Modern Irish product design is shaking off ‘craft’ image

Domestic industrial design has come a long way as many studios and consultancies set up

Irish product design and innovation companies are punching well above their weight in international markets, yet their success goes largely unrecognised at home.

In April this year, Dublin-based design and innovation consultancy Dolmen won the equivalent of five Oscars at the international Red Dot awards.

The awards have been recognising excellence in design since 1954 and Dolmen beat off competition from 54 countries and 5,500 entries to pick up gongs for a digital microscope, a paper scanner, a rugby head guard, a human waste management system and a telecoms system for smart train networks. These products were developed on behalf of Irish and international clients including Ash Technologies, ABB and protective equipment company Contego.

Dolmen has been around for 25 years, but over the last decade it has evolved from a design house into a design and innovation business focused on product design. The difference between then and now is the shift in emphasis from making products look better to making better products that connect seamlessly with the needs of the end user, whether the product in question is a toaster or online car insurance.

"There has been a fundamental change in direction and the focus now is on developing products people actually want as opposed to products someone thinks they want," says the company's chief executive and design director, Chris Murphy. "Our role is to help businesses succeed through good design which means being involved in development from the ground up. This was what the Red Dot awards recognised, as all five awards were for breakthrough products that did not exist previously. We're no longer just taking a design brief. We're looking at things holistically which often means working at board level and questioning why a company wants to make something in the first place."

About half of Dolmen’s business is overseas. “Irish design companies have become very international,” Murphy says. “At one time, Irish design was fairly insular and more about craft than international consumer product development. Now the sector is competing and winning against some of the biggest players on world markets. What gives us the edge is that we don’t try to be the same. We’re smaller, nimbler, more agile and more flexible in our approach. Irish people also have an innate ability to communicate well and to make better products you have to understand the perspective of numerous stakeholders.”

Changing attitudes

Murphy admits to feeling frustrated that design still equals craft for many Irish people. "In our view design is about creating better experiences and driving commercial success on the back of that regardless of sector," he says. "This concept didn't really exist in Ireland before, but attitudes are beginning to change. Agencies such as the IDA are now approaching us because we're representing Irish commercial design abroad and are being seen as an asset in attracting FDI. In general people are not aware of us mainly because only a fraction of what we do is aimed at the Irish public."

Marc O'Riain, lecturer in interior architecture at CIT (Cork Institute of Technology) and editor of the Iterations, Design Research and Practice Review journal, believes that Irish design is very much an unsung hero. "We have some of the best designers in the world whose work has been repeatedly recognised internationally but they are largely unknown at home," he says. "The Irish design sector does not lag behind other countries in term of quality. It has moved on. We have transcended traditional design practices and now live in a blended model of design employment where we design both the physical and the virtual. The value of design is not limited to craftsmanship but extends to the added value and IP of creative innovation. It is about the way your product engages with the end user. This is as true for architecture and interiors as it is for those designing devices or applications."

Medical devices exemplar

The incoming president of the Institute of Designers in Ireland, Kim Mackenzie-Doyle, points to Ireland’s medical devices sector as a good example of successful contemporary Irish product design. “The penny is beginning to drop that companies that invest in design and embed it in their operations tend to be much more successful than those that don’t. This goes for all sectors and sizes of company including start-ups,” she says.

Mackenzie-Doyle is putting her money where her mouth is, as having spent most of her career with a large consultancy she is now working with the energy monitoring start-up Hubcontroller. "There are not enough official eyes on design in Ireland," she says. "We need to see the State investing resources in design education the way it does in STEM. The sector needs to be properly supported in order to develop to its full potential."

One of the most high profile Irish-designed industrial products of recent years is the Logitec computer mouse which was produced by long established design company, Design Partners. "Our company is positioned at the intersection of artefact and experience," says its creative director, Cathal Loughnane.

“Our heritage is rooted in industrial design and in conceiving and creating beautiful and useful objects, but our future is focused on designing the entire user experience both physical and digital. We need to move out from under the ‘craft’ umbrella and educate people about the potential of design to drive innovation. What I think has helped make Irish design companies so successful (especially overseas) is our natural ability as storytellers which is deeply embedded in our culture and heritage. We are good at connecting with people and using this skill to create products that are meaningful for their lives.”

Strategic design agency Each & Other is just three years old in its current form, but under previous ownership, the now 35-strong company was the first to bring UX (user experience) to Ireland in 2007 according to its principal designer, Brian Herron. "We work across strategy, design, development and capability building and use UX and design methods to help transform companies. We believe that better design means better business," he says.

Herron describes his company as a "small hungry player" but size is clearly not getting in the way of its ambitions. Each & Other sees itself as competing with big household names such as IMB and Deloitte Digital.

“We recently worked on a new platform for Musgraves and its online purchasing jumped. That’s what being focused on the end user should deliver for a business,” says Herron. “Think about one of the most successful products ever – wheelie cabin baggage. It was originally developed by a pilot for cabin crew so he knew exactly what to prioritise in the design. Our main goal is to improve customer experience and deliver business results. If the customer experience is great, people are more likely to use the product or service and keep on using it.”