Strong ideas are the backbone of any client-based creative company. Usually, money-making ones are generated in response to a client brief, but creative people have ideas all the time, they don’t just switch on the ‘ideas tap’ when a brief drops into the inbox.
Back in 1988 we were a five person team with no design awards and a rather modest profile, but, we had initiative, talent and a strong urge to improve our position – and quickly. So we examined how we could use our tatent, idea-generating talents to fast-track building an impressive client portfolio.
Our answer was to turn the tables. Rather than wait for clients to issue us with a brief for the things they wanted, we’d identify potential briefs to deliver things that clients didn’t yet know they needed.
One of our most important starting points was reading the business section of newspapers and seeking out articles on companies that, typically, had developed a new product or piece of technology which we thought held the prospect of a design brief – in other words an opportunity we could create a project for.
One week the team read a story about Radio Data System (RDS); a new radio technology developed by the BBC that was capable of delivering useful programme information alongside the broadcast itself (the station name, broadcast frequency etc.). Reading the report, which was rather technical, it was clear that here was a technology with nothing to excite a consumer’s imagination. The technology was great for engineers, but it did not engage or affect the consumer at all. This was a Eureka moment; the realisation that we could take the initiative, go to the BBC, and persuade them that we should design a new consumer radio to help promote RDS.
Of course it wasn’t quite that simple. The BBC didn’t know that they needed any help and we had to work out who to persuade. The engineer quoted in the newspaper was our first port of call and, while interested to hear from us, he didn’t have the experience, authority or budget to commission a design project. To add to our disappointment he didn’t know anyone at the BBC who’d ever done such a thing either! Despite these drawbacks, after weeks of telephone calls we found our way up the BBC’s management tree and I was granted a meeting with the then director of BBC Enterprises.
This was a first. A pitch where the ‘client’ wasn’t aware that they even needed a design intervention, who had never commissioned such assistance and who had no design brief other than the one I had drafted myself. It was not a very promising start!
However, as the meeting unfolded my hopes rose. The Director of Enterprises seemed to become intrigued with the idea of designing a domestic radio to demonstrate RDS technology: ‘how long would it take?’, ‘what would it all cost?’, ‘when could we start?’ It was beginning to look like it could happen.
Sure enough, within a matter of weeks we had our first purchase order to design the ‘radio of the future’. This was to be our first project with a big name, prestige client and, significantly, it was all entirely of our own making.
The benefits of this pro-active approach extended far beyond payments from the project itself because the BBC, having commissioned the design and prototype model from us, duly went on to heavily publicise the new radio as a way to trumpet their own RDS technology. The BBC’s promotional campaign caught the attention of newspapers, which in turn helped us to get the story into design journals both in the UK and abroad. Design Week particularly liked it and for the first time Kinneir Dufort was front page; headline material with a profile as a pioneering design consultancy that, in the words of Design Week “looked beyond the horizons of marketing”.
We learned a lot from this experience; mainly that through being being pro-active and persuasive it is possible to generate new design business entirely by the power of suggestion. In creating a project this way – literally taken from newspaper article to inspiration to product – we also learnt that aspiring to generate exciting and innovative design results, with a powerful partner, can quickly build reputation and help win new business.
These learnings may seem obvious, and many others have no doubt done it better. Nevertheless, we certainly have benefited from taking this approach over the years and have come to recognise that when it comes to success, a creative sales and marketing initiative is equally as important as any great design.
Kinneir Dufort has been innovating everyday products since the late seventies, including their 1984 Technophone – effectively the first ever pocket sized mobile phone!
Illustrated by Tom Lane
- One Thing I Know