Professor Sam Bucolo is Professor of Design Innovation at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Director of UTS’s Design Innovation Research Centre (DI:rc). He spoke to Carole Goldsmith.

AMT: Let’s start with your career background before joining UTS.

Sam Bucolo: I started as an industrial designer working as a consultant, mainly for SME manufacturers. My frustration was that I kept getting the wrong brief from clients from these firms. Often they just wanted me to focus on a better manufacturing process or improved product aesthetics. As a designer, I used to tell them, this product does not meet the needs of your industry. You need to speak to your customers and find out their requirements.

I worked in and out of academia and consulted to large multi-national international companies in Europe for a while and learnt a lot about corporate strategy. When I returned to Australia, I worked for the Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) for Interaction Design. It was interesting work but highlighted the challenges of getting good ideas and research to market.

If you look at traditional research commercialisation, it often starts with a product, then businesses seek investors and develop, promote and sell the product. I believe that a product and business model goes hand in hand, and design can be used for both. Good design can apply to the overriding business model, not just the product or service.


AMT: What does your current role entail?

SB: I am helping manufacturers to better understand their customers and through the design process, develop their business model. We do that to help companies and in turn, we can ensure industry capability in our new design graduates. I work with CEOs and they sometimes need to be challenged, as many are not listening to their customers, even though they believe they are.

We take SME CEOs to their customer’s premises and then we do customer interviews inviting CEOs to listen. Many CEOs say: “what have I been missing all these years through this process?” In the Design Innovation Research Centre (DI:rc), we run customer engagement/business design programs over several weeks. The firm’s CEO, management team and workers attend these sessions. Our design team assist in the interview of the SME’s customers and feed these comments back to the companies during the five-day sessions. We also aim to mentor the SMEs at their premises over several years.

This is part of a different way that universities and industries can better collaborate. There is limited contact between industry and academia in this country. In Germany for example, business turns to universities for expertise. Australia is placed at the back of the pack for industry – academic collaboration when compared to other OECD nations. Engagement models need to be reconsidered in Australia and through our research, we are trying to address this.


AMT: What facilities and programs does the DI:rc have and how can manufacturers access them?

SB: Our building has floor space for SMEs to meet as a single business or in industry groups. They are encouraged to work in a ‘safe’ space together and address key concerns about their businesses. We offer a range of intervention programs and/or industry-specific programs for SMEs, large corporates and non-government organisations. As part of this, we work with our industry partners to develop leadership capacity in design-led research that helps grow their products and services, business models and their employee engagement strategies.

Firms can get involved with our programs by contacting our centre at UTS, on 02 9514-8998. Senior management have to be ready to commit to the time involved and they need to have available resources to implement design into their business.

AMT: Tell us about some of the programs currently underway at the centre?

SB: With the SME engagement program we start with the five-day program and we expect the CEO and leadership team to turn up, such as the heads of design, R&D and marketing, as well as employees. When we ask them to listen to their customers, some don’t know how to listen or they only hear what they want to hear.

Recently I went out to a 40-year-old manufacturing business and met with its CEO and one of its customers. The CEO asked the customer if a specific solution will solve the customer’s problem, which he had with the manufacturer’s product.

We did the interview, which was recorded, and the CEO took extensive notes of what he thought the customer said. After the interview, I asked the CEO for his notes and I had the audio version transcribed. From his notes, I could see that all the CEO could hear was the problem that his business could solve. He missed everything that the customer said. When I played him back the audio, he realised that he had not listened to the customer properly.

CEOs and management have to first stand back and listen to their customers, and this is part of the design process. It is also about understanding the customer’s problem and then looking at what solutions you can solve for them. We also encourage the firm’s management to examine every aspect of their business. This can range from people management, supply chain efficiency, marketing to export, and we look at how this will directly help their customer and the company to succeed.

AMT: You have co-authored several research reports on design-led innovation in manufacturing. What does design-led innovation mean?

SB: Design-led innovation is about companies who have a vision for growth based on deep customer insights. Then they need to apply those insights to all parts of the business.

In my recently published book, Are We There Yet? Insights On How To Lead By Design, which was written for SMEs, I explain that becoming design-led is not just about designing products or services. You need to take an entire look at the business from a customer’s perspective and design all elements of the business from this understanding.

AMT: Can you provide some examples of Australian manufacturers who have embraced design-led innovation and how has this helped them to succeed?

SB: We have been working together with some Australian manufacturers for over three years. One of these is Centor, a multi award-winning designer and manufacturer of architectural hardware systems for folding and sliding doors, screen blinds and bi-fold door locks.

Centor’s global headquarters is at Eagle Farm in Brisbane’s industrial area. It also has branches across Australia, as well as regional headquarters in Birmingham (UK) and in the USA, plus branches in Nantes (France) and China. A third-generation Australian company, Centor employs around 160 people worldwide.

We helped Centor interview its customers, and at the time the company had around 180 different projects in action. Based on customer responses and joint research, we all realised that only four of the projects should be continued. All other projects ceased to operate and the four core projects that continued were made world-class.

Røde Microphones is another Australian manufacturing success story. Its western Sydney head office and its state-of-the-art plant has over $30m in precision machinery and a support staff of more than 140 people. It also has offices in the USA and Hong Kong. As I report in my book, Røde’s CEO Peter Freeman is an inspirational leader who demonstrates the quality that all business leaders need to succeed in today’s economy. He has led his company from a state of near-bankruptcy to a world-leading designer and manufacturer of microphones and audio equipment.

Peter has done this by not just focusing on the wonderfully designed products, but by looking at every part of the business, from a customer-focused perspective. It is the firm’s close connection to the customer that keeps Røde so competitive and successful. Every staff member has a clear understanding of the company’s purpose and the multiple types of innovation that can occur. Staff are encouraged to experiment and take risks, but these are managed by staying close to the customer.

AMT: What design lessons can Australian manufacturers learn from overseas?

SB: The UK has had design programs like we are teaching for at least 10 years and many UK companies practice lead by design. The UK Design Council encourages design-led innovation and its website states that innovation is the most important driver of long-term prosperity. Design helps turn innovative ideas into profitable offerings that meet consumer needs and compete on the world stage. Over the last 10 years, the Design Council has worked with more than 4,000 businesses including British Airways and Thames Water. For every £1 businesses invested in design, they gained over £4 net operating profit, over £20 net turnover and over £5 net exports, the Design Council estimates.

We don’t have this data in Australia and we still believe that we should be investing in more technologies. What most Australian businesses need to do is to fundamentally change their business culture.

Other countries like Denmark and New Zealand are leading by design.


AMT: What are some steps Australian manufacturers can use to incorporate Design-led innovation in their business?

SB: Australian manufacturers need to listen to their customers. Innovation is not about a product or a cheaper efficient way to make a widget. You need to give yourself enough time before a problem occurs and you have a crisis on your hands, such as your product is eroded by a competitor. You need to work through the key stages of design-led innovation. These described in more detail in my book, Are We There Yet?, and can be summarised as: customer value – who is your customer and what is the problem being solved?; strategic alliance – ensure that all your systems and products are aligned with your customer’s problems; and management mindset: build a new insight about your customer and then develop a new business strategy to match this new mindset.