Story: Industrial design

Page 3. Innovation under protectionism

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At worst, import licensing and tariffs encouraged copying and complacency. For many manufacturers, meeting the wide-ranging demands of the domestic market did not align with the need to develop original products for niche export markets. At best, protectionism enabled New Zealand businesses to build a solid foundation of creativity and innovation upon which a product range for export could be built.


Sometimes conservatism stifled innovation. Colin Murdoch’s 1956 plastic pre-filled disposable syringe was his solution to the growing problem of cross-infection, but the Health Department declared his world-leading concept too futuristic. Undeterred, Murdoch produced working prototypes, but after his patent was published in gazettes, overseas copies appeared.

Patent problem

Although Colin Murdoch patented his revolutionary plastic syringe, multi-national drug companies simply copied it without paying him royalties. Murdoch wryly noted that the right to defend a patent did not come with the resources to take offenders to court.

Murdoch went on to build his successful Paxarms business in Timaru, drawing on his experience as a veterinarian, hunter, pharmacist and inventor. He developed a way to deliver tranquilliser darts that avoided frightening the animal; the drug could do its job without the chemical imbalance caused by an adrenalin rush. By the mid-1970s Paxarms was exporting to over 150 countries.

Fisher & Paykel

Fisher & Paykel was among New Zealand’s most innovative companies. One advance was a very cost-effective front-loading tumble dryer, designed to pair up with a top-loading automatic washing machine made under licence to a UK firm. By the late 1960s the dryer was being made by the UK firm under licence to Fisher & Paykel. In 1973 Fisher & Paykel built a world-first refrigeration plant that could make different models on the same assembly line. Cross-disciplinary collaboration delivered a refreshingly simple refrigerator range that won the 1984 Prince Philip Design Award.

The company’s health-care division began after Middlemore Hospital specialist Matt Spence identified a need to safely humidify air being delivered to patients on life-support. Working with Alf Melville at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, a crude working prototype was made using a modified Agee preserving jar. In the late 1960s Fisher & Paykel successfully developed the concept. The humidifier was the first health-care product made by the division, which was to become a separate company in 2001.

Other New Zealand innovations

  • The Feltonmix shower mixer accommodated low water pressure and combined the mixer with the shower head. Keith Relf’s technology, embodied in a form designed by Gifford Jackson, was released in 1969.
  • The Bendon seamless bra used Spanish body fabric moulding technology to create a world-leading garment in 1975.
  • Tullen snips, showcased at a European trade fair in 1972, could cut anything from cling film to metal coins. The show resulted in a huge export order for Tullen Industries.
  • The Merryware Body Brush, designed by Peter Haythornthwaite in 1981, offered a sensuous brush shape that became hugely popular in local and export markets, and was copied by overseas manufacturers.

Design train

During 1968 the Rothmans Design Train travelled the length of the country, carrying the products that were finalists in New Zealand’s awards for industrial design. 14% of the population visited the train. When it reached Auckland, awards ($1,000 and a trophy) were bestowed on the designers of the 10 winning products. One winner, Noel Tritton, also won the public vote for his Optimus pre-finished and packaged modular furniture, which had 100% New Zealand content and needed only a Phillips-head screwdriver for assembly.

Promoting design

In an effort to encourage better industrial design, and promote it to the public, the government set up the New Zealand Industrial Design Council (NZIDC) in 1967. The council’s activities included evaluating products and awarding Designmark labels to those that met the criteria, and instituting the Prince Philip Design Award in 1981. It also published Designscape magazine between 1969 and 1983. From the mid-1980s the government required the NZIDC to pay its own way. It failed, and in 1987 its responsibilities were transferred to the quality accreditation agency Telarc (Testing Laboratory Registration Council), where design-related activity eventually withered.

A renewed commitment to design was signalled by the government in 2003, when the Ministry of Economic Development set up the Design Taskforce. The resulting Better by Design (BBD) programme was initiated to place design thinking at the core of corporate culture through tailored coaching. Annual BBD conferences called CEO Summits have been held since 2005.

How to cite this page:

Michael Smythe, 'Industrial design - Innovation under protectionism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Michael Smythe, published 22 Oct 2014