Insider on Design roles @ Next plc – the design dept 2010

Design Roles with Next Plc: what you may need to know

I have had a number of meetings with NEXT plc over the years as they searched for an upholstery and furniture designer. The latest was with design manager Suzie Gibson which started with a long haul phone interview while I was on site in China.

Preparing for this type of senior role interview is a time consuming affair, preparing mood boards and portfolio.  My main concern was being asked something that had me stumped… so I had a list at hand and went over all my career details in respect… I thought out the most demanding case scenario: lots of probing questions and angles.

Suzi called nearly an hour late going on midnight my time downtown Canton!

The conversation was nothing like what I had expected… chatty and relaxed. It went around the mouses a bit and we set up the face to face at HO Leicester.

Arriving I was taken off through the sprawling NEXT campus and set up in a box office… no frills at NEXT.

Again late, Suzi arrived and we started going over my portfolio.

Out came her pad, hmmm.. been here before.

S:  So what kind of fabrics are you seeing?

NG:  Linens, naturals…

S:  I’ve got someone who I really want to move over to another role that will open this role…

NG:  Is the role definite then?

S: err um yeh well … yes

Long pause…

There was scant talk about upholstery – yet this role was for that area.

What was going on here was Suzi was interested not in me but in what I knew and had in my mood boards.

S:  What colours are you seeing for 2011

N:  Naturals, copper, silver will be a contrast to shades of teal

S:  Where did you get that information from?

N:  It’s what I do… the market place, my vendors.

By the end of our interview she had seen my entire portfolio and walked away with key trend.

I dug about at what the role JD consisted of and she struggled.

Feed back came 2 weeks later:

Hi Nick,

Finally! here is your feedback from Next

Suzie very much enjoyed meeting you, she felt you both had a good rapport in the interview. Suzie commented that you a very experienced home designer of home accessories and adept at putting ranges together.  Her concerns were a lack of recent retailer experience and she was concerned at your upholstery experience. Suzie would be very happy for you to work on any up coming home accessories freelance projects for them.

As you are aware Next are revamping the home Design department and their could possibly be some freelance working in the offing. they will keep me posted

Kind regards

Designing for retail is what I have been doing for 15 years.

When interviewing for a retail design role the chances are you will be place around the key candidate… if the role exists at all.

Think carefully about what you are prepared to show, or rather lose.


  • Base yr portfolio around their style.  Move on one or two things they are carrying.
  • Show concept not finished Skus.
  • Don’t include, ironically, yr best work!
  • Include work prepared on the smart side, for the interview.

The whole process can add up in expenses too, so be absolutely sure you are going after something other than a trend gaze.

Good luck!



Why Laura Ashley fail in Furniture Icon creation

I have followed Laura Ashley for many years working around the Chelsea scene as interior designer, finisher and project manager, and joined them in 2005, but what amazes me is the lack of will to create a true design statement – finding the icon has alluded LA.

Why is that?  and let’s face it, the problem is not isolated to LA alone… John Lewis could also be accused of falling short on designing the iconic range across key categories, but at least they drive well planned NPD strategies.

Looking at Laura Ashley Plc  it is an organisation based on two strengths:  customer loyalty and … customer loyalty.

But faced with the inevitable client lifespan issue what new is pitched at the younger audience?

LA suffer a staffing turnover issues and this is driven by many things not least of all a lack of genuine product design initiative.  The leaders simply survive on comp shopping and grabbing the nearest the ‘move on’ feature – frankly any design middle weight can do this!

A classic example is in their bedding ranges which are stagnant when considering the scope of opportunity that stands before this category.

From a purely superficial design perspective the model above represents a range that continues to do well yet is marginally in decline according to LA HOD Gillian Farr.

”… we are facing an overall gradual decline …we’re trying some upholstered beds… see how they go”.

The product development on this model amounts to a sideways glance at NEXT plc and a quick half or false step.  But what’s wrong with that?  I hear you say… yep they’ll ignite some fresh numbers on this twist…  but in a world where design must drive via clear commercial strategy, what of the crucial spin off aka real design fuelled customer perception… or rather lack of it?

Where is the small yet hugely significant step toward practical, beautiful design innovation?

Touching on another range Gillian jumped to the defence of the Arielle collection, a mirror and rosewood bedroom set which according to staff in the Yeovil shop wasn’t a great performer – but on Gillian’s turf it was… ”Sorry but that range is doing very well I might tell you.. we got it straight off the hook because we were the first to start this line a few years ago and since the opposition are selling it at near cost we needed to get something at a price-point… it’s done very well…!”

Perhaps she hadn’t been to Yeovil recently.

Design Innovation… whattha?

Because Laura Ashley score virtually zero when it comes to innovation over elegance (yet IKEA or HEALS excel), the ranges remain short of genuine iconic quality which innovation harvests… and what I mean by that is – they lack the original English design DNA that is needed to generate wider international consumer momentum and expectation… and even win a few design awards?

The design triad should surely follow:  Client expectation – Brand ID – Original Design Innovation

When Laura Ashley set up her work rooms she had a clear vision of motif and market placement.  Undoubtedly that would have needed some skilful crafting  in order to stay abreast of change… but innovation would certainly have characterised her strategic thinking alongside customer loyalty.

ABOVE Vintage Iconic 1940s Long Tailored Black Wool Crepe Flared Coat UK

Fabulous in every department… a design museum in motion

Today high street retail design swirls 20 year cycles without the fuel of innovative design expectation, the day-to-day tasks of the product design staff  remain mundane and hence, spur loss of zest while spawning high staff turnover malaise.

Going forward is made the more challenging for design heads as they struggle to shape their winning team. Farr stated ”LA don’t pay that well..” The motivational impetus needed is virtually stifled at birth and lapping the zero.

This really marks the final nail because once you have staff looking at joining John Lewis at the first opportunity, for a range of reasons, your whole process runs on next to empty because the vision and commitment of the designer is lost… and so the energy that infuses Zara for example fizzles among the stack of mundane ‘moving-on’ that staff at L A can never escape.

It sounds like stating the obvious but in order to hold on to a team and grow depth healthy remuneration is crucial.

The result is the grabbing at the simplest but worst possible design route… Canton Fair pick-n-twists, and bridging continual staff shortfalls.

Vision at every turn

With the UK and the capital city brimming with young and senior design talent it is astonishing we think far too often of IKEA when it comes to modern retail furniture iconics…

It may be a brave vision but until the Malaysian directors embrace the importance of fully planned brand design strategies, and product design management understand the importance of the long term view, Laura Ashley will wrestle with it’s self made churn, survive on a starch based design diet and struggle where it could well soar… and for a company born of genuinely fabulous design DNA it is nothing short of a crime.

Nick Garrett