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Industrial Design on ‘The Apprentice’

If you’ve been watching the latest series of The Apprentice, you’ll probably have seen one of the episodes in which participants are challenged to create new products and pitch them to big retailers. The teams are seen brainstorming initial ideas and throwing rough sketches down on paper, before handing this over to a slightly worried looking product design agency in the afternoon. The show then cuts to the next morning when a working prototype arrives by courier and a delighted team marvel at how well their design has turned out.  What it doesn’t show is the exhausted design and prototyping team who’ll have been up all night turning a doodle and loose verbal description into fully-realised working prototype ready for the big pitch. Perhaps it’s time for a spin-off series where we can see the blood, sweat and tears that it took for the professionals to make that happen overnight!

When it comes to research, our budding Apprentices often have the right idea – they go out and talk to their target users before committing to a design. Research though, like design, uses techniques and best practice to get the information that’s needed and our heroes don’t always make the most of that opportunity. When the information they want isn’t forthcoming, they often fall back on a hunch and go for the product that they assume will work best. As anyone who saw the ‘Splish Splash’ baby splash guard for the bath in a recent episode knows, those assumptions can be way off the mark.


Of course no-one expects the participants on the show to be experienced at using professional design and research techniques. However, the show does such a great job of showing viewers how much clear thinking, determination and hard work is needed to get an idea to market, it seems a shame to me that it undervalues the role designers have in all this. The design process is portrayed as a quick, ‘gut-instinct’ scrabble to a concept, followed by an overnight leap to a prototype. The reality is very different.

The core skills of a modern design team are gathering user insights, creative problem solving and turning rough concepts into working, profitable products. These skills can be reliably applied to everything from a syringe to a spacecraft to a chocolate bar and, when used correctly, can reduce risk and help create products consumers will love.

Once the product is in the hands of consumers, good design is often ‘invisible.’ A well-designed product is one that just works, doing exactly what the user needs it to without effort or confusion, and consequently can sometimes disappear into the background, as it were. Browse the internet on your mobile phone, and if it’s well-designed you’ll be absorbed in the content rather than thinking about how to use the device or browser. A professional design team will have worked long and hard to achieve this, trying many, many variants in button layout, icon design, screen spec, phone shape, materials and surface finish (to name just a few), coupled with structured research, prototyping and testing, before arriving at the definitive product. However, if they’ve been successful, all that careful effort may never be apparent to the phone’s owner.

Great products aren’t really created overnight, but professional design teams such as KD play a vital role in bringing successful products to market, and ensuring consumers want and love the result. Perhaps one day we’ll get to star in our own reality TV series and show people how it’s really done. Until then, let’s continue to enjoy The Apprentice for its entertainment value and spare a thought for the sleep-deprived designers who help make it happen!

Matt Corrall