Why holistic design with a global focus is the way forward

Martin Darbyshire, judge of the Golden Pin Design Award 2017, discusses why holistic design with a global focus is the way forward.

“Running a business is often much more challenging than people expect,” says Martin Darbyshire, CEO and co-founder of influential London design consultancy, tangerine. Luckily for many iconic businesses in the UK and around the world, he thrives on challenge.

*Martin Darbyshire, CEO of tangerine.

Darbyshire and Clive Grinyer left successful careers at the studio of Bill Moggridge, celebrated British designer and co-founder of IDEO, to open their own design consultancy, tangerine, in London. That was in 1989, and today, the pioneering design studio has branch offices in London, South Korea, and Brazil, with big-name clients in the USA, Europe and throughout Asia. As Darbyshire notes, working under Moggridge was “the best place we could have gone to in the very beginning, so to move on from there to another consultancy didn’t seem really very relevant.”

*Telenova Phone Console (1986), designed by Martin Darbyshire at Moggridge Associates (now IDEO), which has been collected by the Cooper Hewitt museum, USA. Gift of Arango Design Foundation.

A nose for business may not have been easily apparent in Darbyshire’s early life, but an eye for art certainly was. “Academia was not my strong point,” he readily admits. At school he excelled at technical drawing, a talent boosted by a competent school art department and the fact that his father was an engineer. Darbyshire was the kind of kid who was “given a toy and then spent most of the time taking it apart and figuring out what else could be made from it.” It was not until he was offered a place at the Central School of Art and Design that he shifted his focus to the field of design, though “looking back, there are probably plenty of other things I could have done, and I guess this indicates how important education can be.

Now, his work is held in the collections of some of the world’s most important museums and institutions–first collected was a Telenova product that Darbyshire designed while working at IDEO in San Francisco–and work by tangerine has been available for sale at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Darbyshire cites the business class lie-flat bed that tangerine designed for British Airways, a paradigm shift in service product, and the combination set-top box and personal video recorder, Sky+, designed for BskyB in collaboration with Pace Micro Technology, amongst the studio’s key design innovations.

*2nd Generation of British Airways (BA) Club World (2006), the World’s first fully lie-flat bed in Business Class. Image courtesy of tangerine.*Creating an icon for timeshift TV for Sky+. The world’s first combined set-top box and PVR changed the way people watch and record television. Image courtesy of tangerine.

While their achievements with local companies remain, Darbyshire is always exploring new markets. Right now, around eighty percent of tangerine’s income comes from outside of the UK, and it has been that way for the past decade. “A high percentage of our work comes from Asia, with three key markets: China, South Korea, and Japan,” he notes.

Part of this success overseas could be due to Darbyshire’s work with the Department for International Trade (formerly UK Trade & Investment), a government organization that aims to encourage both export and inward trade opportunities for the UK, but it can also be attributed to tangerine’s holistic perspective of design that companies, especially in Asia, find so attractive.

“The fundamental reason we get hired actually has as much to do with our commercial understanding and approach as our design capability,” Darbyshire explains. “The bandwidth of things that we’re dealing with is quite wide-ranging: we may be working with a client on their brand strategy, on their design strategy, and on how they’re dealing with different markets or customer groups. What we’re doing is a lot broader than the design of an object.”

Clear examples of how the tangerine team puts this into practice can be seen in everything from the fact that staff involved in business development and client liaison all come from a design background to the design immersion programs the company runs for their international clients, most notably Japanese, where marketers and product planners come to London for design-centric training. “If we change the design of one thing, we don’t really have very much impact or necessarily deliver a lasting benefit,” notes Darbyshire, “but if we can help our client deliver something new at the same time as re-train some of their teams to think and work better, the value is exponentially greater.”

*Design Immersion workshop with client Nikon led by tangerine.

Darbyshire sees increasing diversification in the projects and clients tangerine takes on in the future. “The biggest changes will be how can design and business strategy work together more successfully? There’s still a huge gap between the qualitative work that designers are so incredibly comfortable with and the quantitative work that strategy firms are heavily involved in. In reality, you need them both,” he notes.

Right now, he and his team at tangerine are designing everything from retail, train, and aircraft interiors to services, and even beginning to develop IP (intellectual property) of their own in seating systems, and mother and baby welfare and niche bicycle markets. “You’ve got to be lighter–you’ve got to always be onto that next thing,” he says. “The company is small; we can move quickly if we need to and be adept. We do think of ourselves very much as a boutique, and we try to protect that boutique quality.”

*Transforming a 15 minute journey with a premium experience for Heathrow Express First Class (2011). Image courtesy of tangerine.

*Brand repositioning of Korean beauty brand Innisfree through the design of a flagship store in Seoul (2016). Image courtesy of tangerine.

Martin Darbyshire has given back to the design community in many ways throughout the years, including previously holding a visiting professorship at the Central St Martins College of Arts and Design, sitting on committees for design industry groups like the World Design Organisation (formerly International Council of Societies of Industrial Design), and joining international design award juries like the famed Red Dot in Germany.  In 2016, he became a Trustee on the Board at the UK’s Design Council.

*Martin Darbyshire, CEO of tangerine, on stage at the Global HR Forum Korea 2016 delivering a speech titled ‘Why Design Thinking Is Business Thinking’. Image courtesy of tangerine.

In September, he will head to the Taiwan to be part of the international jury selecting the 2017 Best Design winners of the Golden Pin Design Award–the only competition in the world that celebrates design created for and within huaren (Chinese speaking) communities–and its sister award, the Golden Pin Concept Design Award, which seeks to drive new trends in global design.

Darbyshire has had little experience with the Golden Pin award group in the past, so naturally he is interested finding out what kind of brief he will receive from the organizers. “I try to go into these things with an open mind and not establish any preconceptions,” he says. What he finds most difficult with any award is getting enough of an overall view of all the entries in such a short time to establish what products and projects he considers to be the most successful and why.

Does he believe there is value in design awards for the designers that enter? “I think it is always a tricky thing to measure in empirical terms. On the one hand, for designers themselves, there’s an important motivational aspect–your peers saying you’ve done a good job. In Asia, design awards are particularly important. I’m sure in Taiwan, there will be high standards and the organizers will want to ensure those standards are maintained.”

This will not be Darbyshire’s first trip to Taiwan; he headed to the mountainous little island at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in the early 1990’s to work for HCG Bathrooms, a project funded by CETRA (known today as TAITRA), and following this tangerine collaborated with the Taipei Design Centre from Dusseldorf working with Elan Vital (ASUS), Chaplet, and Wistron. Martin has since returned to Taiwan numerous times, though has yet to take on a recent client there. “Taiwan’s commercial environment is a curious one. There is a focus on contemporary craft design sitting alongside these huge OEMs and ODMs that don’t really design anything of their own. There are a few big brands that have been recognised globally, but they are in the minority,” he observes.

*Transforming Cepsa’s brand perception with a new flagship service station in Spain (2015). Image courtesy of tangerine.

Of course, he readily admits that “design is a really difficult sector to work in” and it is an area that he can see both Taiwanese business owners and the government putting in great effort to better understand and incorporate. “Designers have a responsibility to do the ‘so-what’ test pretty much every time they are designing something. It’s our responsibility to create better, more purposeful things,” he explains. “That should be one of the core values of design. We’re not here to put more stuff into the world–we should be here to put better, more relevant, more purposeful, more effective, more efficient stuff into the world.”

SOURCE: Interview originally published by The Golden Pin Design Award, 2017/08/21, http://www.goldenpin.org.tw/

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