New Zealand has “latent potential galore” but will not fulfil it while it lacks a long-term vision, says industrial designer Peter Haythornthwaite

New Zealand design has the potential to help transform the country into a globally respected “care-full creative nation”, award-winning industrial designer Peter Haythornthwaite told one of a month-long series of ‘Manufacturing our Future’ events at Victoria University of Wellington.

Haythornthwaite, widely regarded as one of New Zealand’s most influential industrial designers, is an Adjunct Professor in the University’s School of Design, owner of Creativelab and a founding member of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s Better by Design initiative.

Speaking before a panel discussion with fellow leading designers, he asked: “What is New Zealand’s status on the design-led enterprise journey? Particularly through exposure to global innovation centres, snowballing innovation about design, design successes and the Better by Design initiative, our country has significantly advanced. 

“Existing SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises] have been transformed. Many design-capable smart organisations have been birthed. Numerous new entrepreneurs have engaged in design and they get it. Actually, Australia asks about us with a little bit of envy because they say New Zealand has been so much more successful than Australia with design-led companies.”

Imagine if the whole spectrum of New Zealanders appreciated and grasped a great dream and were design aware – from plumber to politician, from dairy owner to doctor, from student to scientist, from writer to winemaker.

Haythornthwaite said New Zealand has “latent potential galore” but will not fulfil it while it lacks a long-term vision.

“We need a whopping great aspiration to focus and propel our nation forwards. We need clear strategies to guide us to fulfil what’s critical as we journey to a realisable destination. We need a well-defined road map that puts us on the fast track. We all know it is time to stop paddling this way and that, to stop being guided by the preferences of the moment.

“Certainly, design is not the silver bullet, but it has a crucial role to play in enabling our future. Imagine if the whole spectrum of New Zealanders appreciated and grasped a great dream and were design aware – from plumber to politician, from dairy owner to doctor, from student to scientist, from writer to winemaker. Could our national vision, for example, position us as the ‘care-full creative nation’? I say absolutely.

“What if we wholeheartedly focused on a truly aspirational and meaningful cause? Could we own this space internationally? Could it help us to differentiate who we are? To give better focus as to what we offer? To clarify why we should be chosen and to determine how we will prosper in the future? Without a clear future vision, we cannot expect that we will surmount the coming economic challenges – believe you me we know they are coming – still less the China enterprise tsunami. Let our star shine. Let us become the ‘care-full creative nation’ across all touchpoints, equipped by being a design-led enterprise.”

In the panel discussion that followed, Haythornthwaite elaborated on his idea of a “care-full creative nation”.

As designers, he said, “as people, we need to care about others. We talk about empathy and understanding and ‘how do you feel?’ and so on – it’s an incredibly good foundation for undertaking design. Because when you really think about and research and gain insights about people, then you can focus on creating solutions that really meet their unmet needs. Being ‘care-full’, to me, also means looking after our environment. It’s about the broad spectrum of ‘care-full-ness’”.

The Better by Design philosophy started out on the basis of “design culture embedded in business culture, where culture drives strategies, where strategies drive capabilities and where capabilities drive outcomes”, said Haythornthwaite.

He mentioned leading a group of Australian SME chief executives on a design education visit to Denmark and what they learned.

“The CEOs took away in their thinking that design is highly effective in generating new business models. Design rarely thrives in badly run businesses. Design comes from the soul. Think big, start small, take minimal viable products to market and learn from them. Dare to fail. Don’t splash the cash. Think like a star. Build a culture that spots capabilities. Be diplomatic rebels and make others shine.”

An early inspiration for Haythornthwaite, while at university, was Italian company Olivetti.

“Adriano Olivetti, the son of the founder, pioneered a highly innovative business culture where design was infused throughout. Olivetti’s products were truly ground-breaking, unique, user-centred. Communications, including graphics, packaging and exhibits, shared the same attributes. Olivetti’s showrooms, work environments, production buildings and employer amenities were prescient and purposeful. ‘We must do good things and let people know about them,’ he declared. And this included paying staff well above the norm.

Design isn’t just about window dressing on top anymore, it’s at the heart of so much of what we’re trying to do as a nation.

“Every touch point was beautifully considered and inspirational. He hired poets, writers, philosophers into key positions of the organisation, who collaborated with leading graphic designers and industrial designers. He didn’t see his grand design as a dream but as a necessary pragmatic way of integrating business and social responsibilities. Truly Olivetti did inspire me. And I thought this is the way companies should be.”

The ‘Manufacturing our Future’ series of events were hosted by Victoria University of Wellington as part of its commitment to ‘Stimulating a design-led, high-value manufacturing region’ as one of its distinctive strengths.

The series included talks and workshops, as well as the exhibitions ‘Design Generation: How Peter Haythornthwaite shaped New Zealand’s design-led enterprise’ and ‘Future Design Generation: How Victoria University of Wellington will shape New Zealand’s future design-led enterprise’.

One of Haythornthwaite’s fellow discussion panellists, Timothy Allan, founder of product development and innovation firm Locus Research and chief executive of Ubco Bikes, highlighted the “critical” need for design to be represented on boards.

He said, “You can’t run some of the most successful companies in New Zealand and then run them on the basis of law and accounting. You just can’t. Those people are not ideas-driven people and so those companies are bound not to be as successful as they possibly could be until they integrate design at that level of decision-making.”

Allan also spoke about New Zealanders’ lack of confidence.

He remembered working on a 2003 exhibition of innovative New Zealand furniture design with Victoria University of Wellington Professor of Industrial Design Simon Fraser, who chairs the group overseeing ‘Stimulating a design-led, high-value manufacturing region’ at the University.

It was “probably one of the biggest furniture exhibitions at the time and I remember when the idea was put forward a whole lot of people questioned whether or not the work would be good enough. There was something like 38 full-size works and it pretty comprehensively answered that question”.

One of New Zealand’s great virtues as a design nation is its resourcefulness, said Allan.

“I think it’s interesting when you look at the No 8 wire thing, it’s copped a bit of a beating probably in the past few years, but I think people misinterpret what it actually means. It actually means building more with less. When we talk to investors and tell them the amount of investment we’ve put into product development and R&D since we started off, they can’t believe it. And that’s simply because we had no choice. I think that is a differentiating factor that’s quite easily lost. You can lose it in one generation.”

Another panellist, Karl Johnstone, owner of specialist cultural development business Haumi (NZ) Ltd and Director Māori for the New Zealand pavilion at the Dubai2020 international expo, highlighted the value of Treaty of Waitangi principles in breeding “particular ideas that are located not only within cultures but also in place. Because Māori knowledge arises from the environment, there is an ability to speak in unison with the environment; there is an opportunity to identify ideas that have their genesis in a Māori worldview but actually can be grown and evolve into a broader perspective that’s uniquely New Zealand”.

Chairing the panel, Stephen Cummings, Professor of Strategy and Innovation in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Management, spoke about how much design has changed in New Zealand.

“Design used to be for an exclusive fringe of society and people regarded it as kind of the window dressing. I grew up and went to high school in Porirua and when I went to Wellington Polytechnic – now Massey University – to study design, whenever I saw my old high school friends there they’d ask me what I was doing and I said I was doing an electrician’s block course. That worked out pretty well until one of my friends said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m on that block course as well, I haven’t seen you there.’ I quickly changed the subject.

“It’s great that now in New Zealand we regard design as something that’s really cool and much more mainstream, and we have a much larger group of people engaged in it who represent diverse backgrounds. Design isn’t just about window dressing on top anymore, it’s at the heart of so much of what we’re trying to do as a nation.” 

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