Sunday, 26 June 2011

Design Council Summit – 10 Design Lessons for Attaining Business Success

The Design Council Design Summit
discussion of design best practice
Last week the Design Council’s ‘Design Summit’ brought together by former Chairman, Lord Michael Bichard and Chief Executive, David Kester, outlined some of the lessons of good design cultures. 

Figures such as Jonathan Ive, Senior VP Industrial Design, Apple, referred to as 'the most successful designer on the planet'; Dr Ralph Speth, CEO luxury car producer, Jaguar Land Rover; author, broadcaster and designer, Kevin McCloud; together with design gurus Ian Callum, Design Director Jaguar, and Gerry McGovern Design Director Land Rover; formed part of a line up assembling world-leading figures from architecture and design.

Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, and Minister for Business and Enterprise, Mark Prisk MP, provided insights on government thinking around design and its contribution to competitiveness. 

Mark Prisk’s intention to highlight great British design during the Olympics next year through showcasing design excellence was warmly received.  Especially so, when the Minister signalled his intention that other parts of the country, and not simply London, would benefit from this investment.

This is a summary of the 10 top design lessons for business success which I took from the day.

1)      Design underpins everything in the value creation process. This can be summarised as people, processes, products, services and sustainable approaches through R&D, production, training, recruitment, marketing, sales and after-care, all making up a design-led culture. Design is integral, not applied. It is not about ‘flower arranging’, or some form of styling at the end of the process – it is central to corporate growth and success. 

2)      Culture and values really do make a difference.  It was stressed through the day that the best businesses thought deeply about their goals.  For these businesses it seems their core goals are not about making money, but are rather more assertions about reaching clearly stated aims – such as ‘producing the best products they can’.  Clarity of focus is essential to ensure that resources are devoted to areas that really matter.  Pride in what they do leads to a culture valuing this activity.  Making money flows from teams doing what they believe in and doing it to the best of their ability.  

FT journalist, John Kay, has attached the label, ‘Obliquity’, to this phenomenon.  He states, “the most profitable companies are not the most targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly....Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people. (It) is characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them..... Outstanding success is the product of obliquity.

3)      Manufacturing really matters.  Even the most advanced businesses in the world continue to generate great value from the way their products are made.  This is a core part of the value creation process, not something remote or commodity-based.  Grappling with new processes, technologies, materials and service integration are a key part of what these businesses are doing. The way things are made is at the heart of their design processes.

4)      Working in creative cultures is critical. Creative cultures remain curious.  They are keen to learn. They value innovation, but innovation doesn’t come about without some failures, so they recognise that failure is part of the process.  Hand-in-hand with this they recognise the need to end projects which may be acceptable, may even have some merit, but may simply not be great.  Creative cultures demand courage and commitment to developing the very best products and services they can.    

5)      Leadership of creative companies flows from working in an integrated team. Time and again during the day leaders stressed the relevance of bringing together teams with different skills and keeping them together throughout projects, whether within design disciplines or across engineering, technology and business.   Multi-disciplinary skills and approaches were adding new value and required a steady stream of high quality people trained appropriately with new skills and an appreciation of how to work together with other disciplines. As Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, New York Museum of Modern Art, has said, “In (future) designers will be at the nexus of things. They will not be divvied up according to their reductive specialty (graphic, product, furniture...). Theoretical designers will be exquisite generalists, but ready to roll up their sleeves.”

6)      Design’s contribution to leadership is not always obvious or tangible.  There are some important contributions that design can make to the leadership of a company, but they are not always obvious.  You have to be comfortable with attributes which are not tangible.  People are much more comfortable talking about attributes which they can evaluate with a number.  These ‘easy conversations’ can take up oxygen and simply not be that important.  It is important, however, to realise that there is an aspect to design that is centred around intangibles that needs to be taken seriously. 

This feature was recognised in Design Council's report, 'Design in the Knowledge Economy 2020', produced in partnership with Will Hutton of  the Work Foundation.  The report acknowledges   the 'amazing inversion' that has taken place in company investment. "Economists differentiate between investment in tangible assets – plant, machinery and buildings – and intangible assets. Researching new products; building up a company’s reputation; investing in human skills; design; computer software and even investment in management and leadership all count as intangibles. Back in 1970 companies’ investment in intangibles was 40% of their investment in tangibles. Today it has trebled."

7)      Ideas can be fiercely powerful but driving development can be fragile.  Creative cultures recognise the disruptive and creative potential of ideas and support their development.  They recognise that new ideas can be difficult to evaluate simply because there are no precedents, making business models difficult to define and create, but they are prepared to support the unseen depth in invention sitting behind successful ideas.   

8)      Great design education is a prerequisite to industrial and commercial success.  The very best business people have a genuine familiarity with the design process, either through some form of formal education or learned by working with the design process over years.  For educators the challenge looking ahead is about training designers who can embrace business, finance, engineering and technology with confidence and fluency.

9)      The world is changing rapidly and designers are having to take on board substantial paradigm shifts.  These include the need for sustainable solutions, healthy living and ageing populations in developed economies together with population growth more generally.  In auto markets, where previously the field of players had been contracting, they are now proliferating; multiple technological solutions are opening up where formerly one had been the accepted norm; changing consumer habits, for example resulting from ‘connectivity’ are now the catchword for a whole generation.

10)   Design is about delivering great experience. Designing emotional connection, supported by technologies, processes, innovations, ultimately delivering great experience, requires a more in-depth understanding of users around the world and their different cultures, values and ethos.   David Willetts highlighted the growing importance of design-sensitive consumers coming out of higher education and their enhanced expectations from products and services. Ideas of luxury differ in different places and personal time is a luxury commodity with experiences, not possessions, increasingly enhancing quality of life. 

The views expressed are those of the author alone. 
Beverley Nielsen is Director Employer Engagement, Birmingham City University.
Jonathan Ive:
Ian Callum, 2011 New York Auto Show:
Gerry McGovern and Land Rover Range Rover Evoque:

Monday, 20 June 2011

Birmingham - Developing our Design ID

Morgan's new three wheeler 
"Just think what we might have achieved if we'd put just a fraction of the £850bn required to bail out the banks into manufacturing?" asks Mike Whitby.

The Conservative Councillor and Leader of Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe, is in discussion with both Charles Morgan and myself at the Morgan factory in Malvern.

The idea is unthinkable. Yet this is the official cost of the bank bailout, revealed by the National Audit Office last year. But then Mike Whitby is a Conservative politician who thinks the unthinkable. Or perhaps you'd call it thinking out of the box. 

Mike listens with enthusiasm as Charles Morgan recounts their extraordinary story spanning over 100 years. "The three-wheeler was the start-up of the business when launched by my grandfather, 'HFS' Morgan. It still holds many speed records. In 1935 Morgan produced its first 4-wheeler and the Four Four remains a classic to this day providing people with a sports car for £26,000 that does 50 miles to the gallon."

The new three-wheeler is the personification of Morgan's brand values and already the business has taken 450 orders from all over the world. "We're incredibly proud of being the largest car maker still in British hands," says Charles."We turn over £40m, producing around 1000 cars a year and exporting 70% of these."
Morgan Motor Company launches its new three wheeler
Manufacturing is a passion for Mike, as Chairman and Managing Director of Smethwick-based Skeldings, the engineering business he's owned for over 20 years.
He's genuinely delighted by the turnaround taking place in the region's best-known luxury brand-led businesses, including JLR, which has just posted record profits of over £1bn.
Mike refers to their Operations Director, Alan Volkaerts, appointed to the newly formed Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and naturally then to Andy Street, MD of John Lewis Partnership, who's become LEP Chairman and whose business is due to open a new flagship store at the re-developed New Street Station.
"It's taken over three years of intense negotiation to bring this major achievement about," says Mike, "and it's tremendous that they'll be opening their largest store outside London there - 250,000 square feet - forming the centrepiece of this landmark transport hub."

"The LEP is critical to our on-going development as the influence of Birmingham on the rest of the region is like a river delta on its alluvial flood plain," says Mike. "It's about using this influence to promote us to investors and talent - here and abroad. Promoting us, not only as 'open for business', but a city with 'a passion for makingthings'."

Morgan Motor Company new design development
Charles asks if he's considered using the 'Made in Birmingham' mark again. "What is particularly striking about Birmingham, when compared with many other European cities," says Charles, "is that things are made right in the heart of the city, not only in outlying areas - for example in the jewellery quarter or in our countless engineering businesses. Innovation and design go to the roots of our identity as a City"

Mike speaks about the revival taking place at MG, owned by SAIC Motor Corp, China's largest domestic automotive producer. He's been a frequent visitor to China and Hong Kong since 2004, developing links with this and other valuable export markets and trading partners, with a visit to Shanghai planned in a few weeks time.
JLR and Morgan, together with SAIC, are targeting elements of the buoyant emerging BRIC markets (Brazil, Russia, India and China) currently demonstrating a huge appetite for luxury brands.
"JLR has realised that in trying to service demand in these new markets the traditional lowest cost-based international procurement model is out of date," says Mike. "By strengthening their local supply chains they can build in efficiencies in terms of green miles, distance travelled to assembly and rapid response rates needed to meet unexpected sales surges.
"The question for the region is whether we have enough equity and the leverage to finance this supply chain expansion. For this reason," he says, "it was so important to have the new national equity investment fund, the Business Growth Fund chaired by Sir Nigel Rudd, headquartered in Birmingham."
"For us at Morgan," adds Charles, "as a productive business with a strong heritage, innovation and design remain integral to our brand. At the moment we're being funded by the Technology Strategy Board to develop lightweight applications for the composite, magalloy, and we've also been developing a fuel cell electric car - quite an ambition for us as a small company in automotive terms.
Mike Whitby, Leader Birmingham City Council with
Charles Morgan in the Morgan Heritage Centre
"Our new models, such as the AeroMax, generating £9m in sales and £2m in profits, have succeeded in combining good design with innovative manufacturing techniques. This includes super-forming aluminium, based on a technology transfer from Alcan, to produce 'big curves'. Adhesive bonding has doubled stiffness in the structural integrity of the chassis, with bonded bodywork coming to us from our Birmingham supplier, Radshape.
"More generally, in spite of Britain producing some of the best designers in the world we still seem to have a challenge in defining our British identity. With British designers such as Tom Dixon and Jonathan Ive, Ian Callum, Design Director at Jaguar, his colleague, Julian Thomson, formerly of Lotus, heading up the Jaguar Design Studio, Gerry McGovern at Land Rover and Marek Reichman at Aston Martin, we have a wealth of internationally respected talent, much of it located here in the West Midlands."
Both men recognise the importance of design and just what it can achieve in terms of driving sales and adding serious value. "Why is the 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO worth £20m?" asks Charles. "It's got to do with people associating it with the romance and culture of this period, also symbolised by the E-Type Jag. These products have so much enduring appeal - full of charm, character, sophistication and status."
Both men query why so many great British brands are no longer British-run. Perhaps it takes an outsider's eyes to recognise value in what we take for granted or to prompt the next big leap of faith. Alberto Alessi, for example, works with over 90 designers from all over the world.
Charles notes that Church's, Tod's and Brooks England, are all run by Italians, who're very consciously using the heritage associated with the brands to generate value, with Mike commenting on the Burberry revival under the American, Angela Ahrendts as a great achievement.
Professor Roberto Verganti of Politechnico di Milano, has spoken about the need to move outside the accepted thinking and perspectives when visiting Birmingham. "The danger for strong brands is that they become conservative making too many incremental changes rather than working to create their future."

Charles Morgan and Councillor Whitby view
the new Morgan three wheeler
"As the birthplace of the industrial revolution," says Councillor Whitby, "we changed the quality of life for people around the world. The creation of luxury, specialist, high-end lifestyle products says something exciting about Birmingham, our character, culture and values. But we need to keep innovating and challenging ourselves.
"I'm focussing on moving Birmingham up the Mercer Quality of Living Index where we're currently ranked 55th, occupying the second position for any English City in comparison to London, ranked 39th. I'm targeting moving us into the top 20 Cities. To achieve this we need to transform ourselves economically and environmentally by becoming a 'smart' city. We'll need to deliver on our CO2 emissions targets where we're looking for 60% reductions by 2026, and to deliver strong economic growth."

The Big City Plan is the driver, targeting the redevelopment of 2,000 acres of City centre land to dramatically improve the look and feel of Birmingham as part of our long range planning.

"Key to this," says Mike, "will be improving our physical environment to attract people and improve the city's image through well designed buildings, streets and spaces. We need to offer attractive homes, schools, public transport, health and social facilities. All this is challenging given the likely 10% population uplift.
"The most 'liveable cities' are desirable places. People want to live there; they attract highly qualified people and hence investment. They promote social inclusion."
This design challenge places the user - business and the public - at its heart.
"I'm focussing on key developments in the city around quality of life - the £600m re-development of New Street Station and the £188m being invested in our new Library as a cultural resource and the largest to be built in Europe, together with green spaces and even new forests planned for the city centre and outlying areas."
He regrets that so many of our traditional brands have been lost to the region, suggesting these really need to be captured in digital records before this social and intellectual capital disappears forever.
However, Mike adds that with so many great brands still being produced here - Jaguar, Land Rover, MG, Morgan, AGA, Rangemaster, Triumph motorcycles, Emma Bridgewater - there's a real need to communicate these achievements more effectively as saying something really distinctive about our 'can-do' character.
Morgan three wheeler
"Broader design thinking could play an important role in how we develop more inclusive business models and provide assistance to business start-ups and entrepreneurship," adds Mike. "I am keen to encourage local supply chains in farming with smaller farmers having the opportunity to sell their produce into more local markets," he says with emphasis.
"How can we inspire and give hope to the many small businesses with 97% of VAT registered businesses employing 20 or under? If we're going to rebalance the economy we need to look at health & safety and other compliance costs, where possible reducing national insurance costs.
"Social capital is very important. I want more people living here to be motivated to give something back. We need a greater sense of philanthropy, or 'verbindung' as the Germans call it. I'm a fan of business models favouring wider ownership amongst employees and I am worried about the widening gap between high and low earners."
So after 7 years as the City's Leader how does the scorecard look?
There have been certainly some impressive achievements. But, set against the demanding national and international backdrop, it's clear that if ever there was a time for vision, leadership and yes, thinking out of the box, it's now.
Beverley Nielsen is Director Employer Engagement at Birmingham City University.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Samuel Heath - tapping into creativity - since 1820

'Lana', from Samuel Heath's
latest advertising campaign
"From designing to machining, polishing, plating and assembly, we have complete control over the whole production process, so that we can oversee the quality of each product at every stage and remain faithful to our design principles," says Managing Director, David Pick, on a recent visit to Samuel Heath in Birmingham.

The business, founded in 1820, is working to preserve the craftsmanship innate within its manufacturing, whilst combining this with the latest design technologies.

It's clear to David Pick that vertical integration is at the heart of their competitive positioning. "None of our competitors operates with such a high degree of vertical integration," he says.

Professor Beverland at the School of Management, Bath University has highlighted three qualities essential to authentic brands - product quality built-in, a reputation based on heritage or a historical narrative, and a sincerity, based on a love of the product.

In the case of our West Midlands authentic businesses this sincerity, or 'love of product' often appears to be synonymous with the knowledge and control gained through vertical integration in the production processes.

It's a feature of many of these lifestyle brands including - AGA and Rayburn cookers together with AGA stoves, Morgan cars, Brooks England saddles, Pashley Cycles, Brintons carpets and Emma Bridgewater and no doubt many others too.

For David Pick the company is proud to promote its unique heritage as well as embracing innovation and new technologies to drive new product introductions.

"The company's appetite for innovation has helped us migrate from coffin furniture in the early 19th century into brass bedstead production, with the business becoming the largest manufacturer at the time," he says.

By the 1890's Samuel Heath & Sons was floated as a public company on the Birmingham Stock Exchange, but with the majority of shares remaining in the Heath family - and remaining so up to this day, the company has been able to remain in charge of its own destiny.

At the height of Victorian industrialisation the company moved into manufacturing locks, gas and electrical fittings and later as the automotive industry's growth gathered momentum the business started making head lamps for motor cars.

'Sophia', from Samuel Heath's
latest advertising campaign
 In 1958 they acquired Perkins & Powell, producing high quality architectural hardware. In 1970 Sam Heath became their Chairman. With the acquisition of Holt Siron and W Adams they moved into the design and production of luxury bathroom accessories as taps and showers.

Having been established as a traditional brass founder, the business has refined its knowledge of plating technologies as applied to the European brass used exclusively in their products today.

"Each product is hand polished and plated in up to 34 individual processes to create a flawless finish," says David.

"We have developed a layering process that is unique to us. The careful polishing and preparation of the surface and the thickness of each layer is very important in giving a lustrous finish, what we call a 'mirror finish'. It's what gives the products a true reflection, without any distortion."

This plating expertise has enabled the business to produce a vast range of finishes to their brass products including bronze, antique brass, polished nickel, polished and satin chrome, brass - lacquered and un-lacquered, and matt black. More recently new materials have been added such as wood and crystal.

"In developing new products we have in-house design engineers who work with our Product Design agency based in Cardiff. We've had a longstanding relationship with them and they're familiar with our design and manufacturing capabilities.

"We're immersed in design trends and shows and how we can interpret interior design trends in our brassware, but we're also aiming for a balanced and enduring, not faddish approach.

"Recent developments in design and manufacturing technology are enabling us as manufacturers to push at the boundaries of what's possible for us. CAD software means that we can undertake much of our design process on screen building virtual products in three-dimensions - shaping and testing for weight, volume and performance before they leave the screen.

'Veronica', from Samuel Heath's
latest advertising campaign
 "Rapid prototyping enables us to 'print' three dimensional models of our products using layers of powdered resin providing a means of producing quick, easy and cost-effective prototypes in-house in our tool room.

"We can see how rapid prototyping can become a future means of producing customised products - even those made from various different materials, such as stone and metal - with some machines already able to weld them into shape - although quality will always be a key concern for us.

"CNC (Computerised Numerical Controlled) machines have also enabled us to test complex design ideas that might never have made it past the drawing board in the past - for example modelling and testing the internal workings of products to test intricate design ideas.

"These processes are reducing lead times in terms of new product introductions. However for new taps and showers it can still take up to two years to bring a complete collection of new products to market. These developments have also been reducing the need for continual new product testing leading to more sustainable processes reducing material wastage.

"We believe, as a British manufacturer, that we're able to attract new customers through our focus on quality, our constant product innovation and by remaining true to our integrity and provenance."

And it is this provenance and integrity that lies at the heart of a newly launched advertising campaign that has been created and designed for the business by Midlands-based Cogent Elliott.

"We were looking for a new creative agency," says Vanessa Allan, Marketing Manager. "Having talked with a number Cogent stood out for its understanding of the needs of high end brands having worked with AGA, Jaguar and Land Rover.

"Richard Payne, their Creative Director, came up with the idea of using the purity of water as an analogy for the purity of the materials we are working with.

"Richard wanted to build on the Greek myth of the Three Graces to create four female forms out of water, representing the charm, beauty, creativity and desirability of Samuel Heath's key collections.

'Olivia', from Samuel Heath's
latest advertising campaign
 "The idea was to begin with an element as pure as water. By focussing on its purity and how this reflects the pure and flawless brass at the heart of all our products and from which they're all are produced, Cogent began crafting images of women inspired by water patterns.

"These water images were merged with images of models representing the spirit of the Four Graces and captured using a high-speed flash, capable of photographing a speeding bullet.

The frames were then layered to merge fluidly with the models and the water-like texture of their dresses representing the timelessness of high-end design.

"The campaign has been well received by our largely independent retailers with really positive feedback from consumers too. We see it as key to driving understanding and further clarity in terms of our market positioning."

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Professor John Heskett, Visiting Lecture 30th March, 3pm BIAD, Room 201

Professor John Heskett
 *  Professor John Heskett, immediate past Chair Professor Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 'Using Design to Create Markets'

Date: 30th March 2011, 3pm, Room 201, BIAD, Gosta Green, Birmingham

John Heskett took up a post as Chair Professor in the School of Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2004 after fifteen years in the USA as professor at the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

John Heskett is known as the author of Industrial Design, (1980), used as a basic textbook on design courses in many countries; German Design 1870-1918, (1987); and Philips: A Study in Corporate Design (1989). Toothpicks and Logos: Design in Everyday Life, was published by Oxford University Press in 2002 and reissued in 2005 as A Very Short Introduction to Design. It has been translated into Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazil), Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Turkish.

John contributes articles, essays and reviews to numerous magazines, anthologies and catalogues. His consultant experience includes work for governments, universities and design companies around the world.

His current research is focussed on the theme of how design creates economic value and the role of this in Design Policy in governments and corporations. Other areas of teaching and consultancy include the relationship between design and innovation, the problems of successfully changing the nature of markets, and the problems of design in global markets.

For more information visit

Creating a New Seat of Learning - Professor Richard Snell

Hille - newly launched SE school chair
Designed by Professor Richard Snell
and David Rowe
 The chair, mundane in its functionality, is something most of us simply take for granted.

Yet this practical everyday object is capable, through good design, of becoming art. More than that, when form and function are well combined, it can create wealth and sustain jobs.

"Throughout the 20th century the chair has been regarded as the definitive design test, encouraging artists, designers, architects and engineers to create chairs that captured their design philosophy."

These words, spoken by Professor Richard Snell at a recent design lecture, "The Seat of Learning", at the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, highlighted a collaborative design project to create a new school chair, known as the SE Chair, with fellow designer, David Rowe and Birmingham City University - funding elements of the two year research and development programme - together with reputable seating manufacturer, Hille.

"Designers of the 21st century are building on this approach, extending it to include issues such as sustainability and impact on quality of life," added Professor Snell.

Professor Richard Snell,
Co-designer, Hille new school seating
 Richard Snell's designs have been created largely for the contract furniture sector working mainly with architects and specifiers. Design work has focused on seating for schools and universities, restaurants and cafes, hotels and halls of residence, airports and transport hubs around the world.

He has an impressive list of clients and partners including Conran, British Airport Authority, Commonwealth Games, Trust House Forte, Littlewoods, Debenhams, Fitch & Co, Hostess Furniture and most recently, Hille.

David Rowe, Co-designer,
Hille new school seating
 David Rowe has considerable experience working with renowned Midlands furniture brands, such as Gordon Russell, especially on products where consideration of posture has been important, meeting a real market need for this specialisation.

The Opus Seating Range, designed specifically for orchestral musicians, was one of Snell and Rowe's early collaborations. Initially focussing on the CBSO during the research, development and design stages of the project, they produced a niche product which subsequently sold in volume worldwide.

They've been designing chairs for over 30 years and in recent years have noticed key changes in chair design and production.

"We've been taking another look at materials in light of the need for a more sustainable approach.

"Polypropylene can be recycled easily, it's low cost, has great strength, it's suitable for injection moulding and due to its natural integrity it does not need any fillers to gain strength, making it much easier to recycle.

"In addition, theories around seating posture have developed significantly.

"When we sit down there is a natural tendency for the pelvis to rotate backwards dragging the bottom half of the spine with it. When we support the spine in the lumber region then the vertebrae tend to get pushed sideways and downwards. However if we support the pelvis and stop it rotating backwards we can prevent the conflict of vertebrae in the lower spine and maintain balance.

"In Europe a new standard in school seating was developed following research showing an increase in the dimension and variety of shapes and sizes of children, resulting in an increase in the sizemarks being used from 6 to 8.

"In starting to think about designing a new school chair we had to be aware of the new European standards, the well-being of the user - school children, both here and overseas.

"As a result the SE Chair exceeds the postural requirements of then new BS EN 1729 standard and is available in 6 sizes and in 3 frame colours. Skid base and swivel versions are among the variations in development.

"A lot of people had ranges of products in the market already. We needed points of differentiation, but we also needed to be competitive on price. Polypropylene is a cost effective material. We looked to produce a chair that would sell for under £21.

"However we wanted to see if we could mix polypropylene with other materials by designing a chair with separate back and base, providing the opportunity for separate material options within one chair."

Plastics have been used in chair design since the 1960's by designers such as Charles Eames and Robin Day.

The 'Polychair', Robin Day's first polypropylene chair (also the world's very first polypropylene chair), was produced by Hille and became such a design icon it was subsequently commemorated on a postage stamp.

Developed in 1962 it was, in the words of Hugh Pearman, Sunday Times, "an immediate success" and is still, "one of the most affordable design classics going." Since its launch about 14 million have been sold worldwide and the school seating versions are still being made by Hille at the rate of 500,000 a year.

Fred Scott, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, also worked for Hille. "In 1979 he produced 'the Supporto' office chair system which in turn formed a source of inspiration for 'the Meridio' created in 1990 by Michael Dye - designed in the Anglepoise and rather anglophile tradition of engineered knobs and junctures, rather than the more international approach where joints are hidden away," said Professor Snell.

"Tooling can be an expensive element and taking a systems approach to product design can considerably reduce both the cost of tooling up and production.

"In creating our new SE Chair, our intention was to minimize tooling costs, which came in at around £200k in total, by producing 3 backs and 3 seats providing flexibility for up to 8 sizes and meeting EU standards.

"We looked at gas filling properties during the injection moulding process to develop a bone-like structure around the seat back to provide additional structural integrity ensuring lightness and longevity. The tube frame was adjusted at the fixing points enabling the required flexibility in sizing.

"The tubular steel frame is made in Burnley and required tube forming and CNC investment. We were conscious of working in a distinguished design tradition in tubular furniture.

Design Classic - West Midlands
PEL manufactured SP9
"Companies like PEL (Practical Equipment Limited), renowned for the SP9 chair, or Spring Pattern 9, which was manufactured in Oldbury in 1932, became a design classic that has endured to this day.

"The designer of this particular chair is not known, but it's thought to have been influenced by architect Oliver Bernard. PEL was an important design business in that it took on board influences from Europe translating these into mass production, working successfully with well-known architects such as Wells Coates and Serge Charmayeff," said Professor Snell.

Hille Managing Director, Brian Foster thanked those present for attending the lecture saying, "Separate seated chairs have not been in vogue so Richard Snell and David Rowe's design approach with the SE Chair has been brave and commendable in the precision of its conception, facilitated through Birmingham City University-funded research and testing.

"It's been an amazing project. There have been a few years of discussions and meetings to get to this stage.

"However, whilst we've not yet had any official launch the price is right and the design is flexible and attractive.

"We've had 20,000 orders to-date without any launch or promotion, yet we sense a buoyancy to the market. We're not looking to be a volume player but to offer sufficient flexibility and quality at the right price to appeal to the specifier and architect markets with our new design, colour and materials by offering a fresh approach in the context of poly propagation."

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Brooks saddles - keep springing up as firm favourites

Brooks England Saddles - hand finished in leather
"All our leather bicycle saddles are hand-finished. They're being made today as they have been for the best part of 150 years," says Steve Green, Office Manager, Brooks Saddles.

I'm being shown around the Brooks Saddles' factory in Smethwick as the machines, many of which are antiques in their own right, strain, crash and crunch steelwire and rolls to form up to 20 parts for saddle bases.

It's not always appreciated that until the 1950s Brooks was the largest manufacturer of saddles in the world. Around this time the West Midlands was producing at least 50% of UK bicycles through two leading businesses, Phillips Bicycles and Tube Investments.

"The company was founded by John Boultbee Brooks in 1866 after he left his home in Hinckley at the age of 16 to make his fortune in Birmingham by making leather saddles for the horse trade.

"It was only in 1878 after the horse he was using to get to and from home died and he wasn't able to afford a new one that a friend lent him a bike. The bicycle saddles at the time were made of carved wood and horribly uncomfortable, so he decided to try making them in leather. It was all about finding more comfortable alternatives for the rider and this is still very much at heart our ethos."

The leather saddle is a fusion of crafted metal bases with leather tops culminating in a final process known as 'springing up' to form the finished product, immortalised through the words of the company's founder JB Brooks, when he wrote with some foresight in his early brochures, "It is not the name of Brooks which makes the Saddles good but the Saddle and its excellence which makes the name."

Brooks famous B17 - narrow saddle
JB Brooks also had the foresight to patent his designs, with the first one being patented in 1882,a process he pursued with vigour, registering many subsequent designs. A good number of todays designs are rooted in this early period with the B17 being the oldest model in the current range, having been featured in the 1890's catalogue.

The main reason it's never gone out of production is simple: it's all about comfort. A total of 20 models have survived over the decades and some products are even being revived, such as the 'Challenge Toolbag', first patented in 1876.

The machines in the Brooks factory are almost sculptural in appearance. And, despite their age they're agile enough, with the operators speaking fondly of each one for its personality and temperament. There's an oily down-to-earth rawness, the strong odour of leather and metal and a friendly camaraderie as the craftsmen and women ply their skills and the machines cut, stamp, bend and shape the steel and leather.

Many of the staff have been with the business for twenty, thirty or more years. "We have a very loyal team here," says Steve. "We realise that our saddles depend on craftsmanship, attention to detail and an authenticity delivered by staff, who know our machines and processes but who also know each other.

"We choose to keep running with traditional machines - partly because this is our tradition - the heritage we've inherited and are proud of - and partly because if we used new machines it would change the quality and feel of the saddles we're producing.

Brooks England Islington Rucksack
"We re-started a range of bicycle bags and accessories around 5 years ago. Initially many of these were sourced from the Far East. Now we're trying to pull production back to the UK. But when we first started looking at UK sources they were very expensive, or not up to our exacting quality requirements.

"After sometime we found a sewing shop in Salford and now they're making all our leather bags. We'd like to move our canvas bags there over the coming months. We feel we have found people who want to grow with us.

"Two years ago we had 25 staff. Today we have 34 with a further 8 or 9 working on our accessories range in Salford.

"It takes about 3 days to produce a saddle. We're running at 700 saddles per day or around 3,500 per week. We're operating at pretty near to full capacity at present unless we invest in new machinery."

"Our promise to customers has always been about producing the best of everything - The best materials, the best designs and the best constructions that experience, skill and money can procure.

"Retro trends have certainly helped our business and recently we have produced options with pre-aged leather and have been producing saddle frames with ageing effects.

"Quality leather is very important as the saddle top provides a comfortable ride by moulding to the individual rider's shape, unlike modern saddles made from contemporary materials. It's very hard to get hold of quality hides and there are only two tanneries producing the finish we require.

"We use only British and Irish cattle which have tougher hides taking the rear back or butt of the cattle hides as they have to be at least 5ml thick. We've started looking at a Swedish tannery and Swedish cattle for a select range of organically reared leather. We are not dyeing this leather, but leaving it entirely natural.

"During the BSE crisis we had a problem because they started to slaughter animals younger and we prefer their hides when they are older and the hides are that bit harder.

"We were bought by Italians in 2002 and they have really focussed on telling our story. They have seen that value can be created through innovative approaches to marketing, promotion and re-inforcing our identity.

"They've drawn on our unique heritage, creating striking advertising campaigns and new point of sale materials emphasising our authenticity. It's been interesting to see how they have looked at the business, finding value in much that could have easily been taken for granted.

Brooks saddles, like other West Midlands businesses including - Pashley Cycles, AGA, Rangemaster and Rayburn cookers, Morgan, Jaguar and Land Rover cars, Brintons Carpets, Emma Bridgewater, Steelite and Dudson potteries to name a few - displays the qualities outlined by Professor Beverland at Bath University as essential to authentic brands - they have product quality built-in, a reputation based on heritage or a historical narrative and a sincerity based on a love of the product.

Why, when we have this rich brand heritage have we not celebrated our achievements in improving people's lifestyles as a means of distinguishing ourselves from our competition?

Irish Economist, David McWilliams has said, "Far from drowing that which makes you different in a sea of bland, fake and generic consumerist product, globalisation allows difference to thrive. The difference is key: this is where the real value is and it is what people are striving for. The reaction to rampant consumerism has been a 'keeping it real' backlash..."

With such a unique productive heritage why do we not celebrate our achievements to create a collective market authority for our businesses - both older and younger emerging businesses - as we seek to create new opportunities for our graduates as they leave university?

Ian Callum, Design Director Jaguar Cars, has called this a 'considered approach to design'. "People need time to consider and use something after they have bought it to be sure of its quality," he says. "The real test is whether people like something after consideration. Depth of design and engineering can pave the way for products making them more sustainable."

Brooks England Colt Saddle, Turquoise

Well, almost 150 years on the Brooks' customer has given their saddles a resounding thumbs up - or as they might put it - a resounding 'bums down'!

To see more of the Brooks Saddles production process visit:

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Just the Ticket – Phil Mead, MD, NEC Arenas designs excellent customer service to drive sales

Phil Mead, MD, NEC Arenas

The NEC Group is a high visibility Birmingham–based business, but how many of us are familiar with much of the detail behind this well-known business? 
More especially, I wondered, as I went to meet Phil Mead, MD, NEC Arenas, are we aware of some of its recent success stories, demonstrating that a focus on strategic investment and the customer can pay off handsomely?
The NEC Group – Vital Stats
The NEC Group, wholly owned by Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, delivered annual revenues of £109.8m and an operating profit of £24.1m during 2009/10. 
It includes 4 business units – Exhibition (The NEC Birmingham), Convention (The ICC Birmingham and Dublin Convention Centre management contract), Arenas – including The LG Arena, The NIA and The Ticket Factory and, in addition, their Catering arm including NEC Catering and contract catering business Amadeus.

NEC Box Office to National Ticket Agency
“Three years ago, when I joined The NEC Group, our box office business was simply the box office for The Group,” says Phil Mead, MD, NEC Arenas on meeting him at The NIA Birmingham.
“It was clear to me that we had the resources to target a wider market. Big ticketing agents were seen as a ‘necessary evil’ with their inflated prices and poor service.” 
Having researched the market and their capabilities Phil could see that there was a market opening for them. By taking the service ethos from their venues business into ticketing they were able to launch their own business, ‘The Ticket Factory’.
“We launched in November 2007,” says Phil, “when we were doing around 1m tickets a year.  Now we’re selling upwards of 3m a year – a near trebling of ticket sales in as many years, all through good service.”
“Improving customer service was a key strand of our strategy for success.  Our call centre is now more accessible with 24 hour support and training support has been enhanced across the board for our staff.”
The Birmingham-based company has enjoyed robust growth  in three years, evolving from The NEC Group’s venue box office to acquiring major national ticketing contracts, including UK box office for Haymarket Exhibitions and the Chelsea Flower Show, selling two million tickets a year.
“Last year we acquired a specialist business, Bookings Direct, and now we’re the national ticketing agent for 3A Entertainment’s artists with current tours including Kylie, Eric Clapton, Boyzone, Van Morrison, Roger Waters – the Wall, Paul Weller, WWE and X Factor.
“As a result we are being recognised more and more as a national ticket agency – most recently with being one of only four national agents to have an allocation of standing and seated tickets for Take That’s Progress Live 2011 Tour.
“With over 10 million hits to The Ticket Factory’s website from 41 different countries, social media platforms including – You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and Posterous – were key in keeping our customers in touch.
“Through re-tweeting positive experiences from customers and posting ‘behind the scenes’ vodcasts of our contact centre, we were able to reassure other customers that it was worth continuing to try.
“We were able to offer a heightened level of customer service through these online channels by sending direct messages to customers who had queries about the orders they have placed, without them needing to go back on the phone to our contact centre.
“The success of our approach is clear through the 50% increase to both our Twitter and Facebook accounts from the tour announcement to the on sale day.”
Phil explains the advantages of cross selling, “with a database of around 1m registered users this gives us good marketing reach.  In general when world music sales are down we have more than doubled our sales in the past three years.”
Phil’s focus on improving customer service to drive growth of the Arenas business wasn’t restricted to their ticket sales.

Improving Customer Experience at The NEC Arenas

LG Arena Main Entrance
 “Our infrastructure in Birmingham was getting a bit tired and the customer experience was suffering as a result.  So we needed to re-invent The NEC Arena.  The O2 development in London helped as it raised the bar for the Arena experience in the UK. 

“It was clear we could not go to the City and get £20-30m so we commissioned a feasibility study, led by Masons, around improving the customer experience and went out to market our title rights – leading to the now well recognised LG Arena name. 
“We gained some gap funding from AWM, given NEC Group’s economic impact on the region, estimated by KPMG to be worth c£2bn a year. 

"The Group generates around 4.1m visitors through 900 events annually maintaining 29,000 people through our impact on indirect employment. We also arranged a loan through the City which we were able to repay because of the sale of the title rights and the uplift in sales which we experienced following the investment we made.
“We wanted the customer experience to match the act our customers were coming to enjoy. We have taken concert hospitality to a whole new level, with our three amplify packages, providing a great sense of arrival at LG Arena, with visitors initially seeing our Living Wall and passing 13,000 shrubs that form part of this wall.

Living Wall at LG Arena
“Amplify Air is the coolest area with limited capacity where guests dine over a four-course meal before enjoying the show from the spectacular show-deck overlooking the Arena bowl.”

Phil and his team worked with a team of professionals, including Yorkshire architects, DLA, structural engineers, cost consultants and utilities to remodel the LG Arena.  The entrance and its adjacent storage area were converted into the ‘ForumLIVE’, which can accommodate up to 6000 people as they’re moving into the arena, providing them with quality entertainment in line with the main act. “I don’t know any other arena in Europe where this interaction happens,” adds Phil.
“DLA Architects had a really good interior design arm that helped the customer experience.  The comfortably-padded, bigger seats are just part of a range of major improvements at the venue.  There is also no more hopping up and down in the queue as there are double the number of toilets, as well as improved sight lines and we created more of a horse shoe bowl in the arena itself.
“We designed a permanent seating structure which created more room under the seats so there’s been a whole change in the customer experience.  When the LG re-opened last October, 96% of our customers thought the re-development was either ‘good’ or ‘very good’.”
NEC Arenas was one of the first arenas in the UK.  Now there are 16 arenas across the country with over 5000 capacity and Phil Mead is Chairman of the Arenas Association. 
“We have 13% of the market share for arenas with more than 5k capacity in the UK,” says Phil. “We invested £29m to do all the work. The timescale was impressive – we had our last show in April with ACDC.  We re-opened for the Horse of the Year Show in October 2009.
“We upgraded ForumLIVE separately which speeded up the process and meant they were closed for a very brief three month period in what turned out to be a very well managed project.”
Now Phil has turned his attention to The NIA. “It’s effectively an ageing asset and so we’ve started down the same process – only this time we’ve taken on a new internal member of staff to conduct our feasibility study.  Our aim is to work up headline design and costings by end January.  We’re also going out to market for a naming rights partner again, together with other opportunities for additional income.”

NIA Birmingham
 “By improving the customer experience and quality of service people are prepared to arrive earlier, enjoy a meal and other entertainment and of course this in turn increases spend per head. 

"Whilst we’d originally been focussed on designing the visitor experience around sport – in line with our current offer which will remain important – now we’re looking at large theatre experiences including comedy, shows like Walking with Dinosaurs, as well as providing pre-show experience.
“We also became very conscious that our design at present is very inward facing.  So we see an opportunity to open out The NIA onto its location surrounded by Canals and just a few paces away from The ICC development, Brindleyplace and Broad Street.”

International Venue Management

Phil’s customer service ethic has not been confined to ticket agency sales and arenas management.  “We’re following a third business strand,” says Phil, “international partnerships.”
Convention Centre Dublin
“We’ve just formed a partnership with Global Spectrum in Philadelphia.  They have expanded from two venues to 81 across the USA, Canada and Asia (including Singapore). 

"They have formed a partnership with The NEC Group to benefit from our experience and resource in venue management in Europe.

“In Dublin we have signed a major 20 year contract, a Public-Private partnership venture with Treasury Holdings to manage the inspirational new Euros 380m Dublin Convention Centre, designed by architect Kevin Roche.  The largest lift takes an articulated lorry up to the auditorium and the second lift takes a transit van.

“Sales have gone well there - it has been brought in on budget – a huge budget.  I believe this is one of the best of its kind, a state of the art venue for Europe which is selling Dublin as a leading destination for business and leisure hospitality.... this together with the City’s new amazing Grand Canal Square Theatre, designed by internationally celebrated architect, Daniel Libeskind.

“In spite of the economic challenges we’re optimistic that by building our strategy to focus on customer experience and excellent service we can continue to develop more opportunities like these.”