The ABCD of Innovation


Innovation is everywhere. Funding calls, seminars, advice and my personal favourite elevator pitches (shudder). How can we make sense of it all and more importantly where do you start?

If 20 years in design and engineering consultancy have taught me anything, it usually helps to start at the beginning. Possibly an obvious statement, but actually it’s very common for an established company to bring a design consultancy in when they have thought of a ‘solution’ and ‘just need someone to design it’.

Companies start because there is a gap in the market or a new technology that ‘disrupts’ or because someone got pissed off with how ‘it has always been done’. That is the big breakthrough. To continue to do that when you are up and running is hard.

How can anyone be expected to run a company, which requires a complete and utter focus on fulfilment and delivery of a service or product to the highest quality AND take a big enough step back to see what they can do to improve or grow?

So where to start?

Innovation and design are most effective when they are embedded in a company and even more so when aligned to an innovation strategy.

In business every action needs a plan, otherwise, it’s just random and therefore risky. Innovation is no exception, it needs a strategy so that everyone in the company knows why changes are being made and how. This is A.

Once a strategy has been established (and like every good plan, it needs to be flexible), you can start your research into your customers, your infrastructure and your route to market and what that new opportunity might look like. This is B.

The next bit is about understanding if it will fly (especially if you design planes), which involves lots of prototyping. We’ve all heard about failing fast to learn quickly. This is C

You got this far and things are looking good. You know what you are making, you know why and you know this particular innovation will add value to the company now and in the future. You are now ready for D.

Following the ABCD of innovation means you reduce the risk and therefore the investment required to grow your company. It’s not rocket science (unless you design rockets of course).

Take care.

Will M.

4c Design


Innovation Quick Fix


Okay, not really a quick fix, more of a way to approach innovation that reduces risk and improves the chances of success.

Companies are being asked to innovate to improve and grow. While this is good advice, it is not massively helpful, because the desire to innovate is already there. We see that on a daily basis. It is the ‘how’ that companies struggle with.

Innovation by its very nature is risky, costly (more so if you get it wrong) and difficult. Therefore, it is usually a pursuit of the brave! Sadly true, but as we develop the tools and the understanding, it can become a sport for all.

Currently, the success rates for new product development are deplorable, with only 10% of products making it to market when corporations are controlling the development. This falls to an even more frightening 1% when fronted by an entrepreneur. This is unacceptable and should be addressed.

No one, who works that hard to do something new and challenging should face such insurmountable odds. So, how do we make it better?

To coin the phrase used by Apple in the 1980’s, you need to 'Think Different!'. You ask the awkward questions and you make no assumptions. Your business has customers, so you need to talk to them. If your business has a supplier list and distribution network, you need to talk to them too. Most importantly of all, you have people in your business that you need to speak to too!

You may well have heard this all before, but I can assure you, this does not happen nearly as much as you think. So you need help. Not ‘advice’ or assistance, actual help from someone who has done it many times before. Just like you might outsource accountancy.

Innovation is about change and therefore everyone needs to understand why and how those changes are going to happen. This is a team sport, not the responsibility of a single individual or small team.

So, what about that quick fix? Well, that was a bit misleading. Design needs to be embedded into a company so that innovation can be second nature and continuously evolving. That’s how you make it quicker and easier.

Sounds like too much hard work? Ask someone to help you!

Take care.

Will M.

4c Design


The Potential of Innovation

InnovationI have spoken about the potential of innovation many times. Over the years, 4c Design has been fortunate to have worked closely with a wide range of different companies and organisations realising their potential in this area.

So what’s it all about? Why do we need to innovate? And more importantly, how do we do it?

I’ll start with the very best definition I have ever heard of innovation:

‘Innovation is simply change that adds value’

If the change doesn’t add value, it isn’t innovative. In fact, it most likely won’t fly! This is because adding value makes things better. It could be making something more efficient, easier to use, more satisfying, more cost effective or worth more. All good reasons to make a change.

Most companies know they need to be innovative, but few actually know how to do it. That’s okay because you can’t do everything. This is why we use accountants, business analysts or lawyers. These jobs are necessary for the survival and growth of your business, so we readily buy those services in.

Innovation is another profession that can be outsourced. It can, in fact, be more beneficial to outsource than run internally, simply because innovation thrives on ‘fresh eyes’ on a problem. How many times have you heard ‘because that’s how we’ve always done it’ when something is challenged. Time for change!

Innovation, when managed well, can successfully transform a business. If managed badly, however, it can become very expensive, very quickly. It makes sense to have your innovation managed.

If you are ready to innovate, but not sure where to start, then outsourcing could be the answer.

Take care.

Will Mitchell

4c Design

Potential Energy

Video: Realising Potential

Potential EnergySomeone recently asked me what I did for a living?

I started off by saying ‘I am a product design engineer…....’

What I should have said was: ‘I realise potential’.

It sounds a bit ‘life coach’ but it does make the point. I have now worked in a demanding creative industry for over 20 years and this has given me a unique perspective into the potential of ideas, of organisations and of the people behind them.

Think of it this way. Someone starts to describe an idea to you. You might think ‘sounds good’ or ‘good luck!’ Perhaps you might know someone who can help. If you think they’re really on to something you might even see a way you can help yourself. This is seeing the potential.

Seeing the potential is what I do every day. As a product design engineer I know the questions to ask, the research required, and how to present the idea to those who might not otherwise be able to appreciate the potential.

Every entrepreneur has their investor, the intrapreneur has their manager or budget-holder – it is these people who need to be able to see and feel the potential. Every time, the first step in turning an idea into reality is persuading other people that your idea has potential!

I often wonder how many great product ideas, particularly in the corporate world, fall at this hurdle because the potential of the idea isn’t communicated in the right way, at the right time, to the right people. This is the nub of my work – I ‘realise that potential’, I turn the idea into a drawing, the drawing into a 3D ‘touch and feel’ prototype. If a picture is worth a thousand words, seeing and touching are worth a million!

I'm not on my own here, because the Design Council are aware of this problem too and have articulated it beautifully in the video below, produced five years ago but still as relevant today.

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So now I know what I will say the next time I get asked what I do for a living.

The question is - what do you do?


4c Design

Outsourcing Innovation

Outsourcing Innovation - A Good Idea?

If we recognise there is something we are not great at doing, we might consider outsourcing it.

Take accountancy for example. It’s a skill which involves utilising a particular part of the brain that not all of us can easily tap into. Partnering with a professional accountancy firm can take care of that.

If we need something made, but don’t have the machinery or capability, then that problem is easily solved by finding someone that DOES have the machinery and the capability.

In this very exciting time of change and rapid development, when companies are being asked to innovate and satisfy a new audience of socially critical consumers, it can all be a little overwhelming. This is where a company such as 4c Design come in.

Product design engineering consultants are professional innovators, working in fertile surroundings, where new ideas can flourish - quickly. Many companies already use this service and can immediately see the benefits of outsourcing. Budgets, timescales and deliverables can be set and managed by the consultancy, leaving the company to concentrate on the core business.

It’s simply embracing the logic that if someone can do the job more efficiently, quicker and more cost effectively, then throw them the ball.

But How and More Importantly When?

Outsourcing Innovation

Innovation is quite possibly the most overused word in business today. But what does it actually mean? And why is it SO important for companies to be innovating?

I have been in the design industry for over 20 years and have heard this term used by nearly everyone from soft drink companies to bridge builders. Surely a single word cannot apply to such a broad range of industries? Well, I believe it can, because I have seen many, many of these industries do just that. They do it simply because they want to remain competitive and are constantly looking for opportunities to do so.

The most successful ones can usually see an opportunity in their market from the list below, by no means an exhaustive list:

  • Industry Knowledge
    • The client knows their industry inside-out and can predict new product or tech opportunities.
  • Consumer Insight
    • Understanding what the customer needs, wants or is unhappy with, can create a need for new thinking.
  • Market Disruption
    • A competitor comes along with a new solution and shakes up the industry.
  • A Change in Law
    • New legislation can create an opportunity to re-design, re-think and re-launch.
  • Technology Advancements
    • A step-change in manufacturing can create opportunities to make things faster, safer, cheaper, more efficient.
  • Brand Extension
    • A brand with valuable equity can use this platform to branch into other sectors.

Innovation absolutely relies on a reason to exist. So identifying your reason is the first step in a long journey to transforming your offering. After that it’s about finding the right partner to visualise and deliver it.

As always, comment and feedback are very welcome.

Will M.

4c Design

Understanding Innovation

Understanding Innovation

Understanding InnovationInnovation is everywhere. People want to innovate, companies are being told to innovate and investors want to invest in innovators.

But what does this mean? How do you do it and what are the benefits?

How about this for a start?

‘Innovation is simply change that adds value through design & engineering’.

That works for me in the context of my world and is something I have been preaching for many a year, but we can drill down further.

There is a simple reason for the interest in innovation. What is popular and current right now, will inevitably be swamped with competition in time. As a company, you need to be asking where next?

With the tools available today, it is easier than ever to engage with existing and potential customers, so ask a few questions?

Don’t just rely on the customer though...… What is the vision of the company, the team you work with on a daily basis? What would they like to see change? No company will survive if the answer is ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it here’.

One major misconception is that innovation is about a single idea. In the first instance it’s about a way of thinking to uncover opportunity that may develop into an idea. Sorry to burst your lightbulb, but ideas need fertile ground to spawn. They don’t just appear. So to kick things off you need to pull the team together and get talking!

As a designer, I have been asked to facilitate many discussions to really uncover the potential of a company and the market they operate in. For some this takes the fear out of starting, which happens to be one of the biggest barriers to embracing innovation in the first place.

When you embrace the spirit of innovation, the culture of a company can change. It becomes optimistic and fun. Think about holding monthly meetings with team feedback on what’s new this month!

Aside from the potential to uncover a new offering to your market, the benefits will cascade through the business. Communication will be better, the business and the team will have more energy and the company may just identify a whole new direction.

If you think this is for you, then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who are my customers and do they want more than we are currently offering?
  2. Do the team know where the company is going and what do they think?
  3. Are we ready to explore the full potential of our company?

One last thing. It is common for a company (of any size) to say they don’t have the budget for innovation. My answer is, if you have the motivation to make change and an innovative opportunity presents itself, then the money will be there.

So what’s stopping you?


4c Design

The right tool for the job

3d-printers- banner

A common question visitors ask when I show them around my workplace, specifically the workshop is “Do you have a 3D printer?” Well, we do. In fact, we have a couple of desktop 3D printers.

The press exposure the technology has had has certainly been appropriate, because being able to print in 3D is quite frankly the nearest thing to magic! However, although affordable 3D printers have hit the headlines in the last couple of years, the technology has been around for a couple of decades. At 4c Design, we’ve been 3D printing since we started up in 2002. So they are important and extremely cool, but they are also simply another tool.

For me, the crucial point is using the right tool for the job. Sometimes that’s a complex Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling machine, sometimes it’s best to get hands on with a hacksaw. Although 3D printing technology is amazing it often doesn’t give an advantage in the early stages of product development or even in the final prototypes.

Let me explain: we build different types of prototypes as we progress through our product design process:


Problem solving

During intense brainstorming we create a bunch of ideas that just need to be tested. This is where the 4c Design workshop comes into its own. In just a couple of hours we can grab bits and pieces from our vast materials collection, get our hands on a wide range of tools and build and test ‘proof of concept’ prototypes.


Concept refinement

Usually the prototypes built during the problem solving stage are crude, wobbly and not quite right. The next step is to refine the prototypes we want to take forward. This might involve researching and sourcing alternative parts or machining components. 3D printing can be useful at this stage for small components that would take a long time to machine. Sometimes we even find the perfect component in our bank of materials and parts from past projects!


Detailed refinement

At this stage we invest time in making accurate components designed in Computer Aided Design (CAD) software by one of our engineers or designers. Depending on the component we might machine these using our CNC lathe or mill, use one of our 3D printers or outsource to specialist providers if particularly high tolerance prototypes are required.


Final prototypes

The methods we use for final prototypes are highly project specific – involving anything from complete in-house manufacture and assembly to full out-sourcing to one, often more than one, of our network of trusted suppliers.


As you can tell, our workshop, its wide range of machines and our hands-on staff are the heart and soul of our product design process. That’s why we’ve chosen to invest in our workshop ‘toolkit’ and ensure our staff are ‘tooled-up’ with everything from the latest desk-based design software to advanced training in practical workshop skills. Delivering creative product design efficiently and effectively can’t be done with a single tool (not even the latest, shiniest 3D printer!) What matters is having the range of tools, skills and experience to always pick the right tool for the job.

Freeflow Ebike


Entrepreneurs are a unique breed. Something drives them that somehow infects those around them. It’s exciting and inspirational and I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few in my time. The vision is never obscured, despite the setbacks.

I was introduced to the Freeflow project in 2011 when Neil MacMartin came to our offices with the concept of a fully contained electric bike, where all the electronics and mechanics would be housed within the downtube. On top of this, he proposed the drive should be directly on the crank.


At that time there were numerous companies attempting to break into the Ebike market, but most were taking the route of externally mounting the components and driving the wheels instead of the crank. Essentially the ‘easy’ and certainly the most common route.

Being different and pursuing the ‘right’ way was the dream and that has never been compromised. We built numerous prototypes, taking full advantage of the 4c Design workshop and ultimately refined the design to deliver the first incarnation of the Freeflow Technologies Turbine Ebike. The journey has been challenging, but then being different and entrepreneurial is always challenging, because so few people choose that route.




We have recently delivered the first batch of functioning bikes to the client, and these are being user-tested with encouraging initial feedback. 

We are immensely proud of the work done to date and look forward to working on the next generation of Ebikes with Neil and the team at Freeflow.


Watch this space!

Queen's Message at Glasgow Commonwealth Opening Ceremony

Commonwealth Opening Ceremony

The Queen reads her message at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony

What a show. There really was something for everyone. The colour, the music, the dogs, the joy of the athletes, the energy and the fireworks. You couldn't help but feel proud of our City. The crescendo and the point of personal interest to 4c Design was when the Queen's Baton would finally appear. The Baton has finally finished its epic tour of the Commonwealth and completed its role of message carrier and starting pistol for the Games.

We were all watching the opening ceremony with baited breath, waiting for the moment it entered the stadium. Throughout the ceremony we were given regular reminders of the Baton nearing the stadium and its 100,000 mile journey to reach this point, but it was not until the very end that we were finally able to see it again. When it entered the stadium, shining brightly with barely a scratch, it demonstrated to the world that 'Clyde Built' can still stand for quality and durability. With the whole world watching Sir Chris Hoy delivered the Baton to the Royal box where the Baton got ready to reveal its final secret, although a mechanism designed to protect the Queen's message doesn't give up its secrets easily.

With the right technique however, Prince Tunku Imran beamed with relief as he handed the message to Her Majesty and the Games were officially launched.

A breath taking (literally), emotional and special evening that will leave a lasting impression on all of us at 4c Design. If you still haven't seen the Baton, then it will be on display at the Fruit Market in Glasgow from 2-4pm daily.

Enjoy the Games!

Great article about the ceremony in the Telegraph