Art and Business: A Royal Combination

Companies often struggle to grasp the front end of innovation. That's where the Helen Hamlyn Centre of London's RCA comes in

"We were looking to broaden the horizons of the design studio and get influence from outside," says Simon Harris, chief designer of the Auto Envision Group of Visteon—the global automotive supplier which took in $11.4 billion in sales in 2006. "We asked ourselves where the most exciting stuff was happening."

The answer was the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. The alma mater of such famous designers as Robin Day and Thomas Heatherwick, the RCA is home to the world's oldest vehicle-design course. "Some would say it's the world's foremost," adds Harris, who contacted the school to see how the two could work together.

It's become quite common for companies to sponsor some kind of design-school course, setting the theme or challenge for a semester-long student project and then learning from the final presentations. Companies gain some novel ideas and a chance to spot upcoming talents they might want to hire, while schools are able to put "real world" problems in front of their students (see, 3/12/07, "Innovation Case Study: GE"). But the RCA offered a different approach, and put Visteon in touch with Jeremy Myerson.

A Bigger Scale

A former design journalist, Myerson now heads up the college's innovation initiatives, working as the director of both InnovationRCA and the Helen Hamlyn Centre, an independently funded entity located in a mews building within the College's hallowed South Kensington walls. With an emphasis on inclusive design, the centre's research associate program pairs new graduates with a corporation, allowing the student to spend a full year focusing solely on a single project set by his matched corporation.

The research associate program is a fairly easy sell. The RCA's high-caliber students are not only considered to be the best and brightest, they tend to be more experienced than the undergraduates that companies usually collaborate with, because the RCA is a graduate program. "It's definitely mutually beneficial," says Harris. "It's a great way for the students to get more professional experience and to work on a bigger scale. And it's also a great way for the company to get diverse and more interesting ideas."

Philips, for example, had its associate think about ambient lighting within public spaces. Ideal Standard challenged a student to consider luxury bathing for the elderly. The projects are firmly focused on the front end of innovation—the period of idea generation when the fresh thinking of a relative outsider can help a company see its core business from a different perspective.

No Fuzzy Thinking

"We can get very bogged down in the day-to-day details of how to make things work," Harris says. "It's so nice for us to untap our own potential and be a bit freer. Having someone smart come in who might not have huge experience at a production level but who can give us an alternate view was really interesting to us."

"People often think that the front end is all fuzzy and an excuse to be crazy, but it's not about that," adds Myerson. "We are very business-focused, and there's a lot of discipline here. There are three phases in the design process: understand, create, and deliver. The 'understand' phase is the one that companies know the least. It's abstract and could go anywhere. That's exactly where we want to be."

Many semester-long corporate-sponsored courses attempt to do all three phases. So the end result—typically a handful of prototypes of concept products—can often be provocative but less than relevant to a company's business or development strategy. The RCA program's focus on understanding allows students to go deeper into a challenge or opportunity faced by the company.

Dashboard Lights

Another advantage of the program is that while the research associates are based at the Hamlyn Centre, they regularly spend time at their sponsor company, and can tap into its resources.

The result is a collaboration that is more focused and targeted than a course sponsorship, which couldn't possibly allow such access or direct communication. And sponsoring a research fellow costs somewhere between £20,000 and £25,000 ($39,000 to $48,000). (In contrast, running a studio project within the RCA in which a class works on a brief, costs between £20,000 and £50,000.)

In its first year sponsoring a research associate, Visteon asked him—Serge Porcher—to look at the connection between driver and vehicle. After extensive initial research, Porcher latched onto a throwaway comment: "Why can't the car dashboard be more like a PC?" He ultimately developed a customizable, hierarchical system of in-car information, with data displayed on the dashboard by means of rear screen laser projection. Visteon liked the idea so much it ended up spending around $125,000 to create a full-size model, which it exhibited at London Design Week. It has never, says Simon Harris, "failed to get a good response."

Then Visteon sponsored a second associate, Jeong-tae Kang, and asked him to consider lighting inside cars. "It's a problem that sometimes people get distracted or dazzled by other people's headlights," says Harris. "Kang's solution was to have some kind of light on in the car all the time, so your eyes are slightly accommodated. We hadn't thought about it like that. Whether or not it's possible or valid, it opens up a whole new line of thought."

A Select Few

And that, says Myerson, is exactly the point. "My view is that it's not the role of design schools to be sending engineering drawings to China." And so far the companies working with RCA seem pleased with the arrangement, too. Founded in 1999, as a "state within a state," in Myerson's words, the Centre will take in around £1.5 million ($2.9 million) this year.

Competition to take part in the research associate program is steep—this year there were roughly 50 applicants for the 10 spots. But Myerson is reluctant to increase the number of research associate positions, saying it doesn't make sense for an elite design school to run a massive innovation program.

"The back end of innovation is a professional consulting role, and we don't want to compete with the employers of our graduates—or our own graduates who are setting up innovation and design companies," he explains. "We want to use the unique setup of an art and design college, and the broad span of expertise and the academic freedoms that we have here, to ask the interesting business questions and challenge the accepted ways of doing things."

Click here for a slide show of concepts borne out of the research associate program at the RCA's Helen Hamlyn Centre.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.