‘It is a truly exciting time for industrial design’

29 May 2017

Brian Stephens, Design Partners CEO. Image: Design Partners

This week on Leaders’ Insights, we spoke to Brian Stephens of Design Partners about industrial design and the digital revolution.

As founding designer and CEO of Design Partners, Brian Stephens knows a thing or two about designing the perfect product to meet the consumer’s needs.

With a BA in industrial design from Birmingham Polytechnic in the UK, Stephens worked with GK Design in Tokyo for two years before returning to Ireland.

Founded in 1984 in Co Wicklow, Design Partners is a consultancy that aims to partner with clients and provide expertise on strategic, product and interaction design.

Stephens was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement award from the Institute of Designers in Ireland in 2011.

Describe your role and what you do.

Design Partners is a strategic industrial product and interactive design company. We have grown and developed significantly since we started in 1984. We manage a diverse client base with long-standing relationships for global brands such as Logitech, 3DConnexion, PMI, Verisure, Huawei, Abbott, Panasonic – the list is long! We specialise in consumer, healthcare and professional design, so, together with our clients, we are literally designing the products and experiences of tomorrow.

We can have really big impact on our clients’ business success but it takes time to set up the projects and the relationships to make sure we deliver fully, and that the work we create together is fully executed to achieve maximum impact. Creative organisations need a bit of structure, but not too much!

So, my role is to ensure that Design Partners, as a creative agency, achieves its full potential and meets its strategic objectives for all our clients, and that is to fuel their growth and grow their brands. Managing the creative process requires both trust and leadership on the client side, and facilitating this is an important part of my role.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

As a senior team, we recently spent a huge amount of time agreeing a clear strategy for the business. Three things help to stay on track: doing what’s right for the business, sticking to the plan and using creative thinking to solve business as well as client problems. Obviously, thinking clearly when not actually working really helps. My favourite (but occasional) hobby is sea kayaking – seeing Ireland from the sea gives you a very different perspective on just about everything.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

The digital revolution has eliminated boundaries and now, every smart company understands the need to harness creativity to drive its ambition and growth. Design is all about doing this with focus and intent. Design generates IP and growth. By its nature, it requires courage and leadership to do it right, to define new opportunities and to be successful.

As more and more companies are bringing design in-house, the role of the design consultant now is sometimes more about creating landmark products and experiences, and in developing design strategies. Having said that, we have some unique specialisations and expertise directly relevant to our clients.

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

We are successfully integrating the digital and the physical experience in the products we design. This is our sweet spot. We have our own specialist digital interaction design team. IoT [internet of things] presents so much opportunity, and consumer expectations have never been higher – it is driving demand for a whole new generation of connected things. Our designers are now mandated to create medical devices that are simple to use and deliver the right clinical outcomes; professional tools that result in vastly improved productivity and workflows, whilst fully optimising IoT and consumer products that are sheer objects of desire. We are pushing hard in all three categories. It is a truly exciting time for industrial design and for Design Partners’ growth and development right now.

What set you on the road to you are in the technology industry?

My older brother is an architect and from working for him as student, I realised that I wanted to design all the fascinating little things inside and outside a building. I won a scholarship to study industrial design in Birmingham, and later went to work in GK in Japan to learn more about technology and what was happening in Asia.

I set up Design Partners with David Morgan simply so I could have a job doing exactly what I had a passion for.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Trying to do things that others can do better. In our formative years, I made a few basic mechanical mistakes in some of the products I designed. Product design is all about mass production, so it can be extremely uncomfortable when this happens. The big learning was to build a formidable mechanical engineering team with really smart talented people, and to invest fully in the latest CAD and 3D-printing technology. No more shortcuts. The fact that we have a team of six mechanical engineers here in our studios in Bray sets us apart from the competition across EMEA and beyond. We can create actionable designs quickly and help our clients get their products to market faster.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Building excitement about our shared vision and getting out of the way so others can excel.

Increasingly, our clients put a commercial value on international design awards, and we do too. I am very proud that we have won 18 different design awards so far in 2017 – a significant record by any standard.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

I think a gender balance is critical to the creative process. We do not have enough women in our team at the moment. Globally, I think the problem needs to be solved at primary and secondary level in education, and also by inspiring parents to support daughters to look beyond the traditional sectors. I am very appreciative of the cultural diversity in our studio, it makes a big difference to our creative muscle.

Who is your business hero and why?

I have always found our clients to be the best teachers to learn and be inspired by. I could name so many people, but Aldo Bussien from Logitech and Chris Duggan from Terraillon are two that have influenced me a lot. They both have used their sense of humour as an important management skill.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Emotional Capitalists: The New Leaders by Martyn Newman.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

We have a half-hour ‘start the week’ meeting every Monday for the whole 35-person team, and this sets the agenda for week ahead. We also have an occasional Friday morning presentation by internal or external speakers. Both events help us to stay in sync with each other, have fun and keep a creative perspective.

We have soundproofed meeting rooms and magnetic white boards everywhere. We also have a fully equipped workshop where we can make just about anything. Rigs and models of all sorts really help us to innovate accurately and quickly, and to get away from the computer screen.

Like many people, I am a visual thinker, so drawing is an essential creative and planning tool.

I work very closely with Tracy Clarke, who runs the admin side of the business, and I wouldn’t last a day without her.

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