Trendspotters | icon 005 | September 2003

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illustration: Craig Robinson
words Vicky Richardson

We've seen the future and it's full of trendspotters. They're out on the streets, in bars and supermarkets, surfing the net, observing what people are saying, doing, eating, wearing and buying. They're then reporting their findings back to their clients: retailers, manufacturers and - increasingly - architects and designers.

Be warned: these people are not just going to tell you what kind of home furnishings and bathroom configurations your customers will be demanding next year. They'll also tell you that everything you're doing is wrong: your community consultation processes are flawed; your market research data is nonsense; and your designs are out of date before you've finished designing them. Oh yes: without trendspotters, your business is pretty much doomed.

"Over the next three to five years, trends and futures research is likely to grow as uncertainty prompts more interest in the future," says James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester. "The feeling will grow that if you aren't very professional in forecasting, you'll fall victim to a rival. And the feeling will be right."

Architect and designer Oliver Heath of Blustin Heath Design says: "There is a real sense that trends are happening so quickly nowadays that it's difficult for manufacturers and retailers to keep up." Heath advises Dulux on its paint colours and consults for trendspotter CLK Brand Futures on emerging interior design trends. Consumer tastes are becoming more fragmented and eclectic, meaning that the concept of the "next big thing" is increasingly outdated. "People are becoming more aesthetically independent," he says. "They're looking for their own styles."

Information about emerging consumer tastes might be useful to industrial designers and interiors stylists but architects might be forgiven for feeling that with such long lead times on their projects, their services are not particularly relevant. "Architectural trends happen at a relatively slow pace," says Heath. "It's a bit dangerous basing a building on a trend that was happening four or five years ago."

On top of this, architects often create trends rather than follow them: "Structures like the gherkin [Norman Foster's tower for Swiss Re in the City of London] and the Millennium Bridge enter public consciousness and will be an influence," says Heath. "You can imagine Swiss Re influencing a catwalk show, even though it was designed a few years ago."

Yet Martin Raymond, editor of biannual trends magazine Viewpoint and head of the forecasting consultancy Future Laboratory, says that architects need trendspotters just as much as anyone else. "Quite a lot of architects use our services now," he says. "The whole process of architecture and design has become incredibly global and dependent on knowledge of a vast range of new techniques and materials. Architects can't keep up any more simply by reading the trade journals. Trends are important to architects and designers because they need to know where culture is going, and be there ready waiting for them."

Luckily, there is a whole army of trendspotters out there to help you. Wallpaper* magazine founder Tyler Brûlé joined the fray this spring, when his Winkreative consultancy launched the biannual Winkreative Forecast, previewed in the April issue of icon. The forecast is a glossy, beautifully illustrated publication that forecasts new trends in industrial design, architecture, fashion and travel scavenged from around the world. For example, in a section titled "50 ideas for 2003", the Winkreative Forecast predicts the rise of Middle Eastern cuisine, small kitchens (people are eating out more and buying ready-made meals) and airport grocery stores (where you can stock up for no-frills flights and before heading home to an empty fridge).

Winkreative joins established forecasters such as the Dutch-born, Paris-based trends guru Li Edelkoort who, according to her CV, picks up trends by "travelling constantly, listening, shopping and searching the world over". Edelkoort made her name forecasting for the fashion industry but at least half of her client base is now involved in designing products (cars, furniture and home furnishings) rather than clothing. When Edelkoort gave a briefing on fashion and home furnishing trends for 2005 at the London College of Fashion earlier this summer, there were a large number of architects and designers in the audience (including Habitat design chief Tom Dixon). They were treated to luscious images of clothes, objects, buildings and paintings which appeared and disappeared like exotic flash cards, while Edelkoort went into a trance-like state and in her pronounced Dutch accent addressed the audience: "There is a new female archetype: the Amazon. She is an ardent enemy of the bimbo. Poof! The vonderbra vent flat!"

Edelkoort predicted that things are going to become serious. "The message is engaged and political," she added, predicting that minimalism will return but in a form so spartan that it is "nihilistic". Young designers will want to reinvent modernism, using paper, woven baskets, white ceramics, marble and stainless steel. Edelkoort also foresees the rise of a new form of hedonism involving a return to 19th-century follies coupled with an urge to cover everything in pattern, strong colour, crystals, chandeliers, chinoiserie and mirrors (her big tip for 2005).

Sniez Torbarina, an associate at architect Jestico & Whiles, was at the briefing. Torbarina works on a lot of interior and hotel schemes - projects that can be heavily trend-influenced. This was her first experience of a trends briefing and she says she found it useful but not revelatory. "It didn't tell us much that we hadn't already sensed ourselves, but it was inspiring and a confirmation of my own feelings," says Torbarina, who said the most useful hard information was on colour (for example, the forecast that in 2004/2005 green will be important). She was, however, sceptical about Edelkoort's prediction that modernist architects' work will be big in 2005 - "That's been the case for a while", she says.

Torbarina agrees that architects need to be clued up on emerging trends but says you don't necessarily need to pay trendspotters to get this information: "You read a lot, you listen to what's happening in the world, you look around," she says. "I don't think we need to go to trends briefings regularly and we wouldn't want to become dependent on it. Architecture is much more about social responsibility, environment and urbanity. It has to respond to much more than just trends."

The Future Laboratory's Martin Raymond disagrees, arguing that trendspotting is about identifying the way society is changing - and therefore of vital interest to architects.

Whereas Edelkoort relies on intuition and observation to identify new trends, the Future Laboratory are rigorously scientific, using video cameras to record how people use their homes, cars and offices, employing teams of researchers around the world and even sifting through people's garbage to learn what they're consuming. Martin Raymond believes that trendspotting is a more reliable alternative to traditional market-research techniques, which rely on asking people questions to which there are a pre-determined range of answers. This process will miss anything that constitutes a new trend because the researcher won't have thought to have included that in the range of answers.

"Henry Ford once said, 'If I'd asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse'," says Raymond. "Marketing has proved to be redundant and a cheat. It's based on data that is dead on arrival. Trends and insight marketing - observing consumers - is the future."
Raymond adds that architects' attempts at market research - surveys or consultation exercises - are often deeply flawed for the same reason. Community consultation - born in the 1970s and now a requirement of virtually all publicly funded projects - aims to find out what people want and achieve consensus around the resulting design.

Yet this is often "extremely unrigorous and shoddily prepared", agrees researcher and writer David Panos, who has worked with clients such as Nike and the Japanese clothing company Evisu and currently teaches architecture students about branding at the Royal College of Art. Panos warns that architects may start to lose out to rivals employing trendspotters to work out what people want.

Raymond goes further, arguing that many architects aren't interested in what building users want and instead are more interested in imposing their own future scenarios on people. Take Marks Barfield Architects' proposal for solving the housing crisis with a high-rise residential system called the SkyHouse, launched with much fanfare earlier this year. The architects first developed their ideas for the buildings, and then asked market researchers to identify who might want to live there. This is the wrong way to go about doing things, Raymond argues: "They were assuming their design was right and just needed tweaking," he says. "There is an arrogance [among architects] that we found quite surprising." Instead, Raymond urges architects to "actually live with, work with and track the community they are building for so they can get a realistic idea of usage, as in how, who, and most importantly why".

Marks Barfield might reply by citing their London Eye - a structure that, critics argued, wasn't needed, couldn't be built and would ruin the skyline. Yet this unlikely structure has started a trend and cities around the world - including Singapore, Shanghai and Las Vegas - are now racing to build their own giant Ferris wheels. Or did the trendspotters see that one coming too?

www.edelkoort.com, www.winkreative.com, www.thefuturelaboratory.com

Martin Raymond's Tomorrow People: Future Consumers and How to Read Them Today, is published by FT Prentice Hall, £22.99

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