How to successfully commercialise and protect new product designs

The UK has come up with more than its fair share of iconic products. Nick Britton talks to product inventors and designers about the sources of their inspiration, and how they have commercialised and protected their ideas

Mandy Haberman was visiting a friend when the idea came to her. A mother of three, she watched her friend’s toddler running across the front room holding his trainer cup upside-down, leaving a trail of stains on the carpet.

It was an incident all too familiar to Haberman, but perhaps because it wasn’t her child or her carpet, she was able to look at it more objectively. ‘I thought, this is ridiculous,’ she states. ‘What you need is a cup that seals by itself when it’s not in use.’

From this simple idea – and hours of ‘playing around with bits and pieces’ in her kitchen – Haberman came up with the prototype for what is now known as the Anyway Up Cup.

She took it to a trade show, secured £10,000 worth of advance orders, and found herself in business.

The Anyway Up Cup joins a long list of classic British designs, from the Catseye and red telephone box to the TomTom sat nav. Some would add the iPod to the list, designed by a team led by Briton Jonathan Ive. All of the above have been successful because of their keen awareness of the user’s needs and problems, according to

Antonia Ward, design knowledge manager at UK strategic body the Design Council.
‘Great design is about usability. Something that’s easy and intuitive to use and looks beautiful,’ she states. What it’s not about is making something trendy. ‘There are lots of things that look really cool but don’t work,’ Ward adds.

Utilitarian approach

The argument that design equals function has perhaps been most bluntly stated by another great British designer, James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame. Dyson’s designs instantly set his brand apart from competitors and have won countless awards. Yet he has famously declared ‘design means how something works, not how it looks’.

It’s a view contested by Sam Hecht, co-founder of design business Industrial Facility. ‘If Mr Dyson was to tell me he has no interest in the way his products look, but only in how they work, I would say he is deluding himself,’ says Hecht, who designs products for Japanese retailer Muji. ‘It is the most distinctive vacuum cleaner on the market and has been since it was introduced.’

Hecht argues that product design has to combine functionality with visual appeal: ‘Imagine a hammer that looks beautiful but you can’t nail anything with it. It would be a useless object. On the other hand, a vase that holds flowers but looks appalling wouldn’t work either.’

Despite being as concerned with how things work as Dyson, Hecht’s approach is quite different. While the colours and forms of Dyson’s vacuum cleaners demand to be noticed, Hecht’s designs are as self-effacing as he is. Take his work for Lacie, a French manufacturer of external hard drives.

‘A hard drive provides very simple storage and is easy to use,’ Hecht explains. ‘We carefully presented them with a design that was simply a plastic box.’ Lacie’s initial reaction was lukewarm.

‘In terms of people’s ideas of what design is, they saw it as being risky. “Where’s the design?” they asked.

‘It’s also very risky in terms of production: believe it or not, a box shape is extremely difficult to mould in mass production, compared with something that’s more organic.’

Dangerous design

Hecht argued that without taking risks with design, all a company can do is copy what has gone before. Lacie listened and the product was launched as Hecht had envisaged it.

‘I have to say that it was initially derided by the technology community,’ he recalls. ‘However, when customers went into stores and saw our design, then looked at others [on offer] with their forms, features, gadgets and add-ons; they ended up buying our product because it seemed a more logical and trustworthy place to store their data.’

For Hecht, following design logic – led by an appreciation of how a product is used – is the only way to work. Sales ought to follow, but they are not the measure of success for him.

That may sound idealistic, but perhaps it’s just another way of saying that products whose design is determined by commercial considerations will ultimately lose out to those developed for maximum usability.

Hecht’s view that there is something inherently logical about a great design is shared by Robert Webb, CEO of wind turbine supplier Quietrevolution. The company’s turbines, which have won design awards, are characterised by a vertical (as opposed to horizontal) axis around which tapered blades rotate.

‘The triple helix shape is rather wonderful,’ says Webb. ‘But the design is strongly rooted in engineering principles. In aerodynamics, if something looks right, it probably is right.’

There are engineering principles behind every element of Quietrevolution’s design: tapered blades reduce noise and smooth the load, while the vertical axis means that the device can exploit wind from any direction. But like Hecht, Webb rejects the idea that design is about how things work, not how they look: instead, it’s about a ‘marriage’ between the two.

‘Considerations of functionality ran in parallel with an aesthetic appreciation of the thing,’ says Webb. ‘It was an iterative process.’

Buoyed by legislation that requires new developments to generate a proportion of their energy from renewable sources, Quietrevolution is seeing demand for its turbines that ‘massively’ outpaces its manufacturing pipeline of 180 units a year. With popular opposition to wind turbines often focusing on their appearance, a design that could hardly be more different from the traditional “windmill” has helped secure orders. Great designs don’t always sell themselves, but sometimes it almost seems that way.

Global sales of espresso machine Presso are now in the tens of thousands per year, despite the fact its creators at design consultancy Therefore have done little to market it.

‘We haven’t invested in a massive roll-out,’ says Presso founder Patrick Hunt, also creative director at Therefore. ‘It’s a slow burn for us – we’re quite happy to let it grow slowly.’

Therefore, which designed the TomTom sat nav, has been branching out by developing its own designs. The espresso machine is hand-operated, with a corkscrew-type mechanism. Water is boiled in a kettle beforehand, and the machine itself uses no energy except a little elbow grease from the user.

‘In the past, espresso-makers have been quite complicated, with a lot of internal mechanisms and valves,’ says Hunt. ‘We thought, let’s strip it back to the simplest it could possibly be.’

To commercialise their work, Hunt and his colleagues at Therefore needed cash. They spun-out Presso, a new company that holds the intellectual property (IP) rights to the design, and secured investment from business angels to buy the tools to manufacture the product.

‘In designing almost any product, the finance needed to develop it is roughly equivalent to the funding you need to tool it,’ Hunt explains. ‘On that assumption we did a 50-50 split with our investors: they put in as much money as we did.’

The manufacturing is done in China, but under Presso’s direct supervision (one of the investors is based there). The founders are now working on other ‘smart products in the hot drink space’.

Problem product

It doesn’t always happen so smoothly. Haberman’s efforts to commercialise the Anyway Up Cup have been frustrated by problems at almost every turn.

After coming up with the prototype design in 1996, Haberman realised her best solution was to license it to a large manufacturer that would be able to cope with the high demand she anticipated.

‘I visited 18 companies to offer them a licence,’ she says. ‘Everybody was excited about it: a non-spill cup was like the Holy Grail. But when it came to the crunch, no-one took a licence.’

This reluctance, which Haberman now puts down to risk aversion, left her with no alternative but to manufacture the product herself. After all, she knew ‘every mother wanted it’. But having quickly secured advance orders, she found herself committed to fulfilling them before she’d had time to think about designing a product around the concept she’d patented. The product she came up with ended up looking ‘very much like any other training cup’, which she now admits was ‘a disaster’.

There were other problems in store. Haberman’s manufacturing partner went bust, meaning a lot of stores delisted the product. Most damaging of all, however, was a series of patent infringements, beginning in 1998, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Though she has successfully defended the Anyway Up Cup in court against much larger companies, Haberman’s confidence in the patent system has been badly dented.

‘People tend to be naïve when it comes to IP,’ she states. ‘They think that if you have a patent granted, that’s it, off you go. The reality is that it’s just a piece of paper. It gives you the right to go to court at your own cost, at your own risk.’

Related: How to protect your intellectual property

A dubious defence

According to Haberman, a patent may be granted, but is not truly tested until it reaches court. An infringing company will frequently claim the patent is invalid. ‘They will dig and dig, desperately trying to find something that will knock your patent out,’ she warns.

Webb of Quietrevolution agrees that patents rarely offer sufficient protection in themselves. Even design registration, which is intended to protect the look of the product as opposed to the principles of its function (see boxout), is an obstacle to copycats rather than an impenetrable barrier.

‘We have design registration and patents, but if someone wants to find a way around them, they can,’ he says. ‘As with any technology business, our strategy for maintaining market leadership is based on a combination of factors: staying ahead with technical advances, the IP we have secured, and the strength of our relationships.’

If real protection comes from always staying one step ahead of your competitors, design should be seen as an ongoing investment rather than a one-off cost. Naturally, this is going to need cash, but Antonia Ward argues that it’s well worth it: ‘The price of bad design is even more expensive: it’s lost sales and lost margin.’

For Hecht, good design is more than just good business: it’s a responsibility. ‘When an architect designs a building, it’s not just for the people inside the building, or just for the client, it’s for the people walking past it and the urban landscape in general,’ he argues.

‘Product designers have often gotten away with not having to think about how their products impact on people’s lives and the landscape in which they are used. That will change.’

Nick Britton

Lexus Ernser

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

Related Topics

Tech Jobs & Careers