Cool design creates hot profits, and although really great design is an art rather than a craft, the E-VaN project has developed some best-practice design tools to help companies maximise their potential. E-VaN aims to usher in a new wave of design that allies form with function.
"Business is waking up to the enormous potential that compelling design offers," says Alessio Marchesi of the Polytechnic of Milan, E-VaN's coordinator. Great design such as Apple's iconic iPod for example has enabled the company to draw profits from the two opposing revenue generators on the supply-demand curve: margin and volume. Great design can charge a premium and still shift millions of units, because it adds value to a product and protects it from commoditisation.
Unsurprisingly, European companies are eager to do the same. There's just one problem: really great design is an art, not a craft. It's a quality to foster, not a quantity to buy.
Good design is hard to define in advance, but you know it when you see it. Google and Apple are probably the best-known exemplars of the added value of good design, but the principles can be applied to every product or service.
"There are three main types of drivers to innovation -- technology, user needs and design language," says Alessio Marchesi, E-VaN's coordinator. "After the iMac came out, everybody started adding colourful, translucent plastic to their products. It became a new language for consumer electronics," he comments.
Technology is the type of innovation most people are familiar with; faster processors or the move from DVD to HD. But the best designs ally good functionality and great form to create killer products. Good examples of user-centred design innovation can be seen in the different types of ergonomic office chairs on the market (e.g. Herman Miller's Aeron chair).
Combining form and function is no easy task, but E-VaN has galvanized furniture manufacturers in France, Germany and Italy. The project has generated enormous interest in the development of a deliberate design process. "We picked furniture design because Europe has some world leading companies like B&B Italia, XO Design or Wilkhahn," says Marchesi.
First off, the group developed an online survey that helps SME furniture manufacturers analyse their design strengths and weaknesses. So far it has generated 180 responses in three countries, and most participants said they found the process very useful.
"The survey gave us a benchmark to establish best practice, but right now some sectors of the furniture industry are under-represented. That's an issue we hope to remedy in 2007," notes Marchesi.
E-VaN then developed a series of tools to help firms adopt design best practices. The 'Interpreters Configuration Check-up' tool identifies the people who need to be involved in the design process. "Many manufacturers design everything in-house, but most should use outside expertise as well. The Interpreters Check-up helps them identify where they could use fresh ideas."
Another tool, the Knowledge Repository Process, helps firms establish a formal 'library' of all company expertise and experience. "The knowledge repository can work anyway the firm likes, but it is a formal repository, gathering everything that's useful. It establishes an archive of the company's expertise that can prove useful for the development of new value-intensive products," Marchesi says.
Finally, the Design Direction Workshop analyses accumulated knowledge and ideas to create new, fruitful design directions. It tries to predict new trends while assisting companies to better manage the initial stages of the new-product development process.
The combined tools foster a distributed design process to recruit expertise from anywhere in the world as it is needed. "This is a design-driven process, it develops the design first and then figures out how to manufacture it. It can lead to a lot of innovation in materials and manufacturing processes, as companies try to figure out how to realise radical new designs."
Marchesi hopes E-VaN will prompt a 'new wave' of great European furniture design. The project is propagating new ideas in postgraduate programmes, but that is just a beginning. "European companies are very aware of the power of design and most of them are interested in developing their expertise further," Marchesi notes.
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