Designing in value and valuing design

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the North Shore’s sprawling commercial zone, and a stone’s throw from Massey University’s Albany campus, is product design firm Blender. Founded in 2006 by product design specialists Oliver McDermott and Ben Thomsen, Blender have built up a strong portfolio of work and a reputation as insightful collaborators who add genuine value to the products they design for clients.

I met with McDermott, and started by asking him if clients have a good understanding of the value product designers bring to the development and manufacturing process.

“That understanding has improved over the last 10 years,” he says. “However there’s still a lot of work to be done. Generally, people know that design is valuable, but when it comes to spending the money on the upfront design work, gaining user insights...there are still a lot of people who need to get their head around that. They want to skip that phase and design what’s in their head.”

More clients, however, are becoming open to reframing the problem they think they are solving. “Maybe it’s because we’ve got better at convincing our clients that it’s necessary, or maybe they’re just getting more educated,” suggests McDermott. “We can step back and make sure we completely understand the market and user requirements. Then we can design a product that’s got a good market fit. We focus on the problem that the product solves, and who it solves it for, rather than just jumping straight into it.”

I ask McDermott what he thinks is improving design literacy within manufacturing businesses. He sees two sides to it. “The negative viewpoint on that would be fear; that they have to innovate or their competitors will overtake them. The other way of looking at it is that, with social media, and how connected the world is now, companies are being held accountable by their customers to make products that can solve their problems. It’s being driven by that need to listen.”

He suggests that the product development dynamic has changed for many businesses. “Gone are the days when you can make a crappy product and give it to the sales team to sell, right? Now the sales and marketing team need to come up with unmet problems, and then get the business to design a product to solve that problem. It’s quite simple really.”

Evolving past the most basic idea of what a product can be is, according to McDermott, “the biggest value that product designers and the process of design thinking brings.”

“Some of our clients will come to us with really good insights. They’ve done their research. And we’re not going to redo all that. So we run a condensed discovery phase where we get that information out of their brains and into ours so we can execute on the product design. And we’ll challenge their thinking to date, because there might be a few holes in it.”

“A lot of clients have done a lot of work upfront and you’re just drilling a little bit deeper, to refine the detail. But to then make that product better than anything else on the market, we need to go deeper again.”

He elaborates: “You look at a product, a really simplistic view of it, you’ve got features that it must meet. It must perform a basic function. That’s great, but that’s not going to delight users. So to identify those additional design features that are really going to give it a point of difference, that’s where we come in.”

So if clients are doing better at understanding the value design brings, I ask, does he feel that is New Zealand’s design industry is in place of strength at the moment?

McDermott ponders that before answering. “Considering that we’re a small country, and that I 100% believe that collaboration is the key to success, we’re still too fragmented. And I guess it’s just the nature of product designers. We like to be out in the workshop hacking things together, not really out there catching up with people in the industry. I think a little bit of work needs to be done there. And things are starting to happen in that space.”

He also sees a gap in the way design businesses are supported in New Zealand. “A lot of the right ingredients are there. But there’re a few holes.

“Number one, the people that are going to make it happen are the CEOs and C-level people in companies in New Zealand. For us those companies are manufacturers of hardware products. They need to be educated to understand the value of design.

On a government level, Callaghan Innovation are doing a great job with supporting science and R&D; and NZTE is doing a great job with our larger exporters and helping connect them to global markets. But there is not enough emphasis on commercialisation for the small to medium enterprises, and the startups coming through. There’s a lot of support for innovating, and generating IP, and doing R&D; but it’s not really innovation unless you actually commercialise it; it’s just research. We’re ending up with a lot of high-value, low volume products. We need to get over that mass production hurdle.”

He also sees our New Zealand resourcefulness as a double-edged sword. “Our number 8 wire mentality about getting something done with little, and finding new ways of solving problems, definitely sets us apart. But when it comes to developing a product through to mass production, you need a much more commercial mentality when you’re making tens, or hundreds of thousands of products. When it comes to the commercial side of things...we’re quite humble, and terrible at selling stuff.”

So what makes for a successful, commercial viable product?

“To make a successful product, you have to have a lot of things in balance,” says McDermott. “You have to consider many different aspects. It’s not just the usability and the aesthetic appeal. It’s how much the unit actually cost to make, so that you meet certain market price points. It’s got to be easy to use for the end user, but it’s also got to meet the needs of other stakeholders in the value chain; the installers, for example.”

I ask him whether it’s a challenge in product design to start with a price point. McDermott sees it as a positive constraint. “You really do have a responsibility as a product designer to deliver a product that meets all of the client’s requirements, not just one or two. And if you turn a blind eye to making it cheaply, just because you want to make something extravagant, you’re doing an absolute disservice to your client and to your profession, right? Design’s not just about making it look good, it’s about designing a product that meets all of those requirements.”

One of Blender’s most successful projects, it’s Integ Ar-ray Series monitor arms, are a good case study for this. Designing a commercially viable product for price-sensitive markets was a key part of the brief.

“A big driver was meeting a price point. We did a lot of engineering-based work to get the cost out. Reducing materials, changing out materials, prototyping...what we were able to achieve was a really aesthetically pleasing product that was easy to use, as well as meeting those cost requirements. And that’s kind of the Holy Grail.”