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– Written by Abbey Bamford – April 4, 2024

Design Truth launches new Talks event series

Last week’s debut Design Truth Talks event, supported by TDC, centred around how leaders in industrial design can navigate workplace culture, communicate with C-Suite colleagues and diversify recruitment.

Industrial design recruiter Brad Harper started Design Truth as a podcast back in 2020 and, thanks to huge levels of engagement from the industrial design sector, it has evolved into an in-person, networking event.

Last week’s Design Truth Talks was the pilot event for a new format, which will run alongside the more casual Design Truth meet-ups. Hosted by SharkNinja at its Battersea offices, the keynote talk and panel discussion were tailored to industrial designers in leadership positions. 

Industrial design recruiter and Design Truth founder Brad Harper

Making the argument for quality 

Industrial Design Consultancy design director Nick Chubb kicked off Design Truth Talks, speaking on a topic that resonated with everyone in the room: quality. Nick covered everything from how the quality of design work affects the quality of the products to what contributes to achieving a high level of quality.

Nick recounted times from his childhood when he began to notice quality products, including when the PlayStation 2 came out back in 2000 and his first trip to a Bang & Olufsen store. “Other people will have products like this [that represent quality to them]”, he said. 

“It might be a sewing machine, it might be a power drill, it might be a cake mixer – whatever it is, quality matters.”

One of Nick’s key points was about how the time frame needed for shipping, testing and prototyping is seen as non-negotiable, while the time allocated for design is often contracted to meet deadlines. When the board of directors asks ‘Can it be done in 70% of the time?’, the answer is “Yes it could. It could be done in 50% of the time, but the quality is then put at risk”, said Nick . 

He argued that it’s the lead designer’s job to relay the values of the business and reinforce why they don’t want to cut corners. Designers can’t assume that those people higher up the chain know how limiting design time will affect quality. 

Industrial Design Consultancy design director Nick Chubb

Collaboration versus a singular vision 

Nick also recalled meeting Apple’s former head of design Robert Brunner a few years ago at the V&A museum and hearing the idea that bold and brave design can come from someone driving forward with a singular vision. “In a product design world, we’d hear that and say ‘it doesn’t sound very collaborative’, ‘it doesn’t sound like teamwork’, but there might be something in it,” said Chubb. 

He heard a similar story from French designer Nicolas Huet, who led on the design of the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe M Sport (Nick’s all time favourite car). Huet revealed that 25 individual designers submitted their own concept directions for the car, with five being chosen to, and one winning design prevailing. 

To this point, Nick said that what designers often see as collaboration is actually compromise and has a knock on effect on quality. “There could be five of us in a room. Four might want to go in one direction and I might want to go in another. We shouldn’t necessarily meet in the middle as that might be worse than both.”

Meet the panellists 

The Design Truth Talks panel discussion chaired by journalist and editor Amy Frearson made up the second half of the event. The panel comprised four leaders in the industrial design field: Joseph Joseph Ltd director of industrial design and innovation Gareth McNeil, Kingfisher plc head of industrial design Alba Bayona, Panasonic creative lead Rowan Williams, and The Fuel design director Matt Plested. 

Gareth studied Product Design at Glasgow College of Building and printing before completing a BA degree at Cardiff Metropolitan University. After working in consultancy for a few years, he moved into retail-based roles, including Homebase and Mothercare, before moving to Joseph Jospeph, which is known for its kitchen products, but also operates in the laundry, water and utility space. The team that Gareth manages focuses on understanding human behaviours and creating solutions for problems in the home.

Joseph Joseph Ltd director of industrial design and innovation Gareth McNeil

Alba got her Technical Engineering Industrial Design degree at Universitat Jaume in Spain, before buying a one way ticket to London to start her career. After a stint working as a speaker designer in Essex, a freelancer in London and setting up her own jewellery brand with furniture designer Terrence Woodgate, Alba began climbing the ladder at Kingfisher.

Kingfisher owns Screwfix, B&Q and other retailers, mostly developing products in-house for its brands. The company’s design team was relatively new when Alba started, so her role involved implementing product development processes and methods, using user insights and trends research.

Kingfisher plc head of industrial design Alba Bayona

Rowan remembered wanting to pursue a career in design after watching a TV series called Better by Design, by Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, who he ended up interning and eventually working for. After seven years, Rowan went to work with an ex-colleague at Panasonic in a new division that uses design to inspire decision making at C-Suite level within the company. 

Most of Panasonic’s teams are based in Japan, but the 15-strong Panasonic Design Flux team is based in London. Much of what they create is strategic rather than a physical product, influencing the direction of the company and how it appears to the outside world. 

Panasonic creative lead Rowan Williams

Matt was the only panellist who has been agency side for most of their career. Out of his 25 years of experience in industrial design, only one year was spent working in house at Dyson in 2008. After running a 25 person agency, he co-founded The Fuel, specialising in consumer electronics.

The Fuel design director Matt Plested

What does Industrial Design look like in 2024?

Joseph Joseph is in a transition period, shifting to do more in-house than it has in the past, according to Gareth. “One of the challenges is trying to resource all the things we want to do and being sensible about how we manage that,” he said.

Rowan confirmed that Panasonic has experienced a similar shift towards in-house creative activity, “using external talent more specifically”. For Panasonic Design Flux, growth is on the 2024 trajectory as it looks to implement the strategy work from the past five years. 

Since Alba became head of design at Kingfisher, she said there has been a strategic focus on fixing “longer term problems” and so 2024 will be about formalising and executing their strategy. 

Bringing the agency perspective, Plested revealed that many of The Fuel’s customers don’t have a design person in their team, meaning there is often confusion about how long hardware development takes (as outlined by Nick). The panel concurred that one of the main challenges is trying to educate clients and the C-Suite on this. 

Much of Panasonic Design Flux’s work does exactly this, according to Rowan. He said that, sometimes, “people just see design as a means of executing a pretty picture without understanding the process and the thinking”, an attitude which he and his team are trying to dispel through their strategy work.

While Gareth said that educating the C-suite in his company is less of an issue – as the owners are product designers – he said there is still an element of rush and “wanting to get their first” when an exciting idea is in play. 

Hybrid, home or office?

There was a real mix of how teams work among the panellists’ companies. Joseph Joseph operates a concrete three days in, two days at home hybrid structure, which most employees at Kingfisher opt for too, despite having free reign over when they come into the studio. 

Gareth said he often goes into the studio 5 days a week, adding “I feel like the best work we do is when everyone is in but we recognise that people want that flexibility”. At Kingfisher, Alba said the most collaborative meetings happen when everyone comes into the studio, while people find it easier to get individual work done at home. She believes that “quality of life is better when you’re shaving off those hours from the commute for a few days a week”.

Post-covid, Rowan gave his team a choice of how to work and everyone chose to come into the studio every day. “The best ideas come when you’re grabbing a coffee, not in a 45 minute Teams call”, said Rowan. He added that being in the studio is part of building a strong culture for the team, although flexibility is offered to those who occasionally need to work from home. 

Surprisingly, The Fuel Agency works fully remote. The team all worked from home when the agency started in 2018 and when it eventually found a studio space, the pandemic happened so it didn’t go ahead. Afterwards, as others began returning to the office, they decided to stay remote, which only worked because the team is all very experienced with 10+ years in the industry, said Matt.

“Pre-covid, we were perhaps quite embarrassed by the idea that we didn’t have a studio because in design there’s almost a cliche of having that studio space”, he added. Now, he thinks that clients understand why this works. 

Diversifying recruitment 

“Finding the right people is the challenge for us,” said Gareth, who thinks a lot of talent moved out of London during the pandemic. Rowan added that “recruitment is always a tricky one” for his team, but he said it is up to the design leader to be clear on “what kind of culture they’re trying to build”, looking at personality as well as skills.

In Alba’s team of 13, only three of the designers are women, which she puts down to lack of uptake from girls at education level. Rowan reinforced that aspiring designers need more industry figure heads that can inspire them, as the proportion of Panasonic applicants is so imbalanced, with around 15 out of 100 portfolios coming from female talent.

Watch the full video here

Design Truth’s next event is on the 22nd May in London. Tickets are invite only, but those interested can check out the community tab on the Design Truth website, where tickets will be posted if made available.