Working In Uncertainty

Sir Terence Conran

The list of businesses that Sir Terence Conran has started or rejuvenated is long, but not as long as the list of design projects that he has worked on. I suspect the reason for being involved in so many businesses is that the bit he likes, and does best, is styling a business and handing over its styling to others to continue.

The sum total of his formal education in design is two years on a three year textile design course. Everything else he seems to have learned while being paid.

The things he usually does, such as styling rooms, restaurants, fabrics, furniture, and other household items are far less technically demanding than, for example, architecture, designing software, microchips, or aircraft. Most people think they have some sense of what looks good. How has Conran been so successful, given that he is usually up against so much competition?

I think one part of it is that he sees himself as in a business, making people happy. He doesn't see himself as an artist expressing himself, doing what he wants to make himself happy, and expecting others to appreciate what he has done and reward him.

When he was a boy he swapped a model boat he had made for a metal-turning lathe, he sold pottery to his school masters, and dolls' house furniture to his sister's friends. When he began the three year textile design course he immediately began selling his own textile prints. All this points to a commercial motive for his design work.

This can also be seen in the way he gets ideas. Rather than guess what people will like, he prefers to find out. For example, in the early 1950s rationing continued and austerity Britain was a somewhat dreary place to be. In 1953 Conran made his first trip to France, where food and other everyday items were available to all and more lavishly displayed. Conran was inspired. This was an early view of what Britain might be like once supplies became more plentiful and shops once again competed for customers. On returning he started a restaurant selling just soup to eat, and styled it in a trendy way. His soup kitchen also had London's second Gaggia machine. The soup kitchen was soon popular.

Looking for ideas abroad is something he has done repeatedly in his career. If something is enjoyed in another country and visiting Britons find they enjoy it too, then there's a good chance that the item will sell well in Britain. There is evidence of its mass appeal.

But what about his shops in France? There the flow of ideas is reversed. There would be no novelty offering a garlic press in Paris, but English pie funnels are sold successfully.

In the mid 1980s Conran summarised his process for transforming chains of shops. In this process market research comes before setting a design policy, and talking to consumers about the shop environment comes before a programme of refurbishment.

Conran says that good design improves the quality of everyday life, and I suspect this is more than just a claim for the benefits of good design. It is perhaps a definition of good design. In other words, if you want to do good design, aim to improve the quality of everyday life. Don't just 'express yourself' and hope people like it.

He has said he hopes people coming into his shops think that someone has been thinking about what they, the customer, want – or will want if they see it.

He constantly watches for information about public tastes. he wants to know what people are reading, and what in them touches a chord. He wants to know what restaurants and cafes they visit, where they go on holiday, what they watch on film and TV, and what love life they have.

Working In Uncertainty observations

Sir Terence Conran's approach to style – seeking out what improves the quality of everyday life for people, importing products and ideas – is driven along by vigorous collection of evidence. Instead of imagining that his innate sense of taste is enough, he finds out what will make people happy and gives it to them. He and his family are estimated to be worth around 85m, even after giving away many millions to charity.

(Sources of information: ‘Tycoons’ by William Kay, published 1985 by Judy Piatkus (Publishers) Limited, a biography downloaded from, and the Sunday Times Rich List for 2011.)

Made in England


Company: The Ridgeway Expertise Company Ltd, registered in England, no. 04931400.

Registered office: 29 Ridgeway, KT19 8LD, United Kingdom.

Words © 2011 Matthew Leitch