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Gibson Product Design's soundbar and subwoofer for Definitive Technology.

Whether it's that contoured compost pail on the kitchen counter, or that elegant sound bar with its wireless speaker you just added to your sound system, they were designed and developed by the 'invisible people' – a group of innovative thinkers called industrial designers.

"Working behind the scenes, we help make products useable and loved by the people that buy them," says Scott Gibson, president of Gibson Product Design in Ottawa, an industrial design consultancy in business for more than 30 years.

But, despite the company's long track record and numerous awards, very few of its clients are Canadian companies. And this lack of focus on design doesn't bode well for Canadian companies' competitiveness, industry experts say.

Mr. Gibson has recently returned from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where the company was honoured with its seventh consecutive CES Innovation Award. The firm's latest winning project is a home theatre surround-sound system for its long-time client, loudspeaker brand Definitive Technology, based in Owings Mills, Md. Gibson was responsible not only for the industrial design and early stage mechanical development of all the components, but also for creating set-up instructions and point-of-purchase material.

Most of Gibson's awards have been for products designed for U.S. companies; only two, in the past seven years, were Canadian. There just aren't a lot of Canadian producers hammering at the doors of Canadian industrial design houses.

To a large extent, the Canadian manufacturing industry hasn't really needed to turn to industrial design until recently. Up until four years ago, most Canadian manufacturers were engaged in making parts for American-assembled products, says Jayson Myers, economist and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters. That led to engineer-driven, price-competitive companies, as opposed to marketing-driven, design-competitive producers.

In today's economic climate Canadian manufacturers need to develop new products of their own that can compete on world markets, Mr. Myers says. It's that shift that's turning the spotlight onto the 'invisible' role of design in the general rush to build a new innovation economy in Canada.

"Design is really important for being able to specialize your product for your customer, and appealing to that customer," Mr. Myers says. "In today's global markets, Canadian product manufacturers can't compete on existing technology alone, so design has become the ultimate means of differentiation."

Industry associations, universities and the federal government have all flagged Canada's lacklustre performance in getting innovation to market.

"There's a lag in commercialization results in Canada, and the lack of strategic design involvement is one of the reasons," says Arlene Gould, adjunct professor at York University and strategic director of the Design Industry Advisory Committee (DIAC).

To address that lag, Ms. Gould, together with Tim Poupore, president of Toronto's Ove Industrial Design Ltd. created a Design Advisory Service program with input from the DIAC board. Their goal is to broaden the adoption of design at every stage of product development by introducing producers to designers.

"We need to improve the ratio of Canadian product manufacturers who appreciate the value of design and use it effectively," Mr. Poupore says.

Appreciating the value of industrial design means understanding the scope of what it can do. An industrial designer's task and skill is in creating the look, function, human interface, and manufacturing details, and presenting the stakeholders with clear visual and written representation of the proposed product.

They can best achieve that when they are at the very centre of new product development, because their expertise bridges the gap between marketing and engineering, while addressing manufacturing challenges.

"We have to recognize that the way a product is designed, will inform how it's manufactured. So good industrial design reduces costs and improves manufacturing efficiency," Mr. Myers says.

It's a highly collaborative skill-set that examines the usability, appropriateness, materials and, finally, the user's emotional response to the product.

"The designer is really the fly paper, capturing inputs from marketing, engineering and creating design solutions that meet both the consumer's needs and the manufacturing objectives," Mr. Gibson says.

"For Canadian manufacturing to succeed, design needs to be a core capability – just like marketing or finance," Ms. Gould says.

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