Many Australian manufacturers have acknowledged that innovation is key to their survival in an era characterised by increased global competition and a strong Australian dollar.
The Australian Government has also acknowledged the manufacturing sector needs to reinvent itself to combat higher salary costs, skills shortages and a decline in productivity.
As experts in design thinking and creative problem solving, it stands to reason that designers are well placed to help Australian manufacturers transform their businesses.
“Design has emerged as a serious tool for business growth in the high cost economy,” says Adam Blake, national programs and partnerships director at the Creative Industries Innovation Centre (CIIC). “You need only look at the success of design-led firms in Scandinavia, Germany and Northern Europe to realise that design delivers a significant return on investment.”
Whereas Europe boasts a rich heritage of design-led manufacturing, many Australian manufacturers have little experience in working with designers.
As a result, Enterprise Connect, the Integrated Design Commission of South Australia and the NSW Department of Trade and Investment, Regional Infrastructure and Services have partnered to run the Design Integration Pilot, a one year pilot program that unites designers and manufacturers in South Australia and New South Wales with the goal of driving innovation, profitability and global competitiveness.
Modeled on design integration programs in NZ and the UK, the Design Integration Pilot has two key goals: to transform Australian manufacturers to be more innovative and, ultimately, profitable through enhanced design capability and to arm designers with the skills required to work with industry as business strategists.
“For many manufacturers, it will require a complete cultural transformation and an entirely new way of thinking about their business strategy,” says Blake.
The Better By Design Program set out to increase New Zealand’s manufacturing exports by $500 million within five years, yet exceeded this target in just three and-a-half years. The UK Design Council’s business mentoring program, Designing Demand, also delivered impressive results with return on investment for every pound spent of 25:1.
Tim Horton of the Integrated Design Commission South Australia says the value of the Design Integration Pilot, “should not be underestimated”.
“Australia is experiencing a blind spot and a skills gap,” says Horton, who believes government and industry must acknowledge the role of the creative enterprises in reviving underperforming sectors.
“I don’t think Australia’s tertiary education system gives sufficient emphasis to design as a problem-solving enterprise. It is still a product-focused profession, but if you look to countries like the United Kingdom and Finland, design is a strategic thinking exercise that can be applied to any sector or macro economic challenge,” says Horton. “We have to move away from defining ‘design’ as a product outcome, to seeing ‘design’ as a process.”
What’s needed, according to Horton, is a national design policy that drives innovation in enterprise. “Innovation isn’t just about rivets and bending steel, it involves guiding industry to explore new markets and products through creative thinking.”
Designers of the future will have the opportunity to design not just products, logos and brands, but also business strategies, operational systems and business models – providing they possess the business skills and acumen required to do so.
“A decade ago, creating a good product with minimal design input was still was a viable business proposition. But today’s market is far more complex and demands a more integrated design process,” says Mark Armstrong, Creative Director at Blue Sky Design Group in Sydney, an industrial design consultancy.
“Companies and brands have to invest in intellectual property and innovation to achieve differentiation, and designers are best positioned to help them do this.”
Whereas management consultants help companies identify needs and opportunities, designers complete the puzzle by transforming analysis into solutions.
This may entail anything from packaging design to designing customer experiences. For example, Blue Sky worked with Qantas to redesign the check-in process at airport terminals. This involved understanding staff behaviour, analysing customer traffic flows, and collaborating with ergonomists to embed new technologies into the travel experience.
As a participant in the Design Integration Pilot, Armstrong is now receiving training from New Zealand-based design integration specialists Equip, headquartered in Auckland. He believes their training program offers a radically different way of collaborating with clients, teaching designers to think and act with greater business focus.
“We are learning techniques to engage with senior management and help them analyse their brand and market position, identify opportunities and return with recommendations,” says Armstrong. “The idea is we’ll take companies that are on the threshold of growth, make changes to their product creation processes and operations, and enable them to blossom.”
Andrew Whittaker, partner at product development studio Fingo in Adelaide, believes initiatives like the Design Integration Pilot are vital to bridging the divide that exists between designers and industry.
“I am still amazed at how many manufacturers do not understand the role of industrial design,” says Whittaker.
“In Europe, industrial designers are commonplace. In Australian manufacturing, it seems there are pockets of innovation, but generally speaking many companies are manufacturing ‘me too’ widgets that don’t command great margins, especially when competing against lower-cost imports.”
He says the Design Integration Pilot’s methodology represents “a quantum leap from the standard process”. Ordinarily, designers receive a brief from their clients and are distanced from day-to-day manufacturing issues, whereas this pilot invites designers to delve into a company’s structure, vision and values to identify strengths and weaknesses.
“It is still early days, but we are confident that investment in design and innovation will be the key to the success of these local manufacturers. The hope is that if a few of these companies are successful then the whole process will become ‘contagious’,” says Whittaker.
DESIGN THINKING: A FAD OR OPPORTUNITY?
Around the world, business executives are recognising the value of creative skills such as brainstorming, prototyping and synthesising ideas.
“The rise of ‘design thinking’ presents a huge opportunity for designers, but only if they’re smart about it,” says Maureen Thurston, design leverage consultant at Second Road, Sydney.
“Many management consultants are now claiming to be design thinkers, and some designers may feel threatened at seeing them step into this space. It’s really up to designers to make the most of this opportunity, or ‘design thinking’ could become another management fad just as ‘reengineering’ was the buzzword of the 1980s.”
In order to work with businesses more strategically, designers must learn the language of business. This may be as easy as reading books on leadership, entrepreneurialism and management, or enrolling in a business course. This year, the Design Institute of Australia and the Australian Graphic Design Association are launching professional development courses focusing on strategic design, design thinking and design integration.
Alexander Lotersztain, founder of design consultancy Derlot in Brisbane, believes universities and educators must do more to teach designers to broaden their knowledge of business.
The onus also falls on designers to develop their business skills. “Many Australian manufacturers aren’t used to dealing with designers, but if you have the right attitude they will be open to your ideas. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve taken a six-pack of beer to a manufacturing plant on a Friday afternoon and said, ‘I’d love to come up with some ideas with you’,” he says.
Derlot’s partnership with Planex is a good example. Planex specialises in office storage, and Lotersztain first encountered the company’s designs at a Melbourne trade fair several years ago. On his next trip to Melbourne, Lotersztain made time to visit the Planex factory when he offered to design new products, which extended Planex’s product range to office furniture, shelving and screens.
“I see the role of the designer as helping clients open new doors and niches. My designs for Planex didn’t break the mold completely, but it did take their product line a little further,” says Lotersztain.
So what skills do designers of the future require?
“Designers are thinkers. They enjoy observing the world, they understand global trends, and they can design everything from product ideas to marketing campaigns and operational systems,” says Lotersztain.
“A good designer can make everyone work together as a team. Most companies have separate divisions for engineering, marketing, sales and design. Designers can bring all these elements together to generate cashflow, hype and communicate the design vision and product – that’s where I see design playing a major role in industry.”
Not all CEOs will be open to working with designers at a strategic level.
“This approach is not for everyone. It is best suited to companies that are prepared to go through a process of transformation by building design capability into their thinking and business strategy,” says Blake.
The Design Integration Pilot involves a small group of manufacturers, who are now working with designers to develop products and services that command a premium price, decreasing production costs and increasing return on investment.
As Thurston says: “Companies that invest in design early and often tend to get to market faster with a better product and a stronger brand.”
However, designers need to understand where they fit into the bigger picture. “When I trained as an industrial designer, I was never given any leadership training as there was no expectation I would ever become a leader – leadership was what business graduates learned. But today’s designers need to have a much better sense of their power and influence,” says Thurston.
The Design Integration Pilot is a Commonwealth and State partnership funded through the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (as part of the Clean21 Making Better Managers Initiative), the Commission for Integrated Design South Australia, and NSW Trade and Investment.
The Design Integration Pilot is one of four CIIC pilot programs which aim to identify new business models, opportunities, networks and markets.
This article was originally published at Creativeinnovation