The design phase always begins with a clear brief. A key part of this stage is defining exactly who will be wearing the garments. This means defining issues like age range (which might be wider in retail than for an airline) and size and shape range (which can vary depending on geographical location). A global organisation can be expected to encompass a wider range of shapes and sizes than one based in the UK, for example.
At de Baer we are currently designing uniforms for the Abu Dhabi custom administration.
We have visited all key locations to clearly understand what can and cannot be worn for both security and cultural reasons. As this uniform will be signed off by the senior government officials, we have to consider the staff who will be wearing the uniform (size, shape; extremes of climate; job roles) as well the expectations of the officials who asked us to create a modern Arabic uniform.
Reflect the brand
A good uniform isn’t just fit for purpose. It needs to reflect the ethos and culture of the organisation. Is it formal or informal? Business or leisure? Dressed-up or dressed down? When we re-designed the uniform for transport company Eddie Stobart, we were conscious that this was a brand with a very strong reputation and corporate image. So we had to reinforce the message that lorry drivers are professionals – which meant a smart uniform – while taking into account the fact that truck drivers sometimes live in their cabs for five or six days at a time which necessitated a practical approach.
Fit for purpose
It’s easy to forget that design is only one element of a uniform. The fabric and cut is just as important. For example, dry cleaning can be a real problem, both in terms of time and cost. As a result, wherever possible, we use machine washable, easy care fabric. And don’t forget allergies. Some people are allergic to certain man-made fibres, so we need to be able to offer an alternative. In a similar vein, all of our garments come with those all important extras such as a bag of buttons. We also send out useful items like wonderweb hemming tape which just irons on so that it is easy to adjust the length of a pair of trousers. Then there are shoes, hand bags, hats and even small but crucial details like torches and key loops – all of these need to be considered to make garments as practical as possible.
Work in partnership
It is vitally important that the HR, purchasing, marketing and operations functions are all intimately involved in drawing up the brief for a new uniform.
What tends to happen is that we will lead these discussions in a series of meetings. It’s important to ascertain what has gone before, what worked and what didn’t work. We need to understand the various agendas – HR wants a uniform that people are proud of, marketing wants fresh new branding, purchasing wants to cut costs and operations need something that is fit for purpose.
It is our role to ask the right questions and facilitate this process. We often find that depending on what stage a company is in a buying cycle (saving or spending mode?) the process will either be led by HR, purchasing or marketing. We recently worked with the PTS Bank steering group was led by both Human Resources and purchasing to redesign their uniform.
The main emphasis was on giving the staff a new uniform they would enjoy wearing. The second consideration was meeting the right price points. We achieved both criteria through numerous staff focus groups and a road show.
The entire process of designing and introducing a new uniform can take from six months to a year depending on how extensive wearer trials and focus groups are. Typically five months is fabric and garment manufacture time, this leaves time for design and development. It is crucial for companies to think ahead. For example, an organisation looking to leverage its brand out of the credit crunch cycle will find that they have left it too late if they wait for the recession to finish.
Many companies underestimate the importance of staff involvement. A great way to kick off the design process is to hold a roads how where you can meet with staff and ask them what they need to do their jobs better. So for example, when we did a design project for BMI, we went on flights with them and worked with the cabin crew to get an understanding of what they needed.
Thereafter, the best way to involve users in the design process is to set up staff focus groups that meet at regular intervals throughout the design process. Another vital stage in the process is wearer trials. Users need to actually wear the garments and it is important to listen to what they have to say about them and incorporate their feedback into making the garments and fabrics better.
De Baer’s uniform for the bus, coach and rail divisions of National Express involved lengthy staff trials for both fabric and garment. Why? Train platforms tend to be cold. Train carriages tend to be warm. So platform staff and train staff need garments with widely differing performance if they are both to be comfortable. Then there are differing health and safety regulations that need to be taken into account.
With Haagen Daz, a global account we are currently holding wearer trails in Singapore, Mexico and the UK, revealing wide variations in shape, size and cultural attitudes.
If staff endorse the uniform, enthusiasm for it spreads like wildfire and the rollout will be far more successful than if its adoption is foisted on an unwilling workforce. The key to this is good communication. Communicating is critical to a successful internal launch. Failing to explain how and why the uniform has come about, not putting in place the appropriate “internal PR” and / or not allowing enough time to prepare for the rollout are all classic mistakes.
Similarly, just as at the start of the project, all the relevant departments and stakeholders need to be involved and kept in the loop about objectives and timescales. When Eurostar rolled out the new uniform we designed for them in 2004 it was the biggest change they had had for ten years. The launch even included fashion shows, a photoshoot for a new uniform brochure and a video roadshow. This all combined to ensure a successful launch. It is sometimes the little things that count the most to people. For the TUI rollout we put a TUI branded sewing kit, with extra buttons and threads that matched their uniform colours, in with each staff uniform box.
Article by Ann Dowdeswell