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“Number 8 wire” is well known as the somewhat antiquated, and perhaps cringe-worthy quintessential term for the mindset of innovation and thinking in NZ, and how we develop products. However, this attitude has both proven benefits and downfalls when compared to our counterparts in other parts of the world. This ad-hoc perception of our craftsmanship and work must be reconfigured for how we want to present NZ, and NZ Design in the modern era. This change needs to come from ourselves operating in design-led organisations if we are ever to emulate the same value present in overseas design industries and compete internationally.

To illustrate this comparative value – the NZ design industry contributed $10.1b at 4.2% of our GDP in 2016. Compared to just a segment of Europe, in the UK alone, The Design Economy generated £85.2 billion to the UK in 2018.

Europe is much older, with a much larger population than that of NZ, and a greater economic state – hence allowing a culture of specialisation to be created. Professionals do one job very well, but they do not operate outside of their silos, because they do not need to. Separate teams in design, engineering, and marketing perform their roles excellently and send their work “over the fence” to the next team. Having the luxury of specialisation and expertise allows them to focus on pushing boundaries – making Europe one of the factories of “new” ideas alongside Japan and the States.

Conversely, New Zealand designers and kiwis are honed to be excellent generalists and have the vision to take many parts and combine them to make a much bigger picture. Our size prevents us from hiring true specialists, so often if we want to get a job, our designers, engineers and manufacturers often need expertise across disciplines – each is a T-shaped person with a specialization, yet is empowered to work in multiple facets.  Of course, there are exceptions, but it’s fair to say our kind of innovation isn’t really about producing “new things”. Rather we produce new adaptions and culmination of things as masters of cross-pollination. This is reflected by the fact we have significantly lower patent applications compared to the rest of the worlds design industries.

Regardless, in the world of Manufacturing & Design, New Zealanders seem to be fine tackling problems with little knowledge or resources in order to inspire hope in a new venture. We lack the resources to hire a complete team, so we end up with many individuals wearing many different hats to get the job across the line. While we don’t want this old number 8 wire adage associated with our output or quality of our products, we should actually leverage it as a strength to create a much more commercial mentality, as we want to develop high-quality NZ products through to mass production. However, when it comes to the commercial side of things it seems the “double-edged” nature of the beast comes into play. We’re quite humble, and not the best at selling ourselves or our products. Even if we’re great at scraping a proof of concept across the line with minimal resources alone, this means we are still left with nothing to make all the hard work a reality.

In summary, the No. 8 wire mentality creates something of an ironic double-edged sword in the world of manufacturing and design. If we are to outplay our foreign counterparts, we need to emphasize what we’re good at, but we need to do so collaboratively and stop trying to do everything ourselves!

Some points we need to keep emphasising in NZ:

  • Have our designers, engineers and manufacturers take advantage of our small size and work closer together to streamline our design processes.
  • Reach out to local expertise and knowledge for specific areas of uncertainty, rather than just winging it – most people will be willing to help and just interested to see what you’re up to.
  • Look to create compelling stories and present ourselves better to secure offshore funding in the New Economy. With the internet and all the multimedia we have, our distance shouldn’t limit our storytelling ability.
  • Continue to embrace design research, and translate the insights we gain to find new market opportunities ourselves.

This article is an abstract from “The Double Edged #8 Wire of NZ Design”, published and presented at MaD 2019 by Haydn Jack.