things are slowly getting worse.

I think it’s time to change. Don’t you?

Comments – as always – are welcomed.

Junior banana

Square Banana is on the lookout for a new junior designer to join the ranks. Whilst I’ve visited a few degree shows in the past weeks and chatted to a few individuals, I thought it was worth putting together a loose job description and some key attributes. This should be read in conjunction with a post I wrote back in 2013 – here – as much of this still holds true.


If you’ve read any of the SB blog posts, you will realise that our work is incredibly varied. We not only get to work on a huge variety of different products within different markets, but we work at both ends of (and throughout) the product design process spectrum. Some weeks we will be developing a creative workshop structure for an FMCG brand, and others we will be specifying a suite of injection mould tools for a healthcare product. It is almost impossible to categorise what we do in simple terms, which makes it particularly difficult to find talented young designers with the tenacity, breadth and drive to tackle every project we work on. It is not enough to be ‘good at the concept stage’ or ‘fond of consumer research’. The brilliant thing about this job is the sheer unpredictability and skills bandwidth required to do it.

Key ‘design’ skills required;

  1. Sketching ability – you will need to convey your design thinking – effectively – in sketch form. You don’t have to be a superstar styling guru…just a confident thinker with an ability to put those thoughts down on paper in enough detail to enable a worthwhile discussion.
  2. A working manufacturing knowledge – You will learn plenty on the job, but it would be useful if you are aware of the basic limitations, opportunities and design constraints that accompany the more common production processes. We do a lot with injection moulding, so this would be a preference.
  3. 3D CAD – We use SolidWorks, but we are looking at adopting Fusion 360 as another 3D development platform. A competent knowledge of SW (basic surfacing knowledge) would be preferable but more importantly, an eagerness to learn and become fluent in Fusion would be helpful.
  4. Rendering & Media – We use KeyShot so a decent knowledge of this would be useful (although not essential as it is relatively easy to pick up). We are doing more and more animation and virtual product demonstration work, so any abilities, eagerness or experience in animation, video editing and post processing/editing would be encouraged. Website coding knowledge would be an added bonus, but certainly not a deal breaker!
  5. Desktop publishing & graphic layout – Every project ultimately gets presented to a client in 2D, be it printed matter or digitally. The ability to quickly and efficiently pull together a confident, concise and powerful presentation, whatever the subject matter, is critical to every single project. We use Adobe InDesign and the rest of the Adobe CC suite. You need to have a good ‘eye’ for layouts and graphic balance, and an ability to write clear and concise descriptions of your design thinking.
  6. Photoshop & Illustrator – You should know your way around these two packages. They are the tools (along with sketching) of much of our early concept work, and a good knowledge of these and the techniques relevant to product design concept work will be very useful indeed. Quick visual renderings, form elevations, contextual illustrations…the list goes on.
  7. Attention to detail – This is a fairly generic point, but nevertheless incredibly important. You will be dealing with multiple clients and multiple projects – often at an incredibly fast pace – so you need to be diligent, careful and attentive to detail. It might sound pedantic, but things like spelling, promptness, prior research/preparation and organisation will be essential to your success.

The above skills are the building blocks that you will need to attack each and every project. Slick abilities in these will not mean you are necessarily the best choice for the business. In fact, it will be your demeanour, tenacity, pro-active nature and personality that will more likely get you a job. However, they are useful filters and skills that will certainly make the transition from University to studio workplace that much easier.

A word of warning. Most graduates who have come to work for Square Banana have found the ‘exposure’ tricky to handle and have not lasted long. By that I mean the fact that as a small business there is nowhere to hide. There are no large design teams to dissolve into. Your work will be thrust firmly in the ‘client’ headlights (if it is good enough) and if you are capable, you will be laden with as much project ownership and responsibility as you can shoulder. This might be a ‘junior designer’ role in title, but I need you to mature into a fully fledged design consultant. Client facing, decision making, confidence inducing. It’s very simple…the better you are and the more you impact on the business, the more you will be rewarded – financially, professionally and creatively.

It is also worth stating that we will not be able to compete (at least initially) with the salaries offered by larger graduate employers with big teams, huge resources and bona fide ‘graduate programmes’. We are a very small design business that punches above our weight. If you want to be a part of something vibrant, unpredictable, challenging and – at times – downright scary, then let me know. Please do not enter into a salary bidding war. I need designers who ‘want’ this type of job for what it can help them become. If not, I wish you well in your endeavours. It is also worth adding that whilst I have suggested that we are looking for a graduate, I would not turn down the opportunity to talk to more experienced designers who may be able to suggest a mutually beneficial method of working with a view to a more stable longer term relationship. Ultimately, we want to find people who want to be part of Square Banana, who can build on our success to date and help us become a increasingly fluid, more powerful design unit.

I’ll leave you to decide how best to get in touch!

Designing for humans

Apologies for the gap between posts…it’s been a busy few months!

This particular post subject matter is a direct result of a number of projects we’ve worked on over the past year or so, and the way in which we find ourselves explaining what we do to new and potential clients. Despite the myriad processes, techniques, tools, technologies and buzzwords circling around the business of new product development these days (and I’m not going to even mention how many conversations I’ve had with clients about ‘getting a 3D printer’…), we inevitably end up boiling our offer down to a simple premise….designing for humans.

Before I wade in too far, too soon, let me provide a little background…

We are privileged enough to work with a range of clients, from very large to very small, on a huge variety of projects. From chocolate bars, fresh coffee and horticultural packaging to military equipment, cancer diagnosis and portable healthcare monitoring…there is very little ‘market’ commonality in what we do. A jack of all…as I’ve eluded to in many a prior post. However, in delivering this plethora of project work, we inevitably find ourselves embroiled in early conversations with clients about ‘user needs’. Some clients give it barely a second thought, as though the end user is merely a necessary nuisance. Others have more words for different users than the eskimos have for snow. Users, consumers, shoppers, customers, clients, purchasers, gatekeepers, permission-granters, enablers…you name it the list keeps on truckin’. Particularly in larger corporations, there is a vocabulary associated with ‘Consumer Insight’ that makes you feel like we are observing an alien race from a safe distance. “64% of gatekeepers felt that they *might* feel the need to purchase X if they were short on time, on the go and under pressure to cook dinner”. Whilst I completely understand the need to do this – as a microscopically small shift in purchasing dynamic can have huge impacts on production and profitability within such large corporations – there is a forensic level of clinical distance that leaves me feeling that these people, these ‘end users’, are not necessarily being treated as the fallible, unpredictable human beings we all are. We are not treated as human…we are simply a purchasing demographic categorised by our lack of time and disposable income!

Notwithstanding that, you also have the rather complex nature of multi-tiered customer levels. So for instance, for a large FMCG brand, a ‘customer‘ is the supermarket looking to stock their brand, a ‘buyer‘ is the rottweiler within the supermarket business looking to extract as much money as possible from the brand for ‘promotional support’, the ‘shopper‘ is the person who picks the brand off the shelf and puts it in the trolley/basket, the ‘consumer‘ is the person who take it out of the fridge at home and ‘consumes’ it (which always makes me think of some sort of B movie sci-fi monster with galactic ooze!) and the ‘gatekeeper‘ is the person who gives permission within the family to the ‘consumer’ to consume. Still following?

Now I understand all of this, and it makes complete sense, but there is a part of my brain which refuses to believe that people fall into ‘categories’. As was clearly demonstrated in the recent general election, any attempt to second guess the general public is futile. I may well be a middle class, white male living in a middle class countryside village, with 2 children, a cat, a mortgage and enough disposable income to buy a Snickers bar every once in a while, but I’m also human. And humans have foibles, idiosyncrasies, subtleties, quirks, habits, preferences, desires, secrets, failings, admirations and egos. Each and every one of which is impossible to define or predict. I detest camping with a passion and know all the words to the Frozen soundtrack. I’m a self-confessed Star Wars nerd and am quietly proud of showing off to my kids that I can fire a stream of ‘squirty cream’ into my open mouth from a decent distance! Stick that in your ‘consumer insight’ pipe and smoke it!

We are all human. We are all different…even if somewhere in some corporate headquarters we have been deemed to occupy the same category in a spreadsheet.

Which is why, whenever we work with a client on a project we proudly state that we are the ‘consumer guardians’…the guys that represent the people at the end of the chain, and we steadfastly hold firm to this as we go through the project – often resulting in arguments over the need to retain certain features and more ‘human’ elements that can often be sacrificed in cold, stale, besuited meeting rooms. Yes, we also ensure that the project is designed to a specific budget, within a specific timescale and to specific production parameters, but more than anything, it is imperative that the guy (ironically) without a voice…the person who will ultimately choose to purchase this item or be responsible for using it, is considered and – as much as possible – understood.

That might sound like a ridiculous thing to say. You would assume that every product has at its very core, the desire to fulfil the needs of the ‘end user’, but it is surprising how many projects that may very well start out with such intentions and vigorous research, ultimately lose sight of this simple vision. It becomes a war of attrition…a fight between cost, timescales, logistics, manufacturing, brand guidelines, personal agendas and politics. I’ve seen so many projects with earnest intent fall headlong into a simple effort to implement, with a gradual disregard to the reason for its core existence. It becomes a ‘brand hero’ or a ‘flagship innovation’, rather than something that actually suits the actual people who might actually buy it.

We often get asked by potential clients, what research ‘tools’ and ‘techniques’ we use to validate our findings. In all honesty, whilst there are many tried and tested ways to understand ‘consumers’ and research behaviour (I won’t go on a tirade about ‘over researching’ or consumer groups that skew results to justify a research fee!), we find that good solid thinking based on sound human understanding sees us through. A robust story that works. Something that just makes sense. A story that holds true regardless of complexity or technology. If you can try and ‘metaphorically’ break it by being human and then try to ensure that you cater for those circumstances as you develop the product, then you have a fighting chance of creating something that might work for people. Think like a human – not like a marketeer or accountant – and above all remember that it will be a human that ultimately interacts with the fruits of your hard labour. Empathy is the one key skill to being a good product designer, and whilst it doesn’t help you sketch, 3D model, engineer or implement, it will ultimately ensure that as you meander through those tasks, the underlying story remains true and solid.

I feel very strongly about the need to retain the ‘for human’ element in everything we do (so much so that I’m considering including it in a new Square Banana brand strapline). There are very, very few projects we have worked on (and I can think of) that don’t result in some significant form of human engagement, interaction or enticement. It is often very easy to side with pragmatism or speed to get a product completed, but it may end up slowly compromising the end result. Making it less usable or engaging. We try – as much as possible – to ensure that we fight that corner. Representing them without their knowledge. Trying to ensure that the best possible outcome is one that favours the people at the very end. The humans.

Bigger bananas

I’ve previously written a blog post about the desire to establish a proper studio in Cheltenham – back in 2012/13 – and some of the logic behind the design of the space. This studio space has served us well, but a few niggles started to creep in, namely a) meeting space limitations b) clients getting lost in the rabbit warren of corridors and c) bigger project requirements.

The studio is located within a much larger red brick, old factory building, which had been sliced up by previous property developers with no respect to the building itself. Lots of studwall partitions, carpet tiles, plastic conduit, “that’ll do” artwork and cheap wall radiators. We removed as much of this as we could in the space we were allocated, but we were always situated within a maze of more stud wall partitions, fire doors and access corridors with no real apparent logic in their creation. We have referred to it as ‘charm’ when talking about our studio to clients, but the reality is that it was a bit of a pain, and we found ourselves making excuses for it when they came to visit. The building itself is amazing, and has – anecdotally – been home to Morgan Sports Cars (bodyshop), Piano builders (Liberace’s first piano was built here apparently), Furniture warehousemen (Barnby Bendall used this as their main repository in times gone by) and it was a Workhouse many, many years ago. Ever since we moved in, it felt like the building was crying out to be taken back to it’s origins…at least in terms of the shell of the building.

Anyway, after 18 months I decided to have look around for anything else that might serve us better. We needed more space to spread out and manage larger projects, we needed a dedicated meeting room which could cope with more than 4 people at a time, and we wanted our own front door…or at least an entrance that made sense!

However, although Cheltenham is a lovely town, it suffers from an excess of regency properties, which are lovely to live in, and lovely to look at, but are terrible if you want to develop an open-plan design studio. Pretty much everything I looked at was either like this or was an industrial, fabricated, out of town ‘unit’ lacking any charm whatsoever and miles away from any town centre amenities. Back to the drawing board…

At about this time, a couple of tenants that occupied smaller office units like ours, decided to move out which left the floor below ours effectively empty…awaiting new tenants. We managed to get hold of the floorplan drawings for the building and noticed that behind these recently vacated offices, there was a large windowless room being used by a solicitors firm to store and archive legal files. A quick scribble with a pencil and ruler on the aforementioned plans revealed the opportunity for a rather impressive open plan space which not only provided a magnificent front door and entrance, but it pushed the extremities of the space back to the outer walls of the original building. To top it all off, the space subdivided naturally into a large space and a smaller (but still decent sized) ‘meeting room’ space with natural light. Bingo!

A glass of wine or two later and a slightly better version of the floorpan amendment crafted, I emailed the landlord of the building and asked if he would entertain the idea of us bulldozing these sub-rooms into one large studio space….and if he wouldn’t mind could we also rip off the plaster from all of the external walls….please. To be honest I fully expected a polite but curt reply telling me to “mind my own business”, but surprisingly, he replied back saying that he thought it had potential and we should meet to discuss it.

Fast forward a few months and several meetings to discuss tenancy terms and contract details, and the builders arrive to ‘start work’. It turns out that the landlord himself had been keen to bring the building back to life, and our suggestion sat well with his own thoughts and was the reason he needed to justify doing something. Indeed, following the renovation of this space, he has since started renovating the other floors in the building and it is starting to look mighty impressive. Stripping the building back to it’s bare bones and letting it do the talking. No need to disguise it with so-called ‘office décor’ or executive finishes. Bare, solid brickwork, exposed steel beams, robust, sanded wooden floorboards and original architectural detailing with history and character. I can’t tell you how heartwarming it is to see something be reinvigorated so simply and straightforwardly.  And to top it all off, we’ve been privelidged enough to be invited by the landlord to help specify and provide design input to the new office and communal spaces.

The work is still very much ongoing in this vast building, but the wheels are in motion and I for one, am relishing being a part of it. I can’t tell you how much I would have kicked myself if I’d left to find something different, only to have this happen for someone else. We are well and truly staying put and we are enjoying helping it become more of a community of like-minded businesses, rather than a building housing a load of businesses operating in isolation (we’ve always cited ‘The Paintworks’ in Bristol as our inspiration). I applaud the landlord for having the tenacity and passion to do this, when he could so easily have left it as it was. It is an incredible building and is becoming ever more so as the detritus of recent ‘developments’ are finally stripped away.

Anyway, enough gushing….I thought it would be nice for you all to see some of the photos taken throughout the renovation process. I will no doubt publish a blog post when the studio is fully decorated and kitted out, but for the time being, I’ll leave you with the building itself.

i. The various spaces being emptied
ii. Carpet up and walls starting to be removed
SB_studio_renovations_02iii. First sense of overall space and wall ‘exploration’
SB_studio_renovations_03iv. Complete shell and rubbish to get rid of
SB_studio_renovations_04v. Brickwork fully exposed in main space and meeting room
SB_studio_renovations_05vi. Brickwork being given a new lease of life and power trunking going in
SB_studio_renovations_06vii. Trunking complete, end wall painted and floors being sanded
SB_studio_renovations_07viii. The completed empty space (photos courtesy of MS Creative)
SB_studio_renovations_08ix. An external view showing our old office (above) and new (below…lit) on completion

The notion of ‘cool’.

“Can you make it cool?”

The phrase that tends to accompany an early stage briefing meeting with an eager new client.

Despite all of the grey, ticksheet, corporate questions that get fired at us in an introductory meeting or project briefing, it is always interesting to note that some new clients will invariably request that whatever we are being asked to design, that we ensure that above all else “can it be ‘cool?’. I’m not suggesting that this is the primary thrust and that all of our clients come in sounding like ‘Crush’ the laid back turtle from Finding Nemo, but there will be a part of any client discussion that prompts the “Can you make it cool?” question….or derivatives of it.

“A bit like an iPhone”
“It needs to feel like I’m opening an Apple product”
“It just needs to ooze cool!”

However it is phrased, and once the predictable aspects of cost targets, timescales, assembly requirements, consumer features and brand values have been drilled home, there remains an unpredictable, emotive desire to have the product be ‘cool’.

But what is ‘cool’? How on earth do you bottle it or liberally coat a new product with it?

I remember attempting to dissect something similar, a long time ago when I was at University. Alongside our major project, we were expected to write a mini-dissertation on a subject relating to contextual or societal design issues. I chose to deal with how you might define a ‘cult object’ and immediately regretted it. In thinking about this blog post, I dug it out (slowly…as it was in some indecipherable old QuarkXPress file format!) and had a read through. It still read relatively well (considering I was a spotty 20 year old with very little clue about anything) and I tried to find a sentence amongst the guff that might serve as a useful soundbite. The nearest thing I found was this…

“Cult items become so as a result of what they are. They are somehow more than the sum of their parts. How can someone possibly attempt to design a product to be more than it is, before it exists? It is a unique blend of factor X and a touch of magic.”

I also go on to talk about first order functional needs, diffusion culture and second order connotative needs, but I think I was probably disappearing up my own arse at that point! Still….I got a good mark for it, so I must have done something right! If anyone is dying to read the original, then let me know, but I won’t hold my breath.

Cool products may not always elevated to the upper echelons of ‘cult’ status, but they must at least evoke that ‘more than the sum of their parts’ character trait. If you think about modern products that are largely seen as ‘cool’, they all have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. But interestingly, all of the products that I can think of that would be described as cool, have never set out to be so…not deliberately. They may certainly benefit from being cool, but I’m darned sure that all the motivations and sheer effort that went into developing those products were not influenced by it needing to be ‘cool’. Take the iPhone for instance. Many would argue that it is a cool product, but the resultant design is testament to trying to find the best, holistic combination of solutions to a series of complex problems. Compactness, simplicity, the harmony of hardware and software, computing power, ergonomics…..etc. etc. Steve Jobs didn’t pop along to Jonny Ive’s office and say “Jonny, I need you to design the coolest goddamn’ product known to man”.

Coolness is invariably the byproduct of sheer commitment and a singular vision to create something that solves a problem or meets a brief. Products cannot contrive ‘cool’. They become cool because people who buy, use and advocate those products describe them as such. Any brand that sets out to describe and market their product as ‘cool’ immediately isn’t.

You have to earn it.

People have to promote your product to that category by their own volition and choice. They cannot be told. If we feel that a combination of indefinable elements – those sub-conscious emotional buttons in our brains are pressed – then we deem to call it cool. Those ‘buttons’ cannot be pre-determined and are subject to the fickle winds of trend, society, news, peers and association. Things that cannot be controlled.

Whilst we would never claim to be able to deliberately design something that would guarantee ‘cool’, the notion of how you define cool has been in our local press this past year with an initiative called ‘Rock the Cotswolds’. As a region often stereotyped as rural, royal and ‘rah’, a number of key local individuals and a regional magazine decided to try and promote all of the businesses, venues and individuals that contradicted these stereotypes and cast a new ‘cool’ spotlight on the region. Here’s an extract from their opening manifesto… “You might not appreciate is how cool the Cotswolds is. There are companies here creating, designing and selling in some of the hottest global industries. There are hotels and restaurants that would make London blush. There are fashion labels that rock the world. And global superstars who call the Cotswolds home. Rock the Cotswolds is shaking things up a bit. Challenging conventions. Opening eyes to make everyone realise that the Cotswolds is the best place in the UK to live & work with some of the most creative, clever & brilliant people around.” I was lucky enough to be invited to the extravagant launch party and an event focussing on the Creative industries specifically. I applaud the intentions and think that it is doing a good thing for an area that often get misrepresented.

However, much like new clients coming to us and asking us to “design us a cool product” with no appreciation of the effort and need to be clear about a product vision, there is emerging a flock of circling PR vultures keen to ride the ‘cool’ bandwagon. A desire to ‘grab a bit of that cool’ dust and use it to their own end. A peripheral groundswell who like the idea of being cool but don’t have the energy or intention to do it properly…they just want a piece of it! The very desires that drive people to simply want to be ‘famous’ or a ‘celebrity’ regardless of why. This is my worry for ‘Rock The Cotswolds’. People who want to be seen as cool will badger and hound to be associated with it for immediate publicity gain, rather than those businesses who are simply doing what they do brilliantly, being discovered and promoted. Being ‘cool’ is what everyone wants…from the early days of the school playground…but we need to ensure that the badge has integrity and is not ultimately diluted by those clearly not worthy of the honour.

Exactly like products that become cool by being perfectly suited to the task they are designed to fulfil, cool businesses and people are similarly respected for their singular passion for their craft or service. A business is deemed cool because their customers like what they do and describe it as such. For sure, you can attempt to contrive ‘cool’ by having an interesting office or an appropriately designed logo, but it is fairly short-lived unless that honesty and passion is manifested in all aspects of your business. The true ‘badge of cool’ comes from the people that award it to you because of what you do. Just as they award the badge to products that do what they do.

It’s a bit like having a healthy body. Sure you can do any one of a number of fad diets or blitz the gym for a few months, but an overall healthy body comes from regularly exercising, eating well, taking care of yourself and avoiding all the nasty shit we know is bad for us. There are no quick fixes. You don’t decide to be cool. You are either cool or you are not, and that is entirely down to your conviction, determination, passion, true personality and belief which is then appreciated by others. Just like the definition of ’cult’ objects earlier, someone is cool is as a result of who they are. It is exactly the same for products. Products are cool because of what they are, and what they are is down to the amount of effort, vision and true grit that went into creating them.

So, as we often relay to our clients, don’t try and be cool. Just try your hardest to solve the problem in the best possible way, with as much integrity and passion as you can, and hopefully that effort will be rewarded by those who use it.

Cool huh?

The F-spot

Judging by the feedback I had on twitter to my writing a post about this subject, I expect to be partially ridiculed in the comments section. However, I will trudge forward and hope that some of this makes some sense and resonates with a few at least. I’d like it to, because I’d like some advice!

Sorry to disappoint anyone that was seduced by the blog post title, but this one’s all about turning FORTY. It’s a bit personal in many ways as I am the person turning forty, but I’d like to think it’s a more general comment on making key decisions and not being afraid of making them. I’ve also noticed (without any intention) that this coincides with the annual flutter of A-level and GCSE grade envelopes hitting hallway mats all over the country and deciding the futures of many a tempestuous young thing. So, if there are any A-level aged folk reading this, be reassured that you will face many more crossroad-like decisions as you meander through life!

I’ve never been someone to worry about age. In fact, I was always rather relieved to turn thirty. It meant I no longer had to live up to the crazy social expectations of being in my twenties. Thirty felt safe. I was now allowed to be who I wanted to be. I’d done enough ‘career’ years to know what I was fairly good at, I’d proved myself (to a certain extent) and I was married. I’d unknowingly fulfilled a throwaway bit of advice my Dad gave me when I’d just graduated…”3 jobs before you’re 30″ (something I hadn’t planned on, but it proved to be very useful). I was a father for the first time at thirty and life was exciting and shapeshifting. I made a promise to myself that I would take risks in my thirties, and that promise led me to set up my design business – Square Banana. So far so good.

The past decade has both sped past and yet – at times – crept along like a lethargic slug. It’s been a whirlwind of children growing up, building up a business, moving houses several times and all the other paraphernalia that comes with self-employment and parenthood. Nothing new there. I know I’m not alone!

However, despite my not being worried about getting old (as a human bean…to quote the BFG), as my fortieth birthday approaches I have started to consider my ‘career’ age a great deal more. Grey hair doesn’t bother me, but I have a nagging sense that I should be making more of what I see as the ‘F-spot’ in my career trajectory.

I’ll explain…

Now I appreciate that it needn’t be limited to the fortieth birthday, and can in fact stretch out into the mid-forties, but at about this time in my life, I see a virtual graph being plotted and me sitting at a specific point on this graph. When you graduate, you have a high ‘youth‘ value but low ‘experience‘ value. Conversely, at retirement (or your twilight career years…whenever they may be) you have a low ‘youth‘ value but very high ‘experience‘ value. So your youth graph descends on a linear path as time marches on, and your experience graph ascends (in a somewhat less linear way, but we’ll assume this is the case for the purposes of this example) towards it’s peak just as you decide to retire. An X shaped graph if you will. If there are any theoretical mathematicians reading this, please forgive me…I ‘colour in’ for a living!

Anyway, if you look at this graph, and consider it in a theoretical sense, there is a point in the middle where they cross. This is what I’m calling the F-spot. You have ENOUGH experience to be useful, considered, authoritative (ish), commercially savvy, pragmatically creative and you will have met enough people to know how to deal with most of them. Similarly, you have ENOUGH youth to be a viable hire to any business looking for a long term future. In theory, you’ve got 20+ years still in the tank and you’ve probably already made all of the really stupid mistakes you are going to make (I said probably!). I see this as a critical point in the career of a person looking to be a commercially creative influence in any way, shape or form.

So my awareness of this F-spot has caused me to start thinking about my future. Not in a negative way at all. In the way that life changes at 30 caused me to rethink my future and set up my business, so my (nearly) turning 40 has caused me to think about where I might want to see myself in another 10 or 20 years. I guess the realisation of this F-spot (be it utter codswallop or whether it has some element of truth) has brought it into sharp focus and has made me realise that there may be a fairly small window of opportunity to take advantage of circumstances. I have no doubt that every single person who cares about their future has had similar doubts, plans and realisations, although some may have had them at 30, 50 or 60. In fact, I was discussing this F-spot with someone the other day and they described a similar ‘crossroads’ at 30, and that 40 didn’t affect them in the slightest. Interestingly, they were from the building trade, and it was a question of fitness that made them question their future at 30.

The main issue with getting older, is that typically every decision you make that affects your life significantly, also significantly affects those around you. In your twenties, a job move across country meant packing what few belongings you had amassed, into a car or van, and renting a slightly different shaped version of the house or apartment you had before. Your thirties are a little more complex, but very small children are very adaptable! With children about to start secondary school, a business that is established and a more complex family and friend network (I’ve got two daughters…its very complex!), your forties are inevitably a more tangled web. I appreciate that I am talking very specifically about my own circumstances, but I expect everyone has their own versions of what I am talking about. Each and every major decision you make as you get older – to a point – seems to get more and more political and entrenching. Nobody’s fault. It’s just life Jim!

One thing I realised when we decided to move to Australia 10 years ago, was that it wasn’t the act of moving that was difficult. It was making the decision to move. That was the tricky bit…those bloody mental gremlins. Once we had decided to go, the rest was simply organising bank accounts, movers, rental agreements, job contracts etc. etc. The same stuff we have to deal with over here, but just in a different country and with a different currency symbol. I was genuinely shocked by how straightforward it was. Even when we realised that we would be having our first child in Australia, once we had resolved in our own minds that it was going to happen, the rest was simply organisational pragmatism. I’m simplifying somewhat, but in the main, it is true. The main obstacle to change is our own reluctance to it. We use excuses like schooling, pensions and family to avoid making these key changes in our lives, but in truth, unless you are moving to a war zone, you and your family will cope and – most probably – thrive as a result. You as a person can only be a better version of yourself with more and varied experiences to call upon. Especially if you are a designer for goodness sake!

So, what am I going to do about this blasted F-spot?

In truth, I have absolutely no idea.

I *sort* of know what I’d like to be doing in 10 years time, but I’m not entirely sure how I go about getting there. I love what I do and I love running my own business, but will I be equally happy with this if it remains the same for the next 10 years? That’s what I have to resolve. It’s a bit like when I used to get grief from ex-colleagues who used to bitch about me being wheeled in on the occasional freelance contracts, claiming that I was being paid “…way more than they were!” The only way anything can change is if you change it. If they wanted to earn a freelance rate, go bloody freelance! Now cope with the insecurity, lack of paid holiday…yadda yadda yadda!

I’ve started putting plans in motion which will help me decide how my future might change to something I choose, rather than something I end up with. Whether these plans work out will yet to be seen. I know I love to design….to actually design. To be ‘on the tools’. I also love helping others solve a design problem with my input (or interference!). I love dealing with people. I love hearing stories. I love crafting solutions from seemingly impossible roots. What I don’t like is the guff that gets in the way of design. The bluff and bluster, smoke and mirrors of others who want to sell an impossible future based on misinformation and spin. The knotted reel of wool that has to be picked apart and straightened out before anything meaningful can be embarked upon. That’s what I hate.

If, in 10 years time, I can be in a position where I can still be actually designing (not simply dictating from afar), earning more money to secure my family’s best interests, helping to create meaningful solutions to genuine problems and avoiding the guff, then I’ll be a happy chappie! It sounds simple, but I’m not sure it’s that realistic.

I’ve always wondered if we are – to a certain extent – limited by our own expectations of our abilities. I for one, never expected to be ‘right’ for consultancy. At university, we were once asked by our lecturing tutor, to raise our hands if we thought we would work in a design consultancy. I kept my hand down and quietly considered a career path within an in-house engineering design team (and I would have been entirely happy with that BTW). As it happens, I’m probably one of the few in my entire year who has (accidentally) forged a career predominantly in consultancy. I vowed never to work in London and yet did so for a number of years. I vowed never to set up a design business on my own and yet have done so (some would say foolishly!). At each stage in my career, I have done things I had previously never considered myself doing. So what of the next 10 or 20 years? Should I aim as high as I possibly can? Why not? I am always telling clients to be ambitious and aim high….why can’t I take a bit of my own advice?

It’s those mental gremlins again.

So as I approach 40, I will be thinking hard about that darned F-spot and what it means for me. I may not do anything about it for a number of years, but I think I ought to do something…even if it is to reassure myself that I am happy doing what I am doing for the next 20 years. Conversely, I may up-sticks and head to the other side of the world (again) to seek my fortune. Who knows? I’ve had a number of opportunities in the last year or so to make me never take anything for granted, nor to expect the status quo. It’s a time to reflect, ponder and reconsider.

With wine of course!

Of all my blog posts, it is this one that I am looking for comment from others who have either sorted themselves out or had similar quandaries. I am genuinely interested to hear how others have dealt with this point in their careers (at whatever time it may have occurred) and appreciate anyone who takes the time to comment.

Passion, dedication and drivel

With degree show fever about to grip the nation, and the furious typing that will no doubt accompany every graduating designer’s application process, I thought I might be a little less serious in my blog posting. Each and every year, we – and I’m sure every other company that gets listed in Google when someone types in ‘product design’ – get inundated with a barrage of sycophantic pleasantries from countless ‘aspiring’ designers looking to find a job.

In the main, most of these are well intentioned, well crafted, well delivered and well received. Young designers looking for jobs need to hear feedback, be it good OR bad. Not simply a vast wall of silence, which is more often the case. I can feel myself meandering off into another rant, but I’ll curtail it…I’m trying to be a little less ‘ranty’ and a little more light hearted!

One such element of these application letters and CV’s which both tickles me and seems to be increasing in emphasis, year on year, is the ‘personal statement’.

I’m not sure if the higher education system is encouraging students to write ever more flamboyant statements, or if its simply a by-product of information being more easily accessible and students needing to be ever more daring in order to stand out. Either way, I find it amusing to read these personal statements, and imagine the possible realities behind each of the phrases, sentences and buzzwords they have decided to use.

As a result, I thought I’d offer you all my own personal, internal ‘babelfish’ for these statements, and – if you are a young graduate designer currently attempting to write one – how your statement might be interpreted if you happen to send it to someone as warped as me!

So here goes…

“I am an enthusiastic designer”
“I’m not all that good at sketching, but I’ll fill a Letraset pad with absolute drivel, faster than you can drink a cup of tea, and I’ll agree with everything you say. In fact, can I get you a cup of tea?”

“I have a good eye for detail”
“I spent bloody ages modelling up the battery cover on my final year product, and have loads of renderings showing closeups to avoid you noticing that I didn’t actually have a good, long hard think about the underlying reason for the actual product itself.”

“It gave me opportunities to expand my horizons”
I didn’t actually do all that well in my modules, but I’ve been on quite a few holidays and my girlfriend is from Switzerland.”

“It stems from my love of problem solving”
“I had some LEGO when I was a kid, and I’m pretty sure I can remember how to wire a plug. Oh, and I can assemble an IKEA futon without losing any digits.”

“I have a passion for branding”
“I’m a bit shit at product design, despite having done a 4 year course, but I’m quite handy with Illustrator and I’ve done a logo for my Mum’s friend’s interior decoration business.”

“I see myself as determined and passionate”
“I won’t listen to a thing you tell me as I’m the fuckin’ bomb. You hear me? I have my own Wacom Cintiq. I expect to be given my own projects from the get-go and I expect you all to fall to your knees when I enter the room.”

“I love to collaborate and work in teams”
“All my course modules are essentially the fruits of someone else’s labours. I reluctantly worked with others but couldn’t opt out as it would prove that I didn’t actually contribute in any way at all.”

“I’m keen to address issues related to the circular economy”
“I’ve read this phrase somewhere, along with ‘the internet of things’ and figure that I’d better bung it in somewhere so it at least looks like I am up with the lingo. I don’t actually have the first clue WTF I’m talking about. Please don’t ask me about it.”

“I am driven and conscientious”
“Firstly, I had to look up how to spell conscientious. Secondly, I will basically linger in the studio until the last person forces me out of the building, and I’ll constantly take notes in every meeting I attend, despite not having a clue what I’m taking notes about.”

“I design for real world needs”
“Again, I don’t actually know what this means. It sounded good when I copied from the internet. I think it means that I have to consider the needs of those poor, unfortunate people who have to actually work for a living.”

“I understand the unspoken needs of the user”
“I haven’t asked anyone their opinion. I just made up some research after I’d designed my major project and made it fit. I’m actually rather proud of how many ‘unspoken’ needs I’ve managed to address in my project…don’t you agree?”

“I am an innovator”
“No one understood my major project at all. In essence, my appalling degree grade reflects the ignorance of the education system and the fact that they never appreciated true ground breaking innovation. It had nothing to do with my lazy disposition and tendency to smoke weed.”

“I want the opportunity to learn and grow”
“I know jackshit, and seriously need someone to tell me how to do this design stuff. If I can get a job in a big enough company, I can pretty much blend into the background, go for a pint with everyone, every night after work and hope that no-one realises that I can’t even tie my own shoelaces.”

“Understanding the importance of aesthetics”
“I can draw pretty things but please don’t ask me how it’s made. I won’t have a clue.”

“I have a keen interest in all things design”
“I trawl the internet too much and have a Pinterest account filled with Dieter Rams and Apple products. I have read the first half of Steve Jobs’ autobiography and I own an iPhone 5C. I should really get out more and talk to real people.”

“I can balance form and function”
“My work is neither aesthetic, nor functional, but at least they are both in balance.”

“I relish the challenges ahead of me”
“I’m scared shitless. After 17 years in education, I don’t really want to enter the ‘real world’. Maybe I should go on and do a Masters?”

You’ll be pleased to know that each and every phrase was taken from a genuine personal statement, and I’m sure you will recognise each and every one of them. It just demonstrates that no matter how well written and captivating your statement may be, there is nothing better than making personal contact with people and being determined. I’m constantly amazed by how many graduates expect to get a job simply by peppering the ‘usual suspects’ of the design consultancy world with a CV+portfolio+covering letter and sitting back to wait for a reply. Having worked in a variety of agencies, both big and small, I can attest to the fact that, whilst all are well intentioned and will try to give every email the attention it deserves, the reality is that time is like gold dust. You don’t even have to be the most talented candidate on paper. Just the best ‘fit’….and ‘fit’ is subjective.

Anyway, I have merely exposed the tip of the ‘personal statement’ iceberg. I would love everyone to add their versions and interpretations in the comments section, if only to bring a little light relief to a Friday afternoon! What with my earlier blog post about the key skills expectant in a graduate product designer (see here), I feel I may well put off anyone every applying to work at Square Banana again. Hey ho.

The ‘space, time & faith’ model

Something has been nagging at me for some time now, so I thought I’d write a blog post about it. Ironically, it does undermine my own business model somewhat, but in the interests of self betterment and catharsis, it might be good to put it down in writing and see what happens.

I have an issue with the traditional service model that most of the design industry is based on. Well….not so much an issue with the model as it stands, but moreso with the reluctance and apparent distaste by investors to ‘it’ as an investable entity. Unless of course, you are a hugely successful, large design agency who have proved beyond all doubt that you are consistently profitable, by which you are probably not really in the market for investment!

Now, before I start, and as I am usually wont to do, I should probably set out my stall. I have been fully immersed in the ‘design consultancy’ industry for the best part of 17 years and have worked for a range of the bigger product design consultancies – all renowned and some better than others. They all relied on the same basic business model, namely that you attempt to sell your ‘creative’ abilities to solve a client’s ‘design’ problem to that very same client (in competition with many others doing exactly the same). The client picks you to do the work, you do said work in suitably palatable and agreed ‘phases’ and invoice accordingly. The design fees are based on an ‘hourly rate’ x ‘time required’ estimation, plus whatever else you may need to do to secure the project against the competition. In the main, all the IP generated during the course of the project transfers to the client on payment of your invoice and everyone is happy. The cycle then repeats ad-nauseum with a sprinkle of haggling thrown in for good measure, and you invariably end up with some jobs that make more money than others. The reasons for this alone could fill another post, so I’ll leave it there. It is well-proven and well-trodden.

Now, as you would expect, many of these clients’ fortunes have been improved or significantly accelerated as a direct result of the aforementioned design service. After many years of never really being credited with business success, design now has the commercial statistics to validate and exonerate our industry, and ‘design’ – despite people still not really knowing what it does – is now being spearheaded within most of the major global businesses as the core of their ‘innovation’ practices. It is the modern panacea to the humdrum ‘normality’ of business stagnancy and can only be a good thing. A visible demonstration of the so-called ‘innovation‘ that every global brand strapline seems to wear with pride.

But despite the constant proof that design as a process and designers as practitioners of this process are justifiably worthy, it seems that investment only comes to those that have decided upon a singular idea and have perpetuated that idea into a product or service around which a business plan and financial forecasts can be built. We are bombarded with media coverage of numerous kickstarter campaigns, investment successes and home grown ‘startups’ that have taken AN idea and developed it to a level where the accountants, venture capitalists and management consultants can understand the tangible aspects of the business, it has become a little less ethereal and intangible, and projections of growth can be calculated. A catchy brand, a media friendly product shot and a press release make for digestible, investible opportunities.

But what of the creative process itself? The very minds that were capable of creating such a idea. Why is it that prior to that point where they have something tangible, they are somehow less ‘investable’. We hear so much about stock market sentiment when it comes to all manner of technology bubbles, but this sentiment seems much less evident when it comes to having faith in the creative engine itself. The engine that could potentially create many, many great ideas. There are notable examples of people having ‘faith’ in the creative chutzpah of individuals – Jonny Ive by Steve Jobs for instance – but very few businesses having faith in the future potential of a group of individuals or a team of creative people to ultimately deliver multiple ideas in multiple, diverse markets. Regardless of track record, the most a reputable design agency may achieve is either a lucrative retainer (which is essentially a variant of the traditional service model) or being absorbed by a brand (or business) to solely work within one market or business unit.

Interestingly, I had a recent conversation with a reputable and successful business owner who fully understood the value of design, and who was responsible for recommending opportunities to a board of high net worth angel investors. He listened to our approach and liked our work, but in a discussion over the relative merits of investable opportunities, he was very clear that if we had ‘an idea’ that we would like to present to him for review he would listen and likely put it forward to his superiors (we mentioned a few ‘in house’ self initiated ideas we have been slowly working on – all of which seemed to whet his appetite), but when asked about investing in a design business itself, he scoffed “I would NEVER invest in a design business!“. As though the very thought was toxic. Despite the fact that the very same design business could potentially deliver 10 similarly brilliant ideas to a much higher quality in a similar space of time… if supported. Go figure.

If I think about the breadth of exposure I have had – for instance – in multiple markets, it is quite remarkable (and there are countless product designers out there with the same – if not larger – repertoire). I have designed products for markets as diverse as confectionery, healthcare, telecoms, pharma, military, hi-tech, baby & toddler, commerce, food, OTC medicine, home and personal care, consumer, lighting….the list is endless. I don’t mean to bang on about what I’ve done – I simply want to illustrate the point that within a single career to date, I have had direct and creative exposure to so many different markets, technologies, processes and manufacturing methods that I would challenge anyone to find another discipline that has had quite the same level of multi-market awareness of human interaction and designing for mass manufacture as that which I inhabit.

And yet, despite this depth and breadth of exposure, we as product designers are expected to put all our creative eggs in one basket and chance upon that one ‘killer’ product idea that we have faith enough to pull a kickstarter campaign together for – all in our spare time. The idea that will “…make us all millionaires Rodney!” Remembering also, that this creative focus has to happen amidst the everyday hustle and bustle of delivering design solutions under the standard service model mention earlier, not to mention the obligations we have as parents, siblings, carers, volunteers, spouses and friends. Society expects us to shoehorn these moments of divine inspiration (you know the ones…the stories that make great opening gambits on ‘about us’ sections of websites) into our full and responsibility-laden lives, and once struck by the lightning bolt of genius, we then have the time to meticulously research, develop and define this idea – free of charge – until it is to a level where the people with the piles of cash deem it worthy that all the hard work has been done and they can “scale it up”.

You may detect an element of cynicism in my tone. It is because I have done exactly what I have described. I found that ‘killer’ product idea, researched it, developed it and produced it. All on borrowed, peppercorn investment from well-meaning friends and family (prior to this peppercorn investment, we did present the idea to a number of well-connected, cash rich types, but they wanted to see the fully developed ‘thing’ before committing in any way shape or form). Long story short, it was very nearly the end of me, and it still haunts me to this day, despite our very, very best efforts. In focussing my efforts on this ‘killer product’ I neglected my design business and I almost lost everything I had worked so hard to build. I have learned some amazingly useful lessons from this but none of it was done recklessly, and everything was done for ultimate commercial gain. C’est la vie!

Anyway, I digress slightly. The point I am making is that despite the hundreds of different very well known brands, products and markets I had worked on (and in), there was still insufficient confidence in me/us as an investable entity to give us the breathing space, cash buoyancy and resource to do it properly. We had to bootstrap it (i.e. our time was put in for free and we had just enough to pay for tooling and packaging), and simultaneously sacrifice our existing earning capabilities to develop it. A double whammy hit if you will. As  a creative unit, we were deemed uninvestable.

Now imagine, if someone were to provide enough cash to allow a creative team of people to efficiently and effectively define a number of identifiable opportunities (remembering that this is something we do for clients all the time…and do it well) over the course of – say – a year? Costs would be minimal as it would primarily be ‘time only’ with a token smattering of prototyping to prove out key principles. The resultant output from that team of creative product design, ‘multi-market-experienced’ brains would be quite something. With the inherent skillset of such a product design consultancy, you would be able to define a new opportunity, scope it out, design a solution, commercialise it and have it ready for manufacture at a profitability sweet spot – all within the same four walls. Do this a handful of times within a year or two and you have multiple business opportunities ripe and ready for sale to the most appropriate buyer. The sheer opportunity for cross-pollination, knowledge transfer and human centric understanding would be immense. Within a 3 year period I would imagine you would start to see significant return on that ‘faith’ investment, but it would require just that….FAITH. Faith in the abilities of those people to deliver great ideas and solutions. These ideas may be as diverse as chocolate and chainsaws, but either way they would be ‘designed’, commercially relevant and consumer focussed.

The nearest analogy I can think of is that of a chef. Although it isn’t a particularly robust example it serves a purpose! A chef has the inherent knowledge born of many years creating a variety of menus, dishes and dining experiences, using any number of different ingredients and cooking methods. You visit that chef’s restaurant because you have faith that whatever he/she creates will be stunningly creative and of a standard you have come to expect of them. You wouldn’t expect them to come up with a singular recipe and then build an entire business simply to promote and distribute that singular recipe. It is the chef you would invest in, not the recipe. That chef, and the wider impact that he/she has (ensuing products, experiences and endorsements for instance) is a more powerful thing than any of the things that they may create. I know I’m stretching this example into a ‘person as brand’ example, but hopefully you can see my point?

Creativity requires space, time and faith. Space to allow someone to investigate and explore without the all-consuming pressures of mortgage payments weighing them down (although there is nothing wrong with a little bit of pressure!), time to allow the process to work and an appreciation that the first thing might not be the best, and faith. Faith in the creative brains to deliver great stuff. Whatever it might be. The best people in our industry are very, very good at taking hair brained, confused and often non-sensical ideas from clients and crafting them into well-honed, brilliant and profitable things, often under extreme time pressures and within horribly tight budgets. Just imagine what could be achieved if those same minds were afforded that space, time and faith to apply themselves to ideas, solutions and opportunities that could make a lot of money indeed!

One thing I learned from my ‘killer’ idea experience, is that I am very good at what I do (apologies for the self-congratulatory tripe!) but I need others to take my resultant work and turn the product solution into a repeatable, successful business i.e. flogging multiple things through multiple channels to multiple markets. I get a huge amount of satisfaction in the creation and development of an idea into a profitable, commercially poised entity that is capable of making significant amounts of money. Which is why I am convinced of the merits of the model I have eluded to – the ‘space, time & faith’ model if you will. This model sits very well with my ambitions for a small ‘barbarians’ style creative team (described in a previous blog post) as creative diversity and flexibility are key to both.

So all I need now is to find a wealthy and patient investor who has faith in creativity and a fervent desire to see the birth of new ideas, however varied and complex! I’m not entirely sure if I’ve explained myself well enough in this post, but if anyone is crazy enough to believe in this even half as much as I do, then please get in touch and I’ll buy you lunch whilst I attempt to explain it to you in more detail!