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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > From Solving Problems to Selling Product > Profession > Flexible Production 1970-1990
 
PROFESSION – FLEXIBLE PRODUCTION 1970-1990
 
Carlton Bookcase designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1981 for the Memphis Group of designers based in Milan. Sottsass’ design was a highly polemical and influential attack on the conventions of ‘good design’ CRD00061 Carlton Bookcase designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1981 for the Memphis Group of designers based in Milan. Sottsass’ design was a highly polemical and influential attack on the conventions of ‘good design’

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By the start of the 1980s, Product Design as a profession had entered a period of dramatic change. Firstly, there had been a re-questioning of what constituted ‘good design’. Highly visible and influential polemicists such as the designer Ettore Sottsass and the architect Robert Venturi had been challenging conventional notions of good design since the 1960s but their work had rarely translated into artefacts to be purchased in the high street. Instead they appeared in exhibitions and specialist publications. However, mainstream commercial designers also had cause to reappraise their methods. Traditionally, the ideology of ‘good design’ demanded that the form of a product should reflect its function, at least symbolically. In other words its shape should somehow echo its inner mechanical workings and operating principles. When many products began to rely on microelectronics and silicon chips for their operation, the outside form of a product became less easy to determine. It was often a box many times larger than the components it was designed to contain and there was no longer a clear relationship between function and form. One solution widely practiced was the ‘black box’ method. This approach attempted to solve the problem by housing components in uniform and anonymous boxes, pure in terms of the taste values advocated by the Design Council, but ultimately resulting in undifferentiated products in a market place that was already saturated by similar objects.
 
Group of clocks and watches in an image shown in the exhibition 'Here today' at the Design Centre, London, 1970. Intended to illustrate Post-war affluence. More people have more money to spend on things that need not last a lifetime. CRD01008 Group of clocks and watches in an image shown in the exhibition 'Here today' at the Design Centre, London, 1970. Intended to illustrate "Post-war affluence. More people have more money to spend on things that need not last a lifetime."

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Products by Braun AG of Germany displayed in the exhibition 'Europe in the
Design Centre' at the Design Centre, London, 1973. The Braun house style
epitomised the strategy of housing electronic products in cool rectilinear
boxes.
CRD01004 Products by Braun AG of Germany displayed in the exhibition 'Europe in the
Design Centre' at the Design Centre, London, 1973. The Braun house style
epitomised the strategy of housing electronic products in cool rectilinear
boxes.

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For some designers this was a simple problem to solve – they restyled the exterior of products to provide symbolic or metaphorical reference to their function. No longer fettered by functional and mechanical restraints, designers were able develop the same product in a number of radically different aesthetic variations. In turn, manufacturers were able to capture a wider range of markets with what was essentially the same product in different clothing. By the mid-eighties this approach had become known as ‘product semantics’ – literally the science of product meaning. (See the section Theory – Postmodernism for a more in depth discussion of product meaning).
 
Miniature radio designed by Michael Ratcliffe, 1987. The form of the object is based on the human ear, and is intended to reinforce the symbolic function of the object as a listening device. CRD00441 Miniature radio designed by Michael Ratcliffe, 1987. The form of the object is based on the human ear, and is intended to reinforce the symbolic function of the object as a listening device.

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The RDC pocket radio, designed and made by Designers in Production in the 1980s. In an attempt to bring new symbolic value to a cheap electronic product, the designers have chosen make their radio in Bakelite – an almost obsolete material widely used in the production of radios 50 years earlier. CRD00435 The RDC pocket radio, designed and made by Designers in Production in the 1980s. In an attempt to bring new symbolic value to a cheap electronic product, the designers have chosen make their radio in Bakelite – an almost obsolete material widely used in the production of radios 50 years earlier.

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For a generation of designers who had been taught to avoid the term ‘stylist’ at all costs, this raised an additional problem. Designers had prided themselves on their knowledge of the workings of the products they designed. Clearly with the increasing sophistication of microelectronics it was no longer possible for a designer to have intimate knowledge of an entire product. It was more likely that they would either form part of a large team of experts, each with a different area of expertise, or that they would embrace the term stylist, and unreservedly acknowledge the importance of this aspect of the design process.
 
Globalisation

The advent of globalisation changed the structure and location of the manufacturing industries. The economics of manufacturing in the eighties led to mergers and acquisitions, with the creation of multi-national or global companies. These became represented through brands - and brands such as Philips or Sony had a presence in all areas of the world with their point of origin becoming increasingly difficult to discern. They used single centres of production across the globe to standardise markets and to design the smallest possible range of products. This resulted in large production volumes and costs so low that their competitors found it impossible to vie for business.

Although initially this meant fewer jobs for designers, the knock-on effect was that the products themselves could only partially accommodate the specific needs of any of the varied groups of consumers that make up the world market. Increasingly manufacturers realised that it made sense to address both the geographical and niche variations within a global market and to understand the segmentation of a market within a single region. In other words, to supply a variety of product forms that are able to meet the differing tastes and requirements of increasingly complex markets.
 
My First Sony. Brightly coloured and using bold expressive forms, this is one of a range of Sony products targeted at young children. Increasingly, designers are required to aim products at smaller segments of the marketplace. In this case the product also inculcates brand loyalty at the earliest stages of a consumers life. CRD00565 My First Sony. Brightly coloured and using bold expressive forms, this is one of a range of Sony products targeted at young children. Increasingly, designers are required to aim products at smaller segments of the marketplace. In this case the product also inculcates brand loyalty at the earliest stages of a consumers life.

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This need for product variation could be met through advances in flexible production. Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) enabled manufacturers to embrace the idea of infinitely variable products. The basic components of the product remained unaltered, possibly originating from a single manufacturing source – probably with the most economical labour force – but assembled locally, close to the intended market. It is at this last assembly stage that local styling variations can be introduced, taking advantage of clearly understood market preferences.
 
Late 1980s radio manufactured by Ross. The radio is styled with a minimal, high-tech form aimed at the design conscious section the European market. The internal components of the product were manufactured in the Far East, and assembled in the UK, the final market destination for the product. CRD00502 Late 1980s radio manufactured by Ross. The radio is styled with a minimal, high-tech form aimed at the design conscious section the European market. The internal components of the product were manufactured in the Far East, and assembled in the UK, the final market destination for the product.

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The net effect of these changes is that the designer’s role has become more focused on the styling and marketing of a product and less concerned with the fundamental problem-solving that used to be seen as the prime concern for design.

To see how these changes in the British design industries are reflected by writing at the time follow the link to Assignment 1 - Text Analysis.

To see how you can incorporate some of these approaches into your own design project follow the link to Assignment 2 - Design Brief.

To see a wider range of products that demonstrate some of the points put forward in this section follow the link to Product Evolution.
 
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