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This article was written on 05 Nov 2015, and is filled under Uncategorized.

The lost art of making stuff – and ignoring focus groups

When Ford put out all the bilious flummery around the Ford Focus, they said that focus groups had played such an important part in its gestation that they had decided to name the car after them. New Labour were obsessed with focus groups to the point of paralysis, running every policy idea by them to make sure that some, unseen brigade of wankers were happy with them.

Unsurprising, then, that the product of this was two entities for which I can’t summon up anything like steamed loathing. Blair and Campbell should clearly be up before the International Criminal Court and the death penalty should be made legal purely so that Peter Mandelson can be hung and then made illegal again, but what I’m talking about here is concept, not actuality.

Both New Labour and the shitty Ford Focus were contrived to the point of being depressingly bland. If you go through life, eternally meeting the needs of the average, then whatever it is you’re making will be the equivalent of beige. You might paint the downstairs toilet with it, but nobody is ever going to go to war for it, still less die with the cry ‘more beige’ on their lips.

The two things which most immediately suggest themselves as a counter to this are both French. And I love France, with a kind of baffled detachment, because it seems to spend a lot of its time doing things purely to annoy, which strikes me as a pretty good basis for policy. In addition, people also take to the streets and riot when they’re hacked off, which means their government is very wary of doing stupid, dunderheaded things.

First of these is the Mach 2000 brand of watches created by Roger Tallon. Designed in 1975, Tallon’s watch clearly knows what watches should look like, pays the briefest of nods to that by having hands and a strap and then flips all the tables over. Most obviously, it has three colourful buttons positioned on the right hand side of a cased that looks like a flipped capital ‘D’ and is daringly aligned with the right hand edge of the strap, not the middle.

Whether you’d wear it is beside the point. Tallon didn’t spend time talking to some halfwit from Doncaster about what he wanted to see in the ideal watch, or showing putative designs to some imbeciles from Tring. He just built it. The watch company Lip, who knew a good thing when they saw it, made the thing. Some people bought it. The watch is now acclaimed as a design classic and Tallon set up a school of industrial design.

Twenty years before Tallon put pen to paper, Citroen introduced the DS 19 at the Paris Motor Show. It might have been in development for 18 years, but nobody had asked Sid and Doris Bonkers, from Cheltenham, what they thought of it because it looked like a spaceship on wheels crossed with whatever the world’s most French thing is. Over 700 orders were taken in the first 15 minutes of the show and 12,000 before the end of the day.

Over 1.4 million cars were made, all the more remarkable when you bear in mind that France and Citroen were still trying to pick themselves up out of the economic stagnation caused by the war and could have been forgiven for making saucepans instead of cars. Free-thinking, then, can lead to commercial success, but it’s more of a gift in its own right. By saying ‘balls’ to focus groups, you set yourself free from all manner of pedestrian fools.

Part of this risk-aversion inherent in trying to second guess the consumer is that we have an almost comedic failure to invest. Britain invests 15% of its GDP, lower than comparable economies, and yet pays around 70% of profits to shareholders. That figure, incidentally, was just 10% back in what the media tell us were the bad old days of the 1970s. These figures, incidentally, are taken from Byline, and Craig Ryan’s excellent piece which gave me the idea for this blog on https://www.byline.com/column/31/article/538

We’re not investing, then, paying inflated sums to shareholders and, because of that, are failing to innovate because we have both eyes on the bottom line. Either this country reverses that and kicks focus groups in the goolies, or it becomes precisely what it is becoming – a service sector economy that lives only to sell things and to phone up when things go wrong. That’s not a future I see myself being part of.

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