THE PRIMARY THING I hear about start-ups is that their success depends upon having the right team, measurable growth and a runway of cash. For established companies, it’s all about finding the time and minimizing disruption. And no matter what policymakers say about their formulas for growing the economy through innovation, they’re all missing one factor that renders the model incomplete and possibly unsustainable. That factor is professional product design.
As a practice, product design brings together the talents and skills of numerous professionals including artists, writers, engineers, tradespeople, fabricators, shippers, buyers, and users. The most successful product-oriented companies bring designers in at the very beginning of the planning process, instead of leaving them as an afterthought. The last thing you want to hear after launching a new product is, “We love it, we want it, we need it, but we can’t buy it,” because it’s the wrong shape, colour, weight, doesn’t appeal to market tastes, or is just plain ugly. Of course, product design isn’t about aesthetics alone. But with more and more people buying online, product appearance is being used more and more to assess product value—through images as small as a half-inch square. If you think sales will thrive once people give your product a try, they’re already passersby.
With natural resources and economies similar to ours, Finland built entire industries around design and is having global success with it.
A 2009 study by Laakso and Kostiainen at the University of Helsinki concludes that there’s “a correlation between design inputs and growth in sales, export share and market value,” and that “design helps to improve competitiveness and in becoming international.” With natural resources and economies similar to ours, Finland built entire industries around design. With a population of around 600,000 people, Helsinki houses over 500 product design firms. With a population of 2.3 million people, Atlantic Canada has the tidy sum of, wait for it, none. At least, I couldn’t find any on Google using the terms “product design firms” and the name of any East Coast province.
I believe that’s because Atlantic Canada built its 20th Century economy on raw materials like lumber, pulp, fish, metals, and minerals. So there was no need for product design education or firms. So who exactly is going to design all those “value-added natural resource products” the provincial governments are hailing as one of their economic saviours?
There is a tremendous opportunity to grow the Atlantic Canadian economy through design, and it’s time for the provincial governments to invest in the development of product design education and studio development. Think big. Build the school. They will come.