Uncertainty and possibility

Editor’s introduction to the New Design 2017 Yearbook

Now in its sixth edition, the New Design Yearbook has become quite the annual ritual. From the editor’s perspective the drawing together of contributions from companies across the design and product development industry offers a perfect opportunity both to take stock and to look ahead; to reflect on the meaning of an extraordinary twelve months and set out our stall to tackle the coming challenges.

It would be quite impossible to conceive writing such an editorial without reference to the remarkable social and political events we witnessed in 2016. In the UK we saw a vote to leave the European Union and, swift on its heels, the appointment of a new prime minister; in the US, the rise to power of a certain Donald J Trump; whilst through Europe, the Middle East and North Africa the refugee crisis continued to displace millions. At such moments it is important to remember that design sits in a position of privilege and responsibility in its ability to shape our future.

Brexit is a seismic political moment the ramifications of which will play out in the years ahead. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the design community (with one or two notable exceptions) was overwhelmingly in favour of a Remain vote. Nevertheless, through many of the conversations I have had with industry professionals since June 23 I have learnt that, despite disappointment in the outcome, there is a resolve amongst designers to embrace the opportunities offered to the UK as it leaves the EU.

Whilst there are as-yet unresolved concerns around the movement of labour – a particularly pertinent issue for the proudly international design industry – and access to the free market, the fact remains that the creative industries, product design especially, is a driving force of economic prosperity. Indeed, a weaker pound could be advantageous in making our British design consultancies more appealing financially speaking to international clients.

We should not forget that the UK is part of a global design network – a fact that is represented in our Yearbook with entries from domestic companies with international scope as well as businesses based in continental Europe, the Far East, and the US.

Aside from the headline political moments 2016 saw significant social and humanitarian narratives continue to play out. Our ageing population is placing additional strain on already stretched health services. Furthermore, as people live longer, age-related conditions such as dementia, arthritis, and diabetes are likely to become more prevalent. It is heartening, therefore, that throughout the pages of our Yearbook you will read stories of companies tackling this issue through the design of devices and services to improve the quality of life not only of patients, but healthcare professionals and carers too.

Design drives commercial success but it is very much a discipline with a conscience. After all, design is about improving human experiences and as such has the scope, ambition, and experience to address society-wide challenges and make manifest improvements to the lives of many.

Turning to product development technology, 2016 was another intriguing year in the evolution of additive manufacturing. We’ve long been promised by the mainstream media (too tempting to include what was one of the year’s buzzwords) that 3D printing will herald a new industrial revolution. I think that in the design community we are naturally excited about the potential 3D printing offers, but perhaps more realistic about its meaningful application.

One trend would seem to be that the 3D printing industry’s centre of gravity has moved away from the hobbyist user to the engaged professional. Furthermore, the use of 3D printing for low volume manufacture appears to have reached a tipping point – especially exciting is the aerospace and automotive industries’ extensive use of metal additive manufacturing technologies for volume production.

Meanwhile, crowd-funding platforms such as IndieGoGo and Kickstarter are increasingly popular and have opened new channels to market. Inventor-entrepreneurs with a great idea can see a realistic path to raising funds to engage with a design consultancy, whilst design consultancies themselves are using crowd-funding as a means of supporting internal IP generation and product development.

We live in an age of uncertainty but also of opportunity – perfect conditions one might argue for design to make a difference.