Kiwi designers need to think differently

23:14, Jul 01 2014
Tasos Calantzis
UPBEAT MESSAGE: 'We can design anything,' says Tasos Calantzis, CEO of Terrestrial, South Africa.

To create a sustainable future, Christchurch needs to create sustainable businesses. Like the wider New Zealand economy, it needs to depend on more than a temporary construction boom, the dairy industry, tourism and retail.

If it doesn't and with no prospect of attractive, well-paying employment, young people will leave for greener pastures - and who can blame them?

One way to succeed is through innovation and design, by creating top-quality products and ideas for export.

Other countries do it successfully, so why not here?

Earlier this year, I visited Germany to find out about "Handmade Design" - an initiative supported by the federal German Government to encourage small to medium-size businesses manufacturing high-quality products for domestic and export markets. These companies play a vital role in the nation's economic success. (For more on Handmade in Germany, see business features coming up soon in The Press.)

Last month, while on a short break to Sydney, I attended Design Forum - Prosperity and Design. It was on at the same time as the LED Vivid Festival - a great reason for a getaway - and the Good Design Australia Awards. The Museum of Contemporary Art, overlooking Circular Quay and the Opera House, made the perfect venue.


Speakers came from around the world. Cape Town, South Africa, is this year's international design capital. Previous design capitals have been Turin, Seoul, and Helsinki. Alayne Reesburg, of Cape Town Design, said the festival was making a big difference in a city where tough economic times have hit hard. She explained design should not be about promoting designer products for the elite; rather the vision was to transform society through design.

Reesburg and another South African designer, Tasos Calantzis, of Terrestrial, listed some simple innovations. Among them: a safer, more efficient kerosene cooking stove (a vast number of the world's population have no access to the mod cons we take for granted); harnessing traditional African medicine; and re-purposing old cellphones to keep track of hospital appointments.

Eunjo Maing, from the Korean Institute of Design Promotion, said after Seoul was destroyed in the Korean War, designers transformed the South Korean economy. Exports now exceed imports. Big names like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and Kia are recognised worldwide, and South Korean designers have also worked on award-winning products in studios across the globe.

One of my favourite products was the award-winning Black Magic cine camera by Melbourne designer Simon Kidd. Cheaper, lighter, and more ergonomic than traditional industry behemoths, it's also a camera that can be upgraded and an exemplar of thoughtful design based on the needs of the end user.

In my view, prosperity does not depend on an endless cycle of production and consumption; it requires creating useful high-quality stuff that meets a real need.

Kiwi designers Sven Baker, CEO of Design Works, Dean Poole of Alt Group and Mark Elmore of Fisher & Paykel outlined the unique challenges facing New Zealand. Basically, we don't have large holes in the ground full of minerals, a large contributor to Australia's wealth (at least, until recently). We have to think differently. Examples they cited included Formway chairs, F&P's smartdrive washing machine and drawer- dishwasher, Icebreaker merino and Air New Zealand's new economy "cuddle class" seats.

While products may be designed in New Zealand, not all are made in New Zealand. Should they be? We are too small, critics will say, to manufacture everything - we have to import cheap products from Asia and outsource jobs. Yet New Zealand companies used to produce a huge range of products, with a smaller population.

Keeping jobs within a community helps it to thrive. Closing down New Zealand's railway workshops and buying cheap imported units may have seemed attractive because of the purchase price, but the downsides have been uncertain quality and the loss of employment, skills and social cohesion for communities.

In the internet age, jobs do not have to be clustered in Auckland and Wellington. The benefits of fostering growth in the regions include less pressure on housing and infrastructure for starters.

There are plenty of innovative ideas and companies in New Zealand; some operate under the radar, while others await discovery.

How do you encourage innovation? Don't rely on CEOs and marketing departments, warns design professor Jeff Julius, of the University of Newcastle. "We are no longer a top-down world."

In his opinion, executives design too much strategy, but organisational change is not the same as "disruptive innovation": coming up with a real game-changing product or idea.

However, marketing stimulates design success. "Emotion drives action or the advertising industry wouldn't exist."

The government and various organisations provide support for designers, but a clearer strategy is called for.

Could Christchurch be a design capital? Not yet. But it could be something to aim for.