New ideas: Challenging New Zealand's design

Zespri Spife, 1988. Photo by Neil Liversedge
Peter Haythornthwaite, 2017. Image by David Haythornthwaite
Ooh Ah Stove, 1991. Photo by Neil Liversedge
An icon of New Zealand design, Peter Haythornthwaite shares his wishlist for the future, and recommendations for aspiring and established practitioners.


Industrial and creative design legend, Designers Institute of New Zealand fellow, and owner of an ONZM for services to design: Peter Haythornthwaite knows things, loves things, predicts things, worries about things and improves things. Here's five things he wishes he had known before he started a career in design, and five things he'd like to see in Aotearoa in support of the design sector.

5 things you wish you knew before you started a career in design 

My tertiary education at Elam and the University of Illinois was broad ranging and facilitated my career pathway. But clearly education cannot fully prepare a graduate for a yet to be defined profession – that comes through experience, relationships and learning.

1. Design integration

Through my reading and research at university I came to understand that design is a continuum. No one discipline is the hero. More so than ever, in our changing world, it will be prerequisite that all aspects of design dovetail together in an integrated and holistic manner. Products, services, brands, communications and behaviours will fail if they stand alone; integrated design enables them to strategically and harmoniously work across all touch points.

2. Success rarely happens by chance

Being good at the business side of design made sense. However, finances, staff securement, contracts, briefing, project planning, business structure and so forth were largely overlooked in college. It was when I became a full-time consultant that I came to really understand that good management is fundamental to good design practice. Fortunately I found these skills could be assimilated by seeking good advice and learning from one’s successes and mistakes.

3.  Entrepreneurship and sound judgment

Entrepreneurship is ‘in’ a person. It's an innate ability to identify opportunities and see ways to effectively fulfill them. Fortunately entrepreneurship can also be nurtured to become a competence. In the early 90s I advocated for universities to set up design-enterprise programmes. However, the recommendation was not taken up, perhaps because the entrepreneurial spirit is best acquired by iterative doing, not just teaching. Design enterprise must be underpinned by continuous improvement and good design judgment.

4.  Goodness

We leave college with hope and a belief that there is always a better way, whatever the task. The reality is that other people in the project mix don't always hold the same perspective; they do not necessarily share our behavioral and moral beliefs. By student designers being repetitively engaged in roleplaying the hard aspects of businesses, learning to listen and translate better, and to engage others in a cause, they would be better prepared for the commercial endeavors.

5.  From their perspective

Going out with an impressive portfolio does not necessarily mean it will enable a client or an employer to understand your real value. I soon realised that to be more effective in sharing my proposition/story I needed to better understand their viewpoint. It meant listening and observing better so as to be more able to interpret their current state and what they were really saying. While well resolved solutions were one part of my role, more sustainably important was the need to help clients understand that design was cultural and about continuous advancement. It meant guiding them to consider the unmet needs of end users, integrating design thinking throughout their business so they could be world-class and win in their chosen markets.

Woven-together initiatives and a clear sense of purpose: 5 wishes for a supported design strategy

1.  Better by design but better

Starting in the early 2000s Better by Design focused on enabling SMEs to be more internationally competitive by design. The programme, through various initiatives, enjoyed significant success with a good number of companies adapting design thinking and doing as a business norm, and aspiring to be world-class. For some, there were marked increases in growth, turnover and profitability. However, since 2013 the programme, I believe, has drifted and is now in danger of being a better by business initiative. A renewed Better by Design initiative transferred to become Design Integration programmes should be, both full-time and part-time, established in our key universities.  

2.  Energise students’ thinking

In Scandinavian countries there is an inbuilt understanding of the value of design to commerce and society. People naturally talk about the famous architects and designers of their country – it’s part of their cultural heritage. They see design as fundamental to their national culture and success. What if we were to comprehensively implement design education summer-schools for primary through senior school aged students? What better way than this to build in design thinking and understanding, and foster aspirations for New Zealand’s future success.

3.  Share designfulness*

Understanding who companies really are and why they are successful has been a career-long focus for me. I dissect them to determine their reason for being, their strategies and where design sits culturally, strategically and competence wise within the organisation. What if talks were given four times a year, from the top to the bottom of New Zealand, by ‘designful’ New Zealand companies and international exemplars such as Aesop, Gira and Vipp. The intent being to confirm the cultural and competitive power of design. Follow-up design culture and innovation ‘clinics’ could be run by selected universities and through the design museum. (*Marty Neumeier)

4.  A future-focused design museum

Rather than being incorporated into existing institutions, the museum would have a singular focus. Naturally it would be housed in a building of outstanding design yet it would be a living, outreaching ‘institution dedicated to the acquisition, conservation, study, exhibition, and educational’ communication of physical and digital design artefacts that record the past and forecast design’s future role. School visits and travelling ‘shows’ would be comprised of experiential and experimental events as well as physical engagement.

5.  Articulate our design in business story

When I came back to New Zealand in 1971 I had the opportunity to visit one of Japan’s Floating Trade Fairs. The purpose-built ship exhibited products and equipment demonstrating Japan’s commercial and creative ingenuity. It was highly inspirational, ripping the dark curtain of the WW2 past, it encouraged New Zealand to buy Japanese-designed and made. Be it digital or physical, New Zealand has much to gain by sharing its creative potential with the world. We should be sharing our innovative nation story, demonstrating how design serves to facilitate the competitive advantage of our scientific, technological, agricultural, digital, tourist industries, et al.

Objectspace presented a survey exhibition of Peter's industrial design career in April 2018.
This article was first published as part one and four in a series of five by our friends at Idealog in May 2018; you can find the full series "25 Things" here.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

8 Feb 2019

The Big Idea Editor

Tim Goedhart for Unsplash
Sabine Brix of Artshub shares the ways in which meditation techniques have reduced anxiety and brought clarity to the creative practice of artists
Encouraging signs for transformation of the sector
Will Francis for Unsplash
Lynnaire Macdonald shares some tips on how you can reach your audience more effectively no matter where they are
Miss Amituanai, 2005
Edith channels her younger self to access some smart and passionate advice for a creative career