It was 2001 when the major Japanese telephone company KDDI decided to start a design experiment. Each year, KDDI would ask a well-known, external designer to come up with a mobile phone concept – without worrying about its actual feasibility.

The purpose: to innovate without boundaries, to free the company’s designs from the ‘cages’ that focus groups, technological constraints and marketing considerations normally provide.

Almost paradoxically the experiment (named KDDI au design project) did not lead to a series of beautifully designed concepts to be used for mere PR purposes, as often happens in these cases, but to commercially successful products.

Like Naoto Fukasawa’s Infobar, shaped as a chocolate bar (and also packaged as one!), which became a major seller, as well as an icon of innovative design. Or Marc Newson’s Talby (released in 2004), which happily marries form and function.

While the newly launched Neon (also by Fukasawa) is very much sought after by all design lovers, it is as yet for sale only in Japan.

The success of the products issued from the KDDI au design project is meaningful. It proves, contrary to what many corporate thinkers argue, that consumers are often a lot more advanced in terms of design taste and understanding than any focus group will ever be able to predict; that they like the ‘unexpected’ and appreciate what’s truly ‘new’ in terms of design and aesthetics.

And that, for big companies, the fresh look an external hand brings can truly make the difference.

This is a belief that the Dutch company Boxford Holland shares. “A very skilful designer, especially when he is not related to the company in question, is likely to bring a new look at things”, says the art director of the company, Jef Verkerk.

In 2005 the company announced a collaboration with Dutch design icon Marcel Wanders for its brand HE. For them, Wanders designed a complete home theatre set. “An external designer”, continues Verkerk, “is more likely to first conceive the product idea and only afterwards worry about its feasibility”. Which could well be a key to design innovation.

The approach of a fresh mind (meaning one not imbued with the corporate structure’s written and unwritten rules) seems to be one of the main reasons why an increasing number of technology manufacturers are deciding to work with external designers who have a personal reputation rather than with in-house design departments – or even large external design consultancies.

“I believe that corporate clients I work with come to me because they will get my solution to their problem”, says Sebastian Bergne, a French-born designer based in London and Bologna (Italy) who designs for Groupe SEB (Moulinex brand), Epson, Muji and Procter and Gamble (Sassoon brand).

“They know that they will be working with me personally, and that I will not pass the project to someone else in my team.”

Against the idea that only in-house corporate design departments are able to create and maintain a brand identity, some global manufacturers now use external expertise from independent designers to develop not only products but actual form languages for whole ranges.

One of Bergne’s corporate clients, Groupe SEB (a large domestic appliance manufacturer that owns brands such as Moulinex, Rowenta and Krups), works with Konstantin Grcic on its Krups brand.

For Krups, Grcic defined some “formal codes... simple, legible elements which when put together form a coherent unit that ensures consistency” – codes that the German designer conceived from his own personal interpretation of Krups’ characteristics.

“Krups is historically a German brand and we try to pick up on that tradition of functionality, quality, sturdiness, longevity and refusal to compromise,” he says.

Grcic’s codes are now applied to various ranges of Krups products. They are, basically, the branding design elements for whole series of appliances.

And what about the ‘glamour’ effect? It is undeniable that the signature of many ‘star’ designers – the ones that are also known on the high street rather than just within niche markets – can have an impact on the sales of a product.

It is not by chance, for instance, that for some ‘designed’ products the name of the designer is part of the product’s name. The US PC-peripherals manufacturer LaCie has named its portable hard disk designed by Karim Rashid the ‘Skwarim’ – toying with the squared shape of the object and the designer’s name.

Dutch electronics manufacturer Boxford Holland has decided to name its newest series of home theatre solutions, HE Marcel Wanders. And Rowenta’s brunch set designed by Jasper Morrison is simply called Morrison Brunch Set.

Yet, often, companies only subtly mention the name of the designer and use mainly the brand and the styled product as an image carrier.

The home printer, scanner and copier Any_Way by Olivetti, for instance, has been designed by Milan-based James Irvine and Alberto Meda, yet their names are not used as major selling tools on the company’s site, just subtly mentioned under the product’s specs.

And the same goes for the Grcic-designed appliances by Krups.

“With very few exceptions, collaboration with well-known designers does not increase sales with the high street consumer directly because of the particular signature on the box”, considers Sebastian Bergne. “It may, however, give a marketing team a hook on which to hang a PR campaign or increase sales in niche markets”.

Yet always, according to Bergne, more sales do come as a consequence of the collaboration. Rather than being due to the ‘glamour’ effect, however, they are linked to the quality of the product, which is imbued with “innovation or a personal vision that is harder to achieve when working with large design teams from within a corporate structure”.

Because there’s more than a glamorous name behind good design. And consumers are increasingly aware of that. 

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