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Innovative design

Behind-the-scenes with Design Director Tim Rochford

Innovation is at the forefront and heart of what we do at PDL by Schneider Electric. As part of the Schneider Electric family, we benefit from having an array of talent and diverse skills to continuously deliver quality products for our customers.

To give you a bit of insider information on what goes into creating the products you love to use, we chatted with PDL by Schneider Electric’s Design Director Tim Rochford about his experience, design philosophy and how to continually innovate.

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switches and sockets flatlay

How did you get into design?

"Well," laughs Tim "my father was a graphic designer – he told me 'you can do whatever you want but do not become a designer'."

"But I grew up on a farm where invention, play and creativity were at the forefront. With no TV, I made my own fun," describes Tim. He always had a love of drawing and creating – which came from his father – and being on a farm, "everything was tactile."

Tim followed his father’s advice at first and studied politics and anthropology at university after school, before returning years later to study design. Product design was a natural fit for Tim, as it was a cross-section of his interests and skills, "you get to be creative but you also get to be technical – creativity mixed with technicality."

Despite his career initially taking a different path, he explains everything he studied has ended up intersecting. "Anthropology crosses over with design – it’s the relationship between people and things," explains Tim "Research methodology that you use in anthropology, you now use in design."

map and compass

What other past experiences have added to your design arsenal?

"Traveling through Europe while backpacking for two years was exposure to a world of things I wasn’t familiar with – it showed me how things can be better, which is fundamental to design," recounts Tim.

His previous work experiences also helped him understand design in a special way. When he began working as a product designer overseas, Tim says he, "learnt how to accept risk in a new way."

"Occasionally you have a hunch – which is actually an estimated and educated guess," explains Tim. "I learnt to throw it in the market and see. Short term risk, with a long term goal and to focus on continual improvement."

Schneider Electric building

How did you end up at Schneider Electric?

Tim explains how he was approached by the former design director at Schneider Electric but thought it wasn’t the job for him.

"However," recounts Tim, "then he brought me into the story – that they recognised it’s a product that’s neglected and that hasn’t had the intensity of the human-focus brought in." Once the previous design director showed him the research, Tim was interested and wanted, "to see the level of innovation that could go into something we use every day." Something that has carried through all his work at Schneider Electric.

saturn zen switch on wall

How does culture impact design?

Culture informs both design trends and fads – but, as Tim describes, "we can’t be dealing with ‘fads’ in our industry."

So how do you ensure it’s not a fad? "Hindsight," jokes Tim. He explains his own approach, "For while no one knows for sure, you need to be aware of history. Understand that trends happen in cycles. You can see trends building up, then you need to look back and see what’s going to last and what’s going to be cyclable – to explain it in another way, it’s ultimately the difference between fashion and style."

It’s also important to consider the local norms and factors, such as the environment. The local culture of a place has a big impact on design too.

Has the current global landscape had an impact on design?

"Yes – people have had more time to stare at the stuff that they own! That means they start to see the problems with it, which then leads to opportunities for design," describes Tim.

family in lounge room

As a result of the pandemic, Tim believes, "consumers are becoming more intentional." Being more intentional often leads to people being more sustainable, which is a key focus for designing products for New Zealand.

Tim sketching designs

Consumer needs are obviously crucial to what you do – how do you ensure you put them first?

"When I was at Dyson, they would put you in the call centre for a period of time to listen to all the issues and problems so that you could identify the problem," Tim recounts.

That experience stayed with him and he adopted his own similar approach when he started at Schneider by "registering at TAFE for one day a week with the first year electricians to learn about the issues," and get knowledge of who he was creating products for.

This methodology of hands-on customer research is carried into everything Tim does – his design philosophy, process and how he designs. He believes, "everyone in the business should be spending time on a job site with people/customers/clients."

iconic dimensions

Describe your design philosophy.

"Empathetic and customer-focused," says Tim. "And, at Schneider, we have a clear message of what design is for us – design is about transforming an existing situation to improve a situation."

"Design can be almost anything you want it to be but fundamentally it is about creating things that help people’s lives – otherwise, it’s art," he explains. "The constraints make it design, achieving a price point is a challenge that makes it design."

"Not everyone involved in design is a designer, but you always need a designer as they’re the one who can see it end-to-end and sit at the intersection to ensure the customer gets what they want."

sketches

What does innovation mean to you?

"Innovation can be getting new patents, new systems, new intellectual property – it ultimately depends what innovation means to you," advises Tim.

To Tim, "it’s not a formal process – it can be a little change that just makes someone’s life better. My favourite industrial designer, Achille Castiglioni, designed the little lamp switch that goes on the lamp cord. It may not seem that big but people now use it every day. It improved the situation."

How do you design specifically for New Zealand?

As mentioned, understanding the consumer and their needs is crucial to Tim – and when designing for a particular market, he emphasises learning and understanding the local needs and requirements.

"I always take norms into consideration – although it’s important to remember sometimes that PDL created 'normal'. PDL have been the market leaders and creators of the market so when we go back and say 'well, this is just how people do stuff', we have to ask ‘who is people’?"

new zealand map

"For New Zealand specifically, we’re always conscious of delivering the right product for their lifestyle, environment and everyday needs."

Lastly, what’s your favourite place in New Zealand and why?

"Definitely the Bay Of Islands," tells Tim. "On my last trip, I rented a car in Wellington and I just drove. I didn’t quite understand that while NZ is quite small, it is quite long! So I thought I could do more than I could when I started driving straight north but only ended up getting about halfway and had to sleep in the back of the hire car."

"But I essentially did this rapid road trip and I saw the sun coming up over the Bay of Islands and I was so happy. It’s just so beautiful around there." Currently based in Adelaide, Tim says he’s looking forward to coming back – but in summertime. "I don’t really like snow so I’ll stay up north!"

Interested in more?

We also chatted to Tim about innovating at Schneider in part 2 of this series.

Read part 2