As finance companies and huge multinationals reconsider their positions in Japan, a ground-breaking British design firm is seizing the opportunity to consolidate in a market that is “very, very important” to its strategy.

Native Design, based in London’s Soho district, provides industrial designs for products, specializing in consumer electronics. At present, the company is working on designs for dozens of firms around the globe, including Compaq Computers, Fujitsu, Marantz, Rotel and Panasonic here in Japan.

And Japan’s decade-long recession is an opportunity, not a damper on business, according to Thomas Keen, project director at Native.

“When the economy is rocky, companies generally accept that excellent industrial design and innovation — a competitive advantage — is even more important to getting market share,” he said.

“We understand the economy in Japan is evolving,” he said. “From our perspective there are no rules concerning the future of Japan, but we are confident because from a design strategy point of view, the unpredictability of Japan makes it very versatile.”

The Japanese market is worth around £450,000 (80 million yen) a year to Native Design, accounting for some 40 percent of the firm’s total earnings.

Companies outside the U.K. like to work with British designers, Keen said, because London has always been a haven for fashion, music and youth culture, while Britain produces more design graduates each year than the rest of Europe put together.

“If a trend makes it in London, it will usually affect the rest of the world,” he added. “We are a melting pot of cultures: the word cosmopolitan is defined by London.”

Native’s input starts at the earliest stages, involving research and evaluation of the current market trend before design concepts are drawn up, combining brand strategy and the user’s relationship with the product. This takes the form of sketches, computer-generated designs and, finally, solid prototypes.

The final phase, Keen said, is a support role to help the product smoothly enter into production while ensuring a high level of quality.

That sort of attention to detail has won the company deals with household names such as Compaq, Motorola, Philips, Samsung, Siemens and Samsonite, among others.

A high profile in Japan, however, is crucial to Native and the three other British design firms active here.

“Japan is still the world’s test-bed for new consumer technology,” Keen said. “No industrial design firm would design a electronic device without understanding what Japanese manufacturers are doing. It is important for us to be part of this culture.”

Native’s latest project is an innovative CD/DVD player for Marantz. Described as a home “center piece” that is designed to blend in with the home environment, the front face has an interactive glass screen that is made invisible behind a LCD “curtain.”

“Japanese companies have a very mature approach to working with outside design consultancies,” Keen said. “Their strategy is to retain a strong in-house design team, with good communication skills, then continually challenge the preconceptions of the process by working with dynamic design consultancies.

“We’re a strong ‘ideas’ organization and the Japanese industry is receptive to new methods, thinking and approaches,” he added.

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