The primitive design policy of Estonian manufacturers is keeping them out of the global marketplace and forcing them to carry on as subcontractors of foreign companies, according to a recent study.
Estonian officials said they wanted to use the report, prepared by Mollerup Designlab, a Danish company specializing in design, to increase the competitiveness of manufactured goods on the eve of the country's accession to the European Union.
The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication said that a rigid design policy - or comprehensive collection of measures used to improve the design, and hence, competitiveness of goods and services - was exactly what Estonia needed.
In Scandinavia, for instance, Finland and Denmark have already worked out their respective design policies. Martin Parn, chair of Estonian designers' association and an assistant professor at the Estonian Academy of Arts, stressed the need for a coherent design policy.
"I met an official of one ministry several years ago to talk about the design policy, and he told me that professional design was not necessary for every company," Parn recalled.
"He told me that, for example, Ikea was getting along without any design strategy."
What the official probably meant, explained Parn, was the casual style of Ikea - shops that look like warehouses filled with cheap furniture a buyer can easily assemble by himself.
"However, design is not about nice packaging but about impression of the product idea," said Parn, who works as industrial designer and has award-winning Hansabank interior and office furniture in his portfolio.
Parn pointed out Estonia's unique position in the matter.
"Production volumes are small, and Estonian companies are focused on production, not creation. But the ultimate role of the design is to create events, not things," he said.
"Estonia must find its way and it must not be a mere imitation of something foreign. We can take advantage of our smallness."
Doctor Per Mollerup, managing director of Mollerup Designlab, said most Estonian producers acknowledged the great role of professional design in product development.
"However, design management hardly exists as a professional function. In most companies design management is carried out by people with other responsibilities," said Mollerup.
He added that Estonian companies were low on the design maturity scale as they manufactured many anonymous goods and only a handful of brand name products.
Importantly, the Mollerup Designlab report contains a number of concrete steps Estonia should undertake in order to make domestic producers and public administration think harder and implement a better design policy.
Better study options, travel grants, establishment of a design award, a design information center with good library and a print publication that would save Estonian design are the most essential steps, according to Mollerup.
Ando Keskkula, dean of the Estonian Academy of Arts, said that although Estonian design had a good potential on global markets, little investment was being made in designers' education.
"We may want to invite a professor from England, but we just cannot afford it because his salary would be at least 10 times higher compared to a local professor's," Keskkula said.
August Kull, CEO of Thulema, a furniture manufacturer, said it was clear the ultimate goal of any business was to make profit, and that was easily accessible through having competitive products.
"Estonia is unknown as a producer, and furthermore Estonian designers are unknown on the world arena and sometimes even in Estonia," he said.
According to Kull, the largest European producers think more about added value through creative design.
"Until the local decision makers bear in mind the concepts of product design and product development, Estonia will have to accept its poor results and stick to subcontracting. The designers themselves, however, must actively inform the decision makers about this problem," said Kull.