Winning the Irish Business Design Challenge last year topped an amazing 12 months for business owner Jamie Maguire of Notions Creative, a custom fabrication company in Dublin.
The competition is run by Design & Crafts Council Ireland in partnership with Enterprise Ireland and the Local Enterprise Offices, supported by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
It has two purposes, to showcase Ireland’s micro, small and medium ‘business heroes’, and to demonstrate the crucial role design and design thinking plays in business.
Certainly, the action Jamie Maguire took to navigate his business through the pandemic was nothing short of heroic, and design was at the heart of it.
The Slane native has a background in product design and an interest in user experience, UX, which focuses on what a product or service feels like for the end user.
After working with an experiential marketing agency, followed by a stint with a fabrication company, designing everything from pop-up shops to point of sale displays, in June 2019 he went out on his own.
“I had my own vision of what a fabrication company could offer to brands,” he explains.
For the first six months he was busy, working on everything from VIP golf experiences to music festivals. “I signed a five-year lease on a workshop, hired a carpenter and put everything I earned back into the business. Then it stopped with a bang.”
The pandemic left him wondering “What was going to happen?” he recalls. When his flatmate was given an allowance from his employer to set up a home office, but struggled to find a desk, it sparked an idea.
“I said I’d make him one in my workshop,” says Maguire. He worked on it over St Patrick’s weekend 2020, and by the Monday had not only designed and built a highly innovative flat packed, self-assembly desk that requires no tools but had developed a new brand, Home by Notions, and an ecommerce website too.
As workers everywhere scrambled to set up home offices, his orders took off. “People could personalise them by putting in their own specifications. Everyone has a little nook or a cranny they could put a desk into, like the alcove beside a fireplace,” he explains. When they finish working, users simply fold it away, perfect for saving space.
To date, he has sold more than 3,000 desks. As restrictions have lifted, Notions Creative is back working with experiential marketing agencies and brands, but Home by Notions remains an engine of growth. He has developed additional furniture products and employs five people.
Winning the Irish Business Design Challenge was key. “The PR value was great. We got coverage in all the national newspapers and on the DCCI website and social media. It also gives you the confidence to know you are on the right path,” he says.
“But if anything, the mentorship was even more valuable. DCCI introduced us to the Local Enterprise Office and Enterprise Ireland, which led to the Business Expansion Grants that allowed us to hire three more people. The competition opened our eyes to what’s available from support agencies.”
The Irish Business Design Challenge 2021 is now open for entries, offering micro, small and medium sized businesses to share a total prize fund of over €50,000, with a €15,000 first prize for the winner of each category and €2,000 for each runner up.
It’s open to businesses in any sector that recognise and incorporate the value of design into their development. Once applications have been submitted, the public can vote for their favourites. Last year more than 11,000 public votes were submitted.
Part of the rationale for the competition is to boost awareness of the importance that design thinking, or having a design culture, plays in business success.
“Last year we had 187 entries, from bioscience, medtech, agtech, craft and design. We saw loads of entries from micro and small businesses, and this year we want to see more from medium-sized businesses too, because it’s a terrific opportunity for them to get their brand out there,” says Rosemary Steen, chief executive officer of the Design & Crafts Council Ireland.
“We also want to show the breadth of design activity taking place across all sectors. Around 50,000 people in Ireland are working in jobs that focus on aspects of design, where design is not the main activity of the company.”
Fostering design thinking can help a business respond to market challenges in innovative ways. Entrants might show how they solved a problem using design, or how they introduced feedback from consumers at an early stage in the development of a product, for example.
“We are not prescriptive about it. What we are saying is tell us how you demonstrated design thinking. It’s up to companies to tell their story,” says Steen.
Many of last year’s entrants, like Notions Creative, redesigned their business to cope with the pandemic. “We saw companies who turned things around by saying, ‘right, our customers are in a different space now, how can we adapt our product to fit them?’” she explains.
“Design gives you license to explore. Whether you call it user experience or customer focus, it’s about gaining an understanding of what’s going on in the external environment and using a methodology to take your business in a different direction. Both the Local Enterprise Office and Enterprise Ireland have lots of programmes and mentor supports to help, to say ‘have you thought about doing this?’”
After years creating edits for other people’s fashion brands, TV presenter and entrepreneur Anna Daly decided to build something of her own. She launched Little Bliss, a range of organic unisex clothing for grownups and kids in December 2020.
Design thinking is at the heart of every aspect of it. “It’s ethically sourced, with no awful chemicals, because future-proofing matters to me. My margins would be a lot bigger if it didn’t, but this is what’s important to me,” she says. Her fast-growing customer base shows it’s important to her target market too.
An experienced marketer, Daly believes the Irish Business Design Challenge is too great an opportunity for any business to pass up. “The prize fund is amazing but the publicity that companies can get from it, the platform it offers their brand, that’s a gift,” she says.
There’s just one design flaw bugging her right now. As an official ambassador for DCCI, “I can’t enter!” she says.