Solutionist Designer: is the High St Retail designer dead? stifled and esconced

Nick Garrett – Posted article 23 06 12


Are you a furniture designer?

Really…?? What kind??  (tell me about it in comments)

Below are images of  retail sofa designs that really fail to provide something pure fresh and new.

Above:  The Moulton originally designed for Marks and Spencer… lifted by NEXT Plc.  Or was it the other way around??

Either way Rob Scarlet’s design is detailed and far superior.

The designs in this gallery range from Scarlet design, Laura Ashley, Next and M&S.

Where is the design innovation in this classic theme?


This is moving on … not product design.

Approaches to design

A design approach is a general philosophy that may or may not include a guide for specific methods. Some are to guide the overall goal of the design. Other approaches are to guide the tendencies of the designer. A combination of approaches may be used if they don’t conflict.

Some popular approaches include:

  • KISS principle, (Keep it Simple Stupid), which strives to eliminate unnecessary complications.
  • There is more than one way to do it (TIMTOWTDI), a philosophy to allow multiple methods of doing the same thing.
  • Use-centered design, which focuses on the goals and tasks associated with the use of the artifact, rather than focusing on the end user.
  • User-centered design, which focuses on the needs, wants, and limitations of the end user of the designed artifact.
  • Critical design uses designed artifacts as an embodied critique or commentary on existing values, morals, and practices in a culture.
But even in this list there is something missing… future brand design and solutionism.
Retail product stagnation

Often a designer (especially in commercial retail situations) is not in a position to define purpose as the main objective of the task due to constraints. Whether a designer is, is not, or should be concerned with purpose or intended use beyond what they are expressly hired to influence, is debatable, depending on the situation.  In the commercial environment the product development emphasis drives designers away from user centric design toward shelf fill newer versioning – or ‘moving on‘.

In our N European (UK) raw consumer society,  disinterest in the wider role of design might also be attributed to the commissioning agent, department head, design manager or client: rather than the designer.

However the stark exceptions to low end design is plentiful including Apple, Diesel, Dyson, Ted Baker, UGG, All Saints, Monsoon  and  Phillipe Starck to name a few.

Some of these newer fields of design are entirely based around user interface and identity.  Most have built-in specified purposes and smart user values, such as user-centered designslow design, and sustainable design.

If we dumb down design then Asian competitors will take the easy road: lift and reprint as they have done for 2 decades – putting the bulk of our talented product design industry out of business… moreover the consumer loses out.

Is that the objective of modern retail today?

The drive to simplify the tech interface in order to maximise experience requires real design strategy and planning.  These aspirations succeed in building prolific product ID, brand performers and consumer loyalty.

Design DIS

The modern High Street retail major simply isn’t interested in this philosophy because it build reliance and design based centrifuge.

The retail blue chip requires not reliance on staff talent, but product and HR roll-through… a faithless turnover with it’s designer teams part of it, kept entirely out of public view and moved on.

HR fuel this rotational ethic.

This approach is not only self destructive but it ultimately threatens the retailer’s very own customer base – it is a design (and design industry) disservice.

It stands to contain, negate and devalue the designer’s in-house role, creative success and wider importance in our performance based society.  Design is important to everyone.

So why not exemplify it?

Why not stage it?

Why not show it?

As a designer reading this article you must first define how you continue in retail design.  And carefully re-design your future prior to ME threat and burn-out. Mentors are not a bad idea.


The retail employer harvests the worst long term prospect for it’s young design staff because it would rather see a designer fade in mid thirties than break away as freelancer, demanding higher fee remuneration, rights and market threat.

It is the duty of experienced designers to share support and pure design agenda with the industry young  in order to keep UK design ahead of the worsening, not so cheap, manufacture based stuff.

Designer Interview techniques that kill you! Are you about to become 'Design Fodder'.


So we all wade through the relentless wave of top 10 tips for interview success but how about a reality check… that’s what I’m going to give you right here.

As a designer looking for the next gig you will be asked, fawned and beseeched with the usual drizzle from yr recruiter who really often doesn’t give a damn if you get the job or one of the other 10 candidates they have lined up… nothing new here… you have become design fodder in the long queue.

So, if you are coming in as a  freelancer, trying for role crossover or a plain outsider position the odds are stacked against you when compared to the restless star in the competitors yard.  You stand to lose yr concepts and it is up to you as to whether you want to put your product design at risk.

How to tackle that reality?… not easy but possible.


You need win a great role … not lose your great designs.

  1. Watermark all yr design sheets and write a clear IP statement on each tear.
  2. State this to the recruiter and interviewer at the outset … none of  these designs in part or whole are to be used, copied, re-printed etc.  
  3. Register key designs.

Start from holding on to your position of integrity and take it to the interviewer or better still, to the recruiter.  Try to get as much information about the role prior to interview stage.  Is the role ready to go… how has the role come about… are there any internal applicants…

So just how real is this job position anyway?  

Honestly a large amount of phantom recruiting goes on in order to procure new ideas and products – shocking, but fact.  What is crucial is that you go into a mid weight or senior interview eyes wide open with some filters in place.  The most useful gauge you have is asking direct and open questions= mixes.

Ask the question:

Is this position ready to go?

What kind of a response have you had?

What interested you in my work?

Listen to the feel of answer… remember these people are professionals and wear the right veneer for the right moment, but they don’t like being second guessed early on and the tetchiness of their position often lets slip clues as to what is really going on:  in short questions throw them – so if the answer is shaky, irritable or unsure then guess what… this could be your ‘design fodder’ time…

Worst case scenario?  Don’t think about it.

Scenario 1:  Phantom role: Employer has no real position to fill … they also have no new trend… the are hunting for yours!

Scenario 2:  Position is coming over the horizon but not yet confirmed… SC 1 really

Scenario 3:  Position is a goer… but you may still have a long way to go.


Spotting a genuine Scenario 3:

ok so the interviewer states early on that this role is very important and the right person must be found… sounds obvious? Sure but if you don’t hear and feel this is the case, the chances are you’re  in downtown design foddersville.  Moreover if the interviewer feels like they have changed tack, gone smooth yet non committal, without stating something positive or negative, the chances are they are starting to see you as free trend development.

They want to feel you out.  They have decided you are not the one, usually because of seniority or fear for their position… but yr work is really hot and your concepts are temptingly for free.  They’ll make a move…

The atmosphere changes or gradually gets smoother because they want you to start rolling out the under the surface stuff, ideas, insight and insider news.  In a real interview setting the atmosphere twists and changes according to your shared ideas.

Remember this, the UK retail design PD  industry is a small club and they all know what underwear they have on… chances are if the role is a goer they already know who they want in a sideways move or poach, from a blue chip competitor –  M&P furniture designer flipped over to Shop Direct in Feb 2012 – yet SD interviewed 40 designers to get free hits, trend and more trend.  Well think about it if they are paying a recruitment company 10k they want their money’s worth – even at the expense of yrIP (Your intellectual Property).

Scenario 2:

This one can drag out but one thing’s for sure, if you are one of the luck few on the shortlist they want yr inside leg.

They’ll set you a brief and task you on a comp shop.  Again it’s all about gathering insight at your expense.

Scenario 1: 

That old sinking feeling.  They’ll get you on a brief… a project to design 2 models and start filing yr concept and skewing it just away from litigation…

Nah can’t be true!

Does this sound familiar or are you about to accuse me of being a complete cynic!?

Wait up!

Below are 2 design concepts I made in 2008 in good faith, for a brief set  for major design management role… a brief set by the blue chip allowed them to explore new concept FOC with a top flight, proven product designer.. myself.

Above:  2008 Model  Below: NGPD proposed models 2008

… top:  my bold colours choice which included muted variations and plains

above… what came about thereafter: their colour combo change aligning away from their neutral darks and firmly toward my ideations

above: … my bold check 2008 – we discussed disjointing check pattern as an option or adding pattern match ‘interval’ piping

and … their bold check 2010

At the time of these concepts landing on the table of the retailer they faced design stagnation, with boring satin steel frames and black or navy upholstery. Fit for a funeral, emasculated and dull.

There were a host of other details lifted from my brief such as mini polka dot fabrics and frame schemes.  These two concepts above and their background trend maps re-shaped the brand direction for this UK major.

I didn’t get the job.

No one did… it was a bitter case of Scenario 1:  The genuine Phantom role.

Beating scenario 1:  the IP trap

State clearly your intellectual property rights and wishes – ”I do not consent to… ”

When I attended this particular interview I withheld my most dynamic portfolio; yet that seemingly smart and intended safeguard still wasn’t enough – the work I made for the design department interview brief was enough for them to grab where the market opportunity lay… and take my core concepts.

In the interview setting you must have work that is tailored to do 2 things: show yet hide.

The only other real safeguard is in your ability to disarm.  By levelling clear cut questions from the start of the show you will feel out whether this is on, or RIP.

Ask questions early

You must ask the following questions early on in the interview.

  • Have you seen many people for this role?
  • How do I fit?
  • What did you think of my CV?
  • How soon do you want to start this role?

If you get a hesitant, or unsettling, mediocre responses to these questions, then my friend you are being lined up for trend ingestion.

Apply open questions:

  • I don’t get the feeling you have the role ready… is that the case?
  • You seem unsure about me in some way… what is concerning you?

If they mutter … beautiful… lovely and make occasional notes without committing – yr gone.

Expect the expected

If you must get sucked into an interview with a H St blue chip make sure you only show work that suggests where you are at.  The chances are you will get the job on personality rather than specific designs.  Those like me who carry specific designs will always make the balance sheet look good.

If in any doubt stay freelance and enjoy a direct, fair, rewarding career.

What say thee?  Are these images above what they seem in your mind?  Let me know in comments, thanks.