Holistic, globally focused design practice is the way forward – Martin Darbyshire


“Running a business is often much more challenging than people expect,” says Martin Darbyshire, CEO and co-founder of influential London design consultancy, tangerine (www.tangerine.net). Luckily for many iconic businesses in the UK and around the world, he thrives on challenge.

Darbyshire and Clive Grinyer left successful careers at the studio of Bill Moggridge, celebrated British designer and co-founder of IDEO, to open their own design consultancy, tangerine, in London. That was in 1989, and today, the pioneering design studio has branch offices in London, South Korea, and Brazil, with big-name clients in the USA, Europe and throughout Asia.

Darbyshire cites the business class lie-flat bed that tangerine designed for British Airways, a paradigm shift in service product, and the combination set-top box and personal video recorder, Sky+, designed for BskyB in collaboration with Pace Micro Technology, amongst the studio’s key design innovations, though while their achievements with local companies remain, tangerine is always exploring new markets. Right now, around eighty percent of tangerine’s income comes from outside of the UK, and it has been that way for the past decade.

01_1986_Telenova Phone Console designed by Martin Darbyshire at Moggridge Associates (now IDEO), which has been collected by the Cooper Hewitt museum, USA (gift of Arango Design Foundation)

03_Creating an icon for timeshift TV for Sky+. The World's first combined set-top box and PVR changed the way people watch and record Television

Part of this success overseas could be due to Darbyshire’s work with the Department for International Trade (formerly UK Trade & Investment), a government organization that aims to encourage both export and inward trade opportunities for the UK, but it can also be attributed to tangerine’s holistic perspective of design that companies, especially in Asia, find so attractive.

Right now, he and his team at tangerine are designing everything from retail, train, and aircraft interiors to services, and even beginning to develop IP (intellectual property) of their own in seating systems, and the mother and baby welfare and niche bicycle markets. “You’ve got to be lighter–you’ve got to always be onto that next thing,” he says. “The company is small; we can move quickly if we need to and be adept. We do think of ourselves very much as a boutique, and we try to protect that boutique quality.”

02.1_02_2006_2nd Generation of BA Club World, the World's first fully lie-flat bed in Business Class

Martin Darbyshire has given back to the design community in many ways throughout the years, including previously holding a visiting professorship at the Central St Martins College of Arts and Design, sitting on committees for design industry groups like the World Design Organization (formerly International Council of Societies of Industrial Design), and joining international design award juries like the famed Red Dot in Germany. In 2016, he became a Trustee on the Board at the UK’s Design Council.

Martin China-Britian Business Council (CBBC) Summit 2015

In September, he will head to the Taiwan to be part of the international jury selecting the 2017 Best Design winners of the Golden Pin Design Award–the only competition in the world that celebrates design created for and within huaren (Chinese speaking) communities–and its sister award, the Golden Pin Concept Design Award, which seeks to drive new trends in global design.

Darbyshire has had little experience with the Golden Pin award group in the past, so naturally he is interested finding out what kind of brief he will receive from the organizers. “I try to go into these things with an open mind and not establish any preconceptions,” he says. What he finds most difficult with any award is getting enough of an overall view of all the entries in such a short time to establish what products and projects he considers to be the most successful and why.

Does he believe there is value in design awards for the designers that enter? “I think it is always a tricky thing to measure in empirical terms. On the one hand, for designers themselves, there’s an important motivational aspect–your peers saying you’ve done a good job. In Asia, design awards are particularly important. I’m sure in Taiwan, there will be high standards and the organizers will want to ensure those standards are maintained.”

This will not be Darbyshire’s first trip to Taiwan; he headed to the mountainous little island at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in the early 1990’s to work for HCG Bathrooms, a project funded by CETRA (known today as TAITRA), and following this tangerine collaborated with the Taipei Design Centre from Dusseldorf working with Elan Vital (ASUS), Chaplet, and Wistron. Martin has since returned to Taiwan numerous times, though has yet to take on a recent client there. “Taiwan’s commercial environment is a curious one. There is a focus on contemporary craft design sitting alongside these huge OEMs and ODMs that don’t really design anything of their own. There are a few big brands that have been recognized globally, but they are in the minority,” he observes.

2015_Transforming Cepsa's brand perception with a new flapship Service station in Spain

Of course, he readily admits that “design is a really difficult sector to work in” and it is an area that he can see both Taiwanese business owners and the government putting in great effort to better understand and incorporate. “Designers have a responsibility to do the ‘so-what’ test pretty much every time they are designing something. It’s our responsibility to create better, more purposeful things,” he explains. “That should be one of the core values of design. We’re not here to put more stuff into the world–we should be here to put better, more relevant, more purposeful, more effective, more efficient stuff into the world.”

About Martin Darbyshire

Martin Darbyshire founded tangerine in 1989, after working for Moggridge Associates and ID TWO (now IDEO) in San Francisco. Today, Darbyshire combines his work for tangerine–across a client list that includes Asus, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, CRRC, Haier, Huawei, LG, Nikon, Samsung, Sindoh and Toyota–with a worldwide programme of keynote speeches and activities promoting the importance of design to improve business success and human well-being.

He has been a UKT&I Ambassador for the UK Creative Industries sector, served two terms as a board member of the World Design Organization (formerly ICSID), and was a visiting professor at Central Saint Martins, University of Arts, London. Darbyshire is a trustee of the UK Design Council and a long-standing juror at the Red Dot Awards in Europe and Asia. In 2017, Martin judged the product design category at the prestigious D&AD Awards in London. Recently, the UK Creative Industries Council recognised Martin’s global export success awarding him the CIC International Award 2016.

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