Design has the potential to boost margins, making possible both decreased costs and increased prices. The most unprofitable products in a portfolio are usually the ones that have been around the longest.
Good design simplifies production, reduces the number of components and makes use of new materials and processes, all of which can help to cut costs.
The other side of design relates to a product's appeal. Research has shown that purchase decisions, even in business-to-business situations, are 80% emotional and 20% logical. So the question is: "Will they want it?" It is important that the aesthetic design is fashionable and attractive, that the product is comfortable and easy to use, and that any presentation or packaging is also attractively designed. And good design is worth money - a product that benefits from excellent design will command a higher price.
Look at the Dyson success story, which was entirely based on innovative design. At launch, the Dyson product was double the price of any other vacuum cleaner, but the marketing successfully played on the radical new look and improved technical performance of the revolutionary machine. The humble vacuum cleaner suddenly became a must-have lifestyle product. The Dyson sold on customer appeal, not a low price. Among today's educated consumers, good design is noticed and wanted, leading to greater sales and a healthy business.
By providing your product with a strong and unique visual personality, design can play a key role in setting it apart from its rivals. Good design should be a core part of all your marketing, encompassing not just the product but all the promotional material, packaging, labels and instruction sheets.
Begin by looking at each stage of your production process analytically and pinpointing the bottlenecks and sticking points. Confront them ruthlessly and keep working away at them until you have resolved all the obvious problems. Refine your processes until everything runs smoothly, consistently and reliably.
If you recognise that you may be too close to what is happening, so that you cannot distinguish the wood from the trees, do not be afraid to seek an external opinion. Specialist workflow and process planning consultants can often identify generic problems and offer well-tried solutions, based on experience of many other companies and situations.
Think of instant coffee, sliced bread, tea bags, the clockwork radio, the cordless telephone, the microwave oven and the bagless vacuum cleaner. Their predecessors all worked fine, too - until somebody came along with the idea of making an improved version.
Review the design of your products to make sure that their look reflects current visual expectations. If you are inclined to doubt the importance of these style factors, just take a look at your electric kettle or your car and compare them with those you owned ten years ago.
Begin by looking at the evidence offered by your reject records and customer complaints from all sources. Ask key customers whose judgement you respect. Invest in consumer research. Look at the competition's products, both existing models and the hints about future developments that you can glean from visiting exhibitions, reading trade magazines and quizzing technical reps. Search the web for ideas that are being used in the US, Japan and Europe, as well as Britain. Copy, adapt and improve.
There are two key things to consider. The first is your own intuition and creative ability and the second is the influence of market forces.
As far as the first is concerned, you should aim to let your inspirational juices loose. Think as uninhibitedly as possible about what could be done to improve the personality and functioning of your product, without worrying, initially, about how you might make this happen. If you can get a glimpse of what a new look, a better functional design or a bigger, smaller, faster, lighter or stronger version of the product might be like, you can work out afterwards how such an object might be produced.
The market forces issue is more mechanical, but can be just as important. Start by looking at what your rivals are up to. How do your competitors' products compare with yours? Are they cheaper or more expensive? Do they have functions that your product lacks? Think about the consumers or intended users of your product (not necessarily the same people - surgeons use latex rubber gloves, but they do not place the purchase orders). Find out what they actually want and tailor your design to it. Trying to sell something the market does not want is a classic trap.
As a general rule, the first port of call for this kind of information is your local Trading Standards officer. Go to www.tradingstandards.gov.uk and type in your postcode for the phone number and address of your nearest Trading Standards office. The British Standards Institution (www.bsi-global.com) also has a mass of detailed information. If you are a member of a trade association, this can often be a useful source of specialist advice and guidance.
Check the situation carefully, as almost every industry has its own guidelines relating to packaging standards.
Make sure you observe the standards and regulations that apply to your particular product or service. If you are exporting, you will also need to find out about and comply with the requirements of each of the countries where your goods are sold.
To protect a radically new design requires either a patent or design registration. A registered design applies to the outward appearance of an article - its 'eye-appeal' - while a patent is concerned with the function, operation, manufacture or material of construction of an article. In both cases, the article must be unique, original, not previously in the public domain, and, in the case of a patent, capable of being manufactured.
When it comes to exploiting this radically new design, there are two ways to go about it - sell it to someone else, or use it yourself to manufacture and sell products.
Selling a design to someone else is difficult. There are thousands of radically new designs being touted around every year and potential purchasers have to decide whether yours could become a commercial success for them.
Making and selling it yourself can only really work if the product fits naturally into your business's existing product portfolio. The key issue is often about whether you will be able to use an existing promotion, sales and distribution organisation.
For more information, read our briefing on Design.