Interview: Armin Scharf; photos: code2design


Since January 2019, Michael Schmidt hasn’t only been head of his own design firm code2design, founded in 1996, but also innovation manager at FSB, the renowned door hardware and handle manufacturer. A balancing act? No, says Schmidt, because innovation and design are two sides of the same coin – and designers are predestined to become innovation managers. In part because they bring various processes together, for instance, but also because, most importantly of all, they can think outside the box.

Mr Schmidt, let’s talk about design management. Do SMEs need more design managers?
If you see it as a combination of design and innovation management then yes, definitely. Successful innovation is a holistic process; somebody has to take charge of shaping that process and getting the people in the company on board. Because it’s often a question of breaking up structures that have established themselves over many years – and that calls for a lot of sensitivity. Achieving a consensus on which areas future innovations should focus on is the prerequisite for innovation processes. That pushes classic product managers to their limits because their day-to-day work already demands so much of them. But it’s vital not to be under any illusions: it’s a long-term process. Setting off an initial spark isn’t enough – you need a lot of staying power and it takes continuous effort. And that calls for an open mindset within the company.
How can a company with limited resources become innovative?
Basically any company needs innovation drivers, regardless of its size. If there isn’t enough manpower available, external support should be brought in. If there’s a designer on the team, they can take on the role because they’ve learned to think holistically and can therefore link up all the relevant departments and processes. And by the way: that goes for any industry, for B2B as well as for the consumer sector.

"Palito-Wall" SATTLER GmbH, Göppingen
What skills does a designer need in order to assume the role of innovation expert?
First and foremost you have to be a team player and, as I said earlier, bring the various levels of the company together. Then it’s crucial to focus very intensely on the future and get an overall picture of the various trends and developments that are taking place in society. So a lot of basic research is required, and if necessary you have to go into depth, which calls for a knowledge of the market, technology and processes that are specific to that particular sector. Direct contact with universities and research institutes is a help too.
You’re speaking from experience.
Yes, about 12 years ago we added innovation management to our portfolio because a client was asking us to provide it as a service. We soon realised that design and innovation are a very effective combination. On the other hand, not involving design often leads to innovations that the market, i.e. the target group, doesn’t need, and to problems with the rollout. That’s why we decided to develop a methodical, systematic process.
“Disinfectant dispenser” Starmix
You’ve taken on the role of innovation manager yourself for FSB. Why?
FSB is a renowned manufacturer of door and window hardware solutions; to begin with, they wanted to bring us on board as external service providers. During our talks with them it emerged that the in-house design position was vacant and they actually wanted us to be more heavily involved. So since early 2019, I’ve been working for FSB continuously at their headquarters in Brakel. In the meantime there’s also a new designer who takes care of the concrete implementation.
So you take care of overarching issues?
That’s right; first and foremost it’s a question of implementing the overarching innovation process and developing concepts for concrete innovations. In the first six months I held workshops for staff from the development, marketing, product management and sales departments so as to develop the process methodically. The result is the Product Innovation Process, or PIP for short, which among other things defines the development steps in what’s known as a stage-gate process and sets out the responsibilities in a matrix. And while we were at it we formulated the FSB design criteria too, as well as analysing and clustering the product portfolio. In the meantime, we’ve also built up a pool of experts so that we can assess relevance and acceptance at the earliest possible point in the innovation’s development.
"Sliding door handles” FSB Franz Schneider Brakel GmbH + Co KG, Brakel
FSB has an internal production rate of over 95%. Does that make it easier to implement innovations?
To some extent. When it comes to pressing ahead with innovations, a large development division is a good thing in itself. However, when it’s a question of making changes in the production processes, the fact that so much is produced internally can occasionally slow things down. But because a lot of the work involved with producing door handles is done by hand, you’re still more flexible than you would be with highly automated processes. What’s more, the high internal production rate makes the company more resilient to external influences. FSB doesn’t have any of the supply chain problems that other firms are experiencing right now. And when they do use suppliers, they make sure they’re regional companies.
What appeals to you about your role at FSB?
It’s really exciting to help shape the FSB brand this way and translate new topics and design approaches into action thanks to the innovations.
Does all that leave you enough time for your own firm?
I work for FSB on a two weeks on, two weeks off basis, so I work on my own projects here in Ostfildern in between. Obviously that’s only possible if the studio team does its bit when I’m not there. I’m delighted to say that it works out really well, partly because we’ve readjusted people’s responsibilities accordingly.
Earlier on you mentioned how important it is to look to the future. Which direction do you think design is heading in?
Sustainability is a hugely important issue and it’s gaining ground rapidly. Crucial cornerstones are defined during the design phase, which is why the design has an impact on a product’s carbon footprint or the use of secondary raw materials, to name just two aspects. We have to rise to the challenges. When we designers are integrated into innovation processes, we can make a big difference. So we should work towards ensuring the functional and aesthetic longevity of the products we design as a matter of principle.

"bbqubeX" OCQ, Esslingen


Michael Schmidt founded code2design in 1996 after working for various companies, including Mercedes-Benz and DesignworX. Today, the core team at code2design consists of four senior and junior designers; external consultants and freelancers are brought on board as the projects require. The studio’s work centres on services relating to product innovation and industrial design. Michael Schmidt is an engineer; after qualifying, he completed a postgraduate course in capital goods design at Stuttgart’s State Academy of Fine Arts.

Michael Schmidt