Title: Design management. Why is it needed now?
Pages: 38 - 39
Author: Michael Farr
Text: Design management
Why is it needed now?
by Michael Farr
The articles in the design management series have so far concentrated largely on reporting the ways in which design is being treated as a management problem in specific industries or in individual firms. This article begins a new series in which the emphasis will shift to take in expert views on the way certain specialised skills could and should be used by industry to solve design management problems. The first article in the new series is taken from Michael Farr's book on design management, which will be published by Hodder and Stoughton Ltd towards the end of this year.
The types of design now needed by industry and commerce are daily growing more complex. No longer can the manufacturers of most products or the suppliers of most services rely on rule-of-thumb methods each time they make a fresh attack on their markets. To take two examples: the producer of a gas range is not selling a cooker, he is marketing leisure in a prestige casket; the supplier of ironed shirts is selling not a laundry service, but pride in appearance. These are typical of the forces which motivate the market place and so condition the types of design required. From scientific research leading to technological development, there are further forces which affect design, requiring the exploitation of new and frequently untried methods and materials. And within the companies themselves there are yet other, often conflicting, reasons why products and services should be changed, and hence re-designed.
The design skills needed to meet modern requirements are also becoming more complex, and their practitioners more specialised. No longer can one designer do all types of designing. Designers' training, experience and opportunities are tending to become less diffuse and more profound. Larger markets for products and services mean greater capital outlay on tools, plant and promotion before they are tackled. The penalty for starting off with the wrong design is growing more severe. Picking the right designer for the job, and making certain that he is also a person who works well with a company's own team, has become a crucially important task. For these and other reasons, which this series of articles will attempt to indicate, design management is becoming an integral part of profitable trading which commerce and industry can no longer ignore.
Design management is the function of defining a design problem, finding the most suitable designer, and making it possible for him to solve it on time and within a budget. This is a consciously managed exercise which can apply to all the areas where designers work.
It seldom does. Industry and commerce generally are still confused and sceptical about the whole business of designing. The problem has many roots. One to be eradicated is mistrust of something new. Another is fear of being fleeced by a horde of idle artists. And yet another is lack of accord in the management of an organisation, which inevitably leads to stifling indecision. These, and other rooted objections to recognising design as a valid and viable commercial tool that must be kept in trim, are frequently caused by nothing more serious than lack of practice.
Lack of practice, that is, in design management. When his public desires a change - or at least appears to be ready to accept one - the manufacturer who wants to supply it must think in terms of design. For many it will be an unfamiliar thought process because the majority of factories are not producing new designs every month, and in some cases not every year. They have no need to. Lack of familiarity with the design process can best be gauged by comparing it with manufacturing methods or the practices of the selling staff. In both cases the key to efficient and profitable operation lies in continuity; in the handling of the minimum number of variables in the greatest possible quantities. A smoothly operating production line is the manufacturer's daily concern. So, too, is the sales policy. Neither would do well if it were not constantly appraised and improved. Both would become inefficient and uneconomic if the designs they handled were a/so subject to continuous improvement.
Companies need works directors and sales managers to ensure that their business operates efficiently.. They need design management when they need new designs.
An underlying premise of this series is that if designers are good at designing they should not have the time to spare to manage the ramifications of their design projects, regardless of whether or not they are also good managers. A good designer has been trained and experienced in designing, and is, therefore, best used (and better fulfilled) as a designer. The same may be said for managing directors, works and sales managers, and other executive staff who have defined duties in any business and are most effective when they concentrate on these duties. Each of them, including the designer, makes a particular contribution to the process of transforming a product, and each sees the outcome of the process from a specialist's viewpoint. The design manager comes in when the need for his unbiased co-ordinating services is felt, and for the majority of companies his is not a full time job.
Tasks of the design manager
But the design manager, as such, is still rare in industry. His job, in brief, is to investigate, from the designing point of view, the requirements for a new product; set a time and budget for the design development period; find and brief the designer (or team of designers); set up and operate an easily understood network of communication between all parties concerned in the new product; and be responsible for the co-ordination of the project until the prototype reaches the production line and the designing of packaging and supporting printed matter is complete. At these latter stages the design manager supplies all required information to those responsible for product marketing, sales promotion, advertising, publicity and public relations.
Throughout any design project, there is the tension of conflicting forces -the marketing manager may be in a hurry for results, while the works director does not want his existing, profitable operations disturbed - and in countless cases this tension has succeeded in spoiling or shelving the designer's work. It is the design manager's job to resolve these forces, preferably by anticipating them, so that, to put it simply, the designer can give of his best and the company can receive it.
When the amount of designing handled makes it necessary for the design manager to be on the staff of a company, he should have a status that allows him to be on equal terms with the works and sales managers. He should be directly responsible to the managing director. This is desirable because the work he handles will not be confined to either product design or packaging and publicity design. The total design policy of the company would be his responsibility, and it could embrace its house style, office design and furnishing, and exhibitions, as well as the products and their promotional aids. Usually it is only the managing director who can decide on all these matters.
At board level
This equal status with other senior executives could mean that the design manager is, in fact, on the board of directors. For companies where designing is habitually extensive and planned far ahead, the design manager on the board should be able to bring an original and vital dimension to his colleagues' discussions. Of course, he can be equally valuable where the board is primarily concerned with day-to-day matters. The presence or absence of the design manager on the board can be justified differently for each company; what matters is his direct contact with the managing director, who can give him a mandate to question the motives of those who might unwittingly obstruct a design project.
For companies which need occasional but intensive design activity for their products, a design management consultant could be called in temporarily. In many cases he would act as if he were a member of the company's senior staff for the duration of his assignment. Again, he should be directly responsible to the managing director. Often the consultant design manager would find that, owing to his initiative or his client's, it would be desirable for him to extend his original terms of reference in order to co-ordinate all the company's other design requirements. In such cases he would probably be retained on a more long-term basis.
However employed, the design manager needs knowledge, specific working methods and skill. His tasks lie in problem solving, planning, briefing, communications and co-ordination. They occur with every project, but their content is never the same. Assuming he is a consultant, his knowledge must be of a large variety of freelance designers in this country and abroad. He must know them, and know what they do and how they set about it. He must know what the trends are over the whole field of industrial design, and be a good critic of them. He should be familiar with the different types of specialised services that designing frequently needs, such as consumer, market and industrial research, and ergonomics. In addition, he must have a working knowledge of the main industrial processes and the general characteristics of leading materials and finishes in all the areas in which he offers his services.
The staff design manager, for all but a few companies, would obviously not need such extensive experience, but it would be important for him to be alert to all the design trends that could conceivably affect his company's business. This means that he should not be closeted within its offices all day. Above all, both types of design manager need vision: the capacity to see how people from different disciplines are likely to interact in order to produce something new and worthwhile.
The design manager's normal working methods are to be described later in this series. He should be fully conversant with the 'technology of design', with the various tools that can solve his problems (such as statistical method), and with those that can help to run his programmes (such as network analysis). His skill cannot be defined in any way which is meaningful in a general context, but it can be said that if he practises without a really keen intuitive sense of what is wanted and how to get it, he will not practise for long. Sorting out the relevant information for a designer's brief is one of the design manager's most difficult tasks.
Often the design manager is the only person who can appreciate the potential abilities of a young and diffident designer. By breaking down the design problem into manageable stages, by carefully phasing the integration of the designer with the company's own staff, and by giving more encouragement than is normally forthcoming to the novice in industry, the design manager can realise for his company's profit some original talents that would otherwise be lost altogether - or lost to a competitor. Much designing brilliance, fresh from art school, runs to waste for lack of a perceptive entrepreneur.
Experienced or inexperienced, the designer is the specialist who performs what ultimately matters to the company. He wants to be able to perform it to the best of his ability. Only in so far as he helps in this definitive process has the design manager got a raison d'etre in commerce and industry. He has to show that he is the best person to absorb the various and often conflicting requirements of the company's executives, and to interpret them to the designer in a consistent manner. He will not do this successfully by relying solely on re-editing, re-writing and re-issuing reports. He will, during the course of any job, do it mainly by conversation in which his rapport with the designer is a factor of fundamental importance.
What, then, are the reasons for publishing a series of articles on design management? There are many, but lying at the root of all of them is a need for industry to become more competitive, particularly competitive abroad. Design is a unique factor in competition. Skilful management of designers and designing, therefore, becomes imperative. If better returns are to be earned on the capital invested in the new materials, processes, plant and marketing systems, then what is required is a more precise application of the right designing skill to their products. In this country and throughout the world there is a grossly inadequate number of experienced staff design managers, let alone consultants. Perhaps this series will go some way to show that there is an opening for more of them.