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.

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