Is it time to slow down the design process?

I've been struck recently by programmes like Radio 4's 'In Business' questioning the benefits of rapid growth and the mess that often results from it. David Cameron's 'happiness index' was also aimed at looking at the wider issues in life, and not just the rapid acquisition of cash.

The movement to question the benefits of speed is also gaining traction in other areas – the Slow Food movement being one of the most well known – and I think it might be time to apply the concept to design and development.

"Slow design" is not a new idea, it has been around since at least 2004, and is aimed at looking at a whole range of possibilities, from localised manufacture to a more contemplative approach to creating new products and using scarce resources.

But can such high-minded ideas be applied to commercial design? Rapid product development is seen as such a good thing that 'slow design' can sound eccentric at best and downright lazy at worst. So, how can it have economic benefits?

The first benefit is in taking the time to refine a product before it is launched. As a designer I'm always pushing myself to complete a job with the knowledge that for every day of product revenue that is lost, the client loses a small fortune. But if a little more time is spent on refining the design results, the overall economic impact can be tremendous. This appears to be the approach taken by James Dyson, who champions the benefits of making mistakes and refining products gradually. Some might say "he can afford to", but the approach doesn't seem to have done Dyson any harm.

The second benefit of slowing down the design process could be a reduced failure rate in new product introductions. Statistics on this subject vary dramatically, but even the most conservative estimates suggest that more than half the new ideas brought to market fail as a result of poor market research, inadequate technology or sheer bad management.

Huge amounts of time and energy are wasted by this 'throw it at the wall and see how much sticks' approach, and most of the mistakes, and waste, could be avoided if a little more time was spent on proper research and detailed management.

Finally, would it really be so bad if we designed products to last longer, rather than just to be recycled? Slowing down the product replacement cycle is commercial heresy, I know, but do we really need new models of toaster every year, and mobile phones that only stay on the market for six months? Making 'slow products' can also be commercially beneficial. It works for Dualit, Anglepoise and HP sauce, amongst many others, and seems to be something that we Brits are particularly good at.

So, why not strike a blow for a radical new way of working, and design a long-lasting product – slowly?

Author
Mike Ayre, Crucible Industrial Design

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