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Human value of design that makes life easier

IKEA, Apple, Jaguar Land Rover, Samsung, Dyson. All these companies are world famous and their brands are some of the most valuable on the planet. What they have in common is a reputation for both innovation as well as great design.

Apple may not have invented the MP3 music player, but it was not a hit until the Californian company took the concept and put it in a sleek gadget called the iPod that was both beautiful, as well as simple to use.

That is the key to good design, according to Mat Hunter, chief design officer at the Design Council. He says the concept of good design is an integral part of innovation.

“Innovation is about creating new ideas and bringing them to practice. However, things need to work for people – whatever the technology or business model, if it doesn’t work for people, it is not an effective innovation,” he says.

In Mr Hunter’s view, consumers will choose to buy a new product because it can improve their lives, makes them more productive at work or has other benefits, such as making a journey safer.

Now most companies appreciate the value of good design, those that have used it to set themselves apart from the pack will face greater challenges in the future

“The human value of innovation is one of the few metrics by which we can judge the success of innovation. It has to make money and usually involves new technology, but it’s got to work for people. Design is fundamentally about considering innovation from a human-centred view,” he says.

The story of Dyson is a prime example. James Dyson, who founded the company 20 years ago, believed that consumers wanted a vacuum cleaner that did not lose suction as the bag filled up with dirt. He was forced to bring his bagless design to market himself because the big manufacturers did not want to lose out on the tens of millions of pounds they made every year selling replacement bags for their vacuum cleaners.

“Marketing experts advised against a clear bin – ‘People don’t want to see their own detritus’ – but I knew it would work,” Mr Dyson recalls. “I had felt the immense satisfaction of knowing the dirt I saw spinning through the cyclones was no longer in my carpet. It just worked and there were no hidden costs. And it turned out that quite a few people liked seeing that just as much as I did.”

However, he is adamant that design cannot triumph over function. “People value high-performing, well-designed technology that is built to last. Performance is the most important aspect – you quickly become frustrated with a beautiful object that doesn’t do its job well. Dyson machines are engineered from the inside out and the technology dictates form, not the other way around,” Mr Dyson says.

Design was once a synonym for expensive, but that is no longer the case, according to Mr Hunter. He cites IKEA, Zara, Top Shop and John Lewis as examples of retailers that make attractive, well-designed products available at affordable prices. “There is now a sense that good design is available for everyone no matter what the price point,” he says.

Similarly, Mr Hunter argues that companies at the value end of their markets, such as easyJet and Premier Inn hotels, pay very close attention to the design of their products. “Design is really the sort of considered, human-centred innovation that works across so many different sectors and price points,” he says.

Design can also be used to make a mark and generate a buzz – something Black+Blum have realised. Dan Black and Martin Blum originally joined forces to set up a London-based design consultancy, but later branched out into designing their own products.

While their range only comprises about 40 products, each one is quirky and has its own story. For example, brrrr is a £9.99 ice dispenser in the shape of a polar bear that allows cubes to be dispensed individually. Meanwhile, stand up! is a striking aluminium-cast sculptural stand that, at £30, can be used to support anything from an iPad to a cookery book.

Mr Black says the internet has played a major role in the success of Black+Blum. It has allowed consumers anywhere in the world to both discover their products – often after a mention in a design blog – and then buy them online. Three-quarters of the company’s sales are now generated by customers outside the UK.

Now most companies appreciate the value of good design, those that have used it to set themselves apart from the pack will face greater challenges in the future. Mr Dyson aims to stay in front by coming up with “technology that solves problems better than others”. The company has spent £150 million developing the Dyson digital motor, which he says will allow it to make smaller, better-performing products that also use less energy.

Mr Hunter believes that we will start to see design move into places where it has not been in the past, such as public services like the NHS, in a bid to make hospitals more user-friendly.

He concludes: “Well-designed things that really work are not just about a superficial, fashion-oriented approach to innovation – it’s deeper than that. It’s about things that work simply and effectively for people, and make life a little easier.”

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