Four years after being awarded an honorary doctorate from Victoria University, design world heavyweight Peter Haythornthwaite has been handed a Queens Birthday Honours medal this year for his services to design. He speaks with Idealog on New Zealand’s shifting design environment, building on dissatisfaction, his experience designing LOMAK, and how Zespri’s much loved ‘spife’ first came to fruition.
First of all, congratulations on your well-deserved Queens Birthday Honours medal this year.
Thank you, I was certainly delighted.
You've been a designer for a number of years now. What keeps you motivated to keep working and make new designs?
The unmet needs and the opportunities to improve people’s wellbeing. Life is always changing and there are different issues that one needs to address. People tend to see me as a product designer, which I am. But when I was a young student, I was fascinated by these designers who were also architects, furniture designers, educators, artists, and sculptors. So I asked myself the question, 'Is this not possible?' For a designer, it’s your passion and it’s integral to your life. You can't stop that.
Another thing is dissatisfaction. Not only with what you do for yourself because it's never good enough, but also dissatisfaction with what you engage with. Whether it’s the service in a restaurant or a piece of communication that miscommunicates. The experiences that you have in life give you the desire to address and improve.
I’m also motivated from engaging with students, clients, and other people because you learn from them. You learn from everybody and every experience. It adds to the information you have. You may not be an expert in a particular area, but you can listen, ask, make connections, and get inspired.
How do you think the design profession has changed over the years?
When I first started and you were designing a publication, it was all from metal-type. Now, all the handling of type is in my hands because of what Apple has done technologically. So that type of progression and change is constantly occurring.
In New Zealand, I think there's been a shift away from just focusing on skills to also focusing on thinking, philosophy and strategy. Designers also need to collaborate with people and I think there's a much higher focus on collaboration and understanding the requirements of business.
It's nice to make things slick or stylish, but for me, that's not the issue. The issue is, 'What are people's needs in order to undertake a task better?' I find it easy to navigate through Air New Zealand's and ASB's website. They may not be stylish or fashionable, but they are functional. So those websites keep me connected to wanting to travel Air New Zealand and be comfortable with keeping my funds with ASB.
In response to those changes, would you say it’s harder for creative professionals to get a footing in today's industry?
Nowadays, there's more space, room, and opportunity. What I see now is that there's a higher standard of design. There's a better understanding by companies of the value of design and what difference it can make to their business. Companies are now needing designers and they see design as a profession.
There's often the statement made that everyone is a designer, which is true. But a better way to describe it is that everyone can participate in the design process. It doesn't mean people have developed a level of judgement about design, but they can be valuable and active participants in the process.
Many designers unfortunately disappear overseas and become famous there. But there's plenty of space in New Zealand for the design profession, and it all comes back to the aspirations of the individual. This is a career. This is a lifestyle. Young graduates don't have all the answers but they can demonstrate that they're able and willing and wanting to contribute.
Merryware Body Brush
You've worked on a huge range of projects and designed numerous products, but what would you say have been some of your favourites?
Frank Lloyd Wright was asked at something like 92-years old what his best design was, and he said "the next one", and I feel a bit like that. There's a high level of dissatisfaction with your own ability. You work on projects and then you think, 'I could have done that, but I didn't quite see it at the time’.
But there are things you do get a pretty high level of satisfaction from. One of the earlier ones was the Body Brush which was for a company called Merryware. It was a totally new solution for a need that nobody had properly identified before. The client wanted a range of products: a back brush, a hand brush, a nail brush. But in the end, we realised it was too expensive and we needed to achieve all those things with one product. As a result, I developed something that was unlike anything else at the time. It was pushing technology because it was thick plastic mouldings without shrinkage, so it had to be compound curves with a very simple tethered cord that was clipped in place. It was sold in very large quantities and served as the basis of building a relationship with that person and their company for many years working on brand identity, packaging, and point of sale.
Another was a product we designed for Zespri. They approached me to develop a knife-spoon, they called it a 'spife', for children to use. The project never really had an in-depth brief, but one of the key things that I took from it was the word 'Zespri', which I interpreted as 'zest' and 'spree'. To me, that very much embodied the green colour and juiciness of the kiwifruit. So the task was to design a little knife-spoon that could be used by children safely, as well as become an implement that people could use anywhere in the world to cut and taste the kiwifruit because before, there was a tendency for people not to do that because they weren't sure how to eat it.
In the end, it was highly successful. It went around the world and quite often I'd meet people, particularly mums, who'd say they loved the little spoon. They said they'd purchase the kiwifruit just to get the spoon, which is a reverse of what the intent was. But it was because kids could handle it.
One of the things that bugged me about the project was that it was disposable. I felt quite guilty about designing and making something that was going to be thrown away. But to my delight and to the delight of everyone in the office, it wasn't thrown away. Quite often I'd go to somebody's house and they'd have about four or five of these things in their drawer.
What about LOMAK (Light Operated Mouse and Keyboard)?
LOMAK was a marvellous challenge because you were really helping somebody who was physically unable to use a normal keyboard. They'd have a perfectly fine mind, but they were trapped in their body. Often these people could speak well, but they couldn't use their hands because they were paralysed from the neck down.
Was it commercially successful? I'd have to say no. But did it help people? Absolutely. I remember meeting a senior ideas man in Australia and he was a supporter of the project. After the product was launched, we went out to coffee and he said to me, "You don't know what you've done!" And I thought we must've made a mistake, that something was wrong. But he said, "What you guys have done is you've made people who are physically disabled be like normal people". I thought that was a very high level of comment. We set out make a product so usable, beautiful, and affordable, that somebody would want to buy it. Because so often people who have physical disabilities end up with products that make them look disabled. Just making it desirable to own a device that would enable them to communicate and communicate beautifully, that gave me a high level of satisfaction.
What's the next step for you? Do you have any other projects planned?
Your family become catalysts for thinking about needs. For example, my wife likes to read in bed, and I think there's ways of doing that so that she's comfortable, she can have her cup of tea, her little computer, and her book. Something that's not cluttered, not heavy, and delightfully easy to use. We also used to live in Queenstown and still have a property down there, and when the kids went skiing, I built one of them a little snow bike. Just a tiny little bike they could zoom down the hills safely on.
I'm also very interested in young people in the north of New Zealand that may not come from affluent families but they're clever and capable. We've just recently moved up north so I regularly think about how I can be a contributor. I don't want to be paid, but how can I help young people see what's possible?
I've often thought I should be doing things like that, but in the meantime I still get caught up in projects like the Design to Business initiative in Australia and the Better by Design in New Zealand. The things I've mentioned so far are just thoughts really. But I see myself being available for my family. My four sons are all designers and I don't poke into their lives, but if they need me, I'm always going to be there for them.