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From the Newsdesk

Member Focus – Webb Associates Ltd.

ACID member Webb Associates Ltd. was established by Roger Webb in 1989. Their expertise, passion, and innovation in design is evidenced by the way their clients can expect dedicated skill and knowledge to work efficiently in the commercial arena of mass production. They have succeeded and strived through global economic crashes, recessions, and a pandemic. They are now a global design and consultancy company who offer innovative design and professional globalised communications to some of the largest names in the industry. At the heart of their design are great relationships and excellent communications to ensure the design process excels.

Webb Associates excellence in the design and consultancy marketplace is due to their ability to respond rapidly to changing circumstances and ability to harness new forms of technology and communications. They have not allowed themselves to be stunted by global issues such as economic crashes and pandemics, but with ingenuity and innovative thinking, utilised the positive new trends which also arrive at such challenging times.

Roger discusses the importance of registering designs at the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and lodging them on the ACID IP Databank for 3rd party dated evidence. He talks about intellectual property (IP) with his clients to make sure they are all happy and in agreement with the process and that contracts are in place. He is also a huge supporter of ACID’s campaigning, to bring the disparity between Copyright law and design law to the fore. Webb makes a good point that the UK’s great industrial heritage is not protected in law sufficiently, which means innovation and design, which is our future, is limiting us as a global centre of growth.

1. As a design consultancy your design process must have to move rapidly, what do you consider relevant to today’s changing marketplace?

The answer is in your question – change. Ever since I started Roger Webb Associates Ltd we have been fortunate that the major influences in the design process has been the rapid changes brought about, first by technology which enabled globalisation, followed by a variety of seismic economic events and then a pandemic.

Over the years since the beginning of the consultancy we have seen the introduction and evolution of CAD, mobile devices, 3D printing, the introduction of Skype, Teams, and Zoom. These new technologies enable international virtual communication, all of which has supported globalisation. It has speeded up the design procedure and become aligned with the considerable changes that have occurred in manufacturing processes.

The economic and social impacts of, for example, the banking crisis of 2008 and the recent Covid pandemic bought about substantial changes that are, perversely a great opportunity for designers. We flourish in changing times, responding, and enabling people’s lives, in how and where they live, work, travel, communicate, entertain etc.

Recognising, embracing, and designing for this change requires quick responses to get to market quickly. In an interconnected world speed to develop and manufacture new ideas has become critical in establishing market success. Because the influences of change are universal, designers often arrive at similar solutions to these new human needs at around the same time. It has become important to launch a product as quickly as possible, to enable a client to establish a market prominence.

2. What originally inspired you to start Webb Associates Ltd. and what are the hallmarks of your continuing success?

I started Webb Associates in 1989 and at first managed to survive through the recession of the early 1990’s and then started to grow and expand into the Millennium. With growth I have been able to employ other, talented, like-minded designers. However, success has been achieved through a series of long-lasting partnerships with a variety of clients/manufactures across the globe. They have shown considerable faith, trust, and loyalty combined with an ambitious get-up-and-go attitude. Design is only a part of a larger team effort. We may orchestrate the process, but it relies heavily on a wide variety of other activities and skills to achieve a successful outcome.

3. Working with so many different companies in the design process, do you have a particular intellectual property (IP) strategy to ensure everyone is protected?

When I started Webb Associates, I had no IP strategy, it was not a priority at the time. However, in the mid 1990’s I was involved as a judge in a jury for a design competition with the fashion designer, Jeff Banks. He was very concerned with the possible copying of his intellectual property in his field. The mechanism he adopted to register the copyright in his designs was to post to himself the designs produced on a daily basis, with the Royal Mail date stamp providing evidence of its origination. He then catalogued and filed as records.

Fortunately, ACID established the IP Databank in which it was feasible to lodge designs and record design evidence, making the process much easier and significantly more legitimate, a process which I have been using for the past 15 years.

Pre Brexit, in combination with the ACID IP Databank, all designs that went into production were Design Registered with the EUIPO, as a means of not only protecting us but also our clients. However, post Brexit, this has become more complex and costly having to register designs separately in both the UK and Europe. Although, having registered and paid for the intellectual property in our designs, the length of time it is protected is only five years with payments made every five years to continue to retain the protection.

4. Working with so many different brands and global designer personalities, what is the key to bringing them together under the Webb Associates brand to deliver design excellence, consistency, and cutting-edge innovation?

Working across global markets with a wide range of clients from different cultures is, in equal measure, fascinating as well as complex. Some are only interested in their own national geographical markets; others are seeking wider global distribution. Every project has its own challenges, but all initially requires research and an understanding to achieve the required aims. Close cooperation and teamwork with the client are essential in delivering a successful project. Success is measured in sales volumes, not necessarily in innovation or design excellence. Although they are hugely important criteria to us as designers.

5. What do you think are the ingredients for your success in this highly competitive sector?

It’s difficult to measure success. In some ways, surviving as an independent design consultancy as long as we have is a success, especially through two recessions and one pandemic. Certainly, in the early days it was a question of accepting any work and doing the best you could with often the considerable restrictions and limited resources that came with it. In some ways these were the most challenging, stretching your creativity because of the limitations of the brief.

However, the limiting briefs built up a depth and breadth of experience that became invaluable for later more complex projects. With experience, observation and a greater understanding of meeting the requirements of a changing market and human needs we were able to start initiating projects and selling these ideas to our clients. These tended to be more ambitious in scope, integrating greater innovation and design detail.

However, the main ingredient of our survival has been due to a long and successful relationship with our clients. On a personal level, the greatest success and good fortune is being able to enjoy what we do, which is an exceptional privilege in today’s world.

6. It’s clear you take your intellectual property seriously, ensuring that there is evidence from concept to marketplace. How does intellectual property factor in the way you create your business model and talk to clients?

Some clients are very keen that the IP is recorded and registered, other are not bothered at all. It’s always discussed with a client to determine how important they perceive it as a means of protection against copying. The process the client wants to adopt is included in the contract at the start of any project. However, the client’s approach can depend on whether the design is innovative. The more innovative the product is, the greater the desire to protect it through copyright, design registration, or patent.

7. As a design/skill-led company, what is your message about the copycat culture that pervades some of this sector with cheap lookalikes by riding rough shod over the law?

We have always worked in an environment where copycat culture is endemic. In an industry which is highly competitive, an innovative and interesting idea that has commercial potential is replicated quickly. It may not be a copy, but the concept is regurgitated in a slightly different form. It illustrates the difficulties of judging when a copy is not a copy.

I was at an International Trade Fair last week and come across a small component that I designed some 15 years ago on a product from a well-respected manufacturer. It’s a discrete but hugely successful product designed for a German component manufacturer.  Looking closer at it, although identical in design, it was clearly a copy. It didn’t have the manufacturer’s identity or any material or environmental badges we always mould into the products we design. I could have asked the Trade Fair Organisers to have the product removed, which I have discovered they will now enforce. However, I will follow this up and inform the manufacturer that they are using a cheap, copycat designed product, probably, but not necessarily, sourced from the Far East. I expect that this manufacturer will respond positively, given they export globally and are respected for their design excellence.  However, this is not always the case, especially where price is so critical.

The client we designed this product for will be informed, and I am sure they will also follow this up with the offending manufacturer. It’s a unique product which our client spent some considerable amount of time, expense, and effort developing. The copycat has had none of this investment in the design and development and can therefore produce it at a lower cost, completely undermining the process.

8. Do you think that IP ethics, compliance, and respect for intellectual property should be the cornerstone of the industry, in terms of declared Corporate Social Responsibility? And if so, how could this sector achieve this?

With globalisation, the internet and social media, there was an explosive period of copying, especially out of China, but not exclusively. I believe the culture is changing especially as China’s economy continues to grow. Over the past two decades there certainly has been a growing level of corporate social responsibility concerning IP ethics. In some ways social media can and has acted as a deterrent as corporations and individuals want to avoid any possibility of being publicly shamed.

However, can this be enshrined in legislation? I am unsure. I recall attending an ACID seminar some years ago when Sabastian Conran spoke about his experience. In his field of design, he felt that speed to market, quickly developing concepts and ideas enabled him to outrun the copycats and stay ahead. It’s not a strategy that we can all adopt but it is an interesting approach.

9. We now have an IP Act which will mean not only criminal provisions for intentional Registered Design infringement but also for individual directors. Do you believe that if this is extended to Unregistered Design infringement, it will become more of a deterrent? The government thinks it would be chilling for innovation and lead to business uncertainty. We don’t agree, do you?

Legislation on IP has created a higher degree of awareness. However, a number of issues concern me. Having been involved in a few legal cases where there has been an accusation of infringing IP, the legal costs to prove or disprove the case has been considerable and they act as a deterrent in making a challenge. Where designs have been lodged with ACID or registered with the EUIPO and have been copied, a letter to the offending party explaining that they are infringing my IP has more often generated positive results. However, the problem of starting to undertake this process is that you may need to utilise legal support to emphasise the point which incurs costs. Design is not the best of paid professions so obtaining legal support is the action of the last resort.

My limited experience in the protection of IP has illustrated that the law concerning it is not black and white. It’s very grey and open to interpretation, so that any legal dispute where you feel you are very strongly in the right can be completely overturned in court. 

10. Can you give us a steer on what you feel ACID’s achievements have been and what we could do in the future to raise further awareness about IP theft?

Certainly, ACID has been the major, if not only, campaigner for Intellectual Property in the design industry. Given that design is now a major UK exporter, it’s surprising how little importance it is given by Central Government. Historically and culturally, we place greater importance on the work of authors, dramatist, song writers, film makers, broadcasters etc.  giving them a considerably long period of Copyright protection,yet ignore the intellectual property of designers.

ACID has focused attention on the disparity between Copyright and Design Right and will proceed with its continual lobbying. Getting legislation that recognises all intellectual property is of significant importance, especially in this changing and challenging world.

As for my organisation, on a more basic level, the main accomplishments of ACID’s success has been the creation of the ACID IP Databank and providing a list of legal organisations that can provide professional advice on IP.

11. As you know, ACID is the main Policy and Government campaigning body for Design & IP reform. What are your 2 recommendations to the Government to stem the tide of blatant design theft to support this sector?

I would like ACID to keep on campaigning for equal protection between Copyright and Design law in this country. It seems bizarre that a successful industry that embraces the change from our industrial heritage towards a knowledge-based economy is so ignored. Our creative industries are going to be the future success of this country, but recognition and legislation is lagging years behind. ACID has become a critical influencer and reforming body that must be integrated into Government.

Protection of IP will no doubt be enshrined in law, which will create another problem by only feeding the lawyers rather than rewarding the creators. We need to find a way of taking intellectual property jurisdiction out of the expensive legal system so designers are not prohibited or intimidated by the cost in taking action to protect their designs.

Webb Associates Ltd.

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