Q&A in Unlimited magazine

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    Michael Smythe

    Q&A for Unlimited magazine: October – November 2011, pp.85-85 – the unexpurgated version.

    By design – Michael Smythe’s book puts ‘number 8’ thinking and Kiwiana in their place.

    What prompted you to write this book?

    The short answer can be summed up with a quote from Thomas Berger: “Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.”  (Was he paraphrasing our Sir Ed?)

    As a freelance design writer I realised I had begun documenting history in the form of obituaries – not the best approach. Then after gaining my Master of Design Management, which equipped me to strategise our design-driven future, I was invited to turn 180 degrees and look backward – I was asked to teach design history to Bachelor of Product Design students. The much needed reference book was conspicuous by its absence.

    A more complex conspiracy theory can be found in the book’s Back Story.

    Which characteristics hallmark Kiwi design?

    I prefer not to deliver my punch line in this interview. I would rather readers followed my exploration of this question throughout the book and position their own views alongside the conclusion I offer in the Epilogue. What I will say here is that it’s about character rather than form and I can see a personality which seems common to the cultures for whom New Zealand is home. And I reckon we should exptrapol8, not annihil8, number 8 thinking.

    How has our isolation influenced the products we’ve designed?

    It is our everlasting point of difference – always has been and always will be. It has influenced everything from the evolution of a unique Maori version of Pacific design to the re-invention of companies like Fisher & Paykel as New Zealand based design-driven global businesses. Most importantly our isolation allows us to view developments across many economies and cultures and then think clearly about how to get back to first principles and create something better. This strength is being recognised by companies we do business with – one example mentioned in the book is the way Knoll International values working with Formway Design.

    You bust some myths about products dear to our hearts, like the Buzzy Bee and the jet boat. How could you?

    With consummate ease! I have nothing against the myth – after all, it is the middle of my name – but prefer to be accurate with our young history. Besides, the truth about the Buzzy Bee is far more interesting that the often told story that it was the creation of Hec and John Ramsey – and I really enjoyed interviewing the 95 year old widow of its original designer/maker. And I was very happy to expunge the myth that the Yanks introduced it to us.

    There remains much to be proud of in the stories of great Kiwis innovating products like the jet boat and the electric fence. We did not invent the basic concepts (both Bills – Hamilton and Gallagher – read the Popular Mechanics magazine) but both provide great examples of our ability to take a new idea further faster.

    Is Kiwiana kitsch or something we should be proud of?

    No. Not proud. But it is a healthy expression of our character and confidence if we enjoy it for what it is. It only becomes a problem if we think that is all there is to our manufactured cultural identity. My book concludes that while Kiwiana has probably played an important role in our adolescent evolution, it’s time to move on before we come down with chronic cliché consumption.

    Which of our recent product inventions do you think have the biggest potential for global success?

    Hmmm … The Yike Bike could break through the niche market or early adopters to become a widely used daily transport option. It has the ‘ihi, wehi and wana’ (a valuable Maori concept – see Chapter 1) to excite those open to new experiences. Its basic concept and detailed design resolution appears to align well with contemporary lifestyles – especially in cycle friendly cities.

    The real potential for success lies with continuously improving brands rather than single products. I see design-driven companies like Fisher & Paykel Appliances, Formway, Furnware, Methven and Phil & Teds going from strength to strength. We may be getting even better returns from brands like Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, Gallagher, Simcro, Skellerup and Tait serving less visible markets. It’s long-term investment in IP rich enterprise with a deep design-led culture that will deliver global competitive advantage.

    The stereotype is we’re inventive but are we actually better at introducing and developing ideas than we are at inventing things?

    I don’t see it as an ‘either /or’ issue. All New World countries like North America, Australia and New Zealand experienced the necessities that mothered much ingenuity. We have invented some great concepts after surveying the state-of-the-art worldwide – the Barmac aggregate crusher, the Fisher & Paykel DishDrawer and (if I can be so un-Kiwi as to blow a trumpet I am involved with) the Earthmaker Aerobic Composter are examples.

    As stated above, we are also great at picking up new concepts and taking them further faster – baby buggies are another great example. I suggest that we don’t have any more brilliant designers per square metre than any other country – our secret weapon is our capacity for cross-disciplinary teamwork. That teamwork can be applied to both the invention of original concepts and the innovation required to take new ideas to market.

    What’s your favourite design and why?

    Singling out one is impossible. I wish I had a set of the Crown Crystal glassware that John Densem designed for our Geyser Room restaurant at Expo 70. I dislike sweeping up less if I am using the dustpan and brush Peter Tasker designed for Raven. I love interacting with Peter Haythornthwaite’s arti-fakt-s Saturn Disc pen holder and swivelling sticky tape dispenser while sitting in my Life chair developed by a Formway team led by Mark Pennington. Beyond Life I would like my body to be placed in one of Andrew Hubbard’s Tenderest Nextgen coffins.

    What has been our biggest design failure?

    Failure, like compromise, does not belong in the designer’s vocabulary – we have learning experiences. I could place Jamie McLellan’s stacked cutlery concept in this answer as well as the previous one – because it highlights the fact that we have yet to develop a high-end cutlery industry to add-value to our titanium-rich iron sands.

    The story of the rise and fall of Tullen cutters, and the world-leading Tullen stainless steel scissors that were so advanced they were killed off on the eve of their birth, can teach us about the dangers of selling to global competitors. The Poly educational computer may have led to a world-leading software sector had money men with short-term motives not scuttled it just as it was achieving global reach. The electronic pool table that led to the demise of Designforces (of which I was a partner) would be a contender for greatest loss of potential.


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