Designing our future

David Kester, CEO Design Council

D“esign is the midwife of innovation” according to David Kester, Chief Executive of the Design Council. Roger Prentis talks to him about the role of design, particularly how it can help in today’s economic climate, and what it really contributes to society and the economy.

q: How did you get into the creative industries?

a: The short answer is that my folks had a hand in it. I grew up in a family where design and creativity were part and parcel of everyday life. My mother was a fashion designer and my father worked in television as well as in industry. We also grew up in a Bauhaus-design flat and I think that this was all part of the formative influence.

I entered the creative industries straight after leaving Bristol University. I worked as the designer for the National Student Theatre Company and staged nine shows for the Edinburgh Festival - quite challenging!


q: Did your time at Friends of the Earth influence what you do?

a: Well, it certainly had an influence. Environmental issues have become critical to designers, just as the issues around sustainability have become essential to businesses and governments around the world.

At the Design Council this is an all-pervasive issue. After all, 90% of the environmental impact of any product or service is determined at the design phase. That’s why all our work with business incorporates sustainable design and why so many of our projects focus on environmental themes such as sustainable water consumption and low carbon living.

« many of our projects focus on environmental themes »

q: What were your main challenges when you joined the Design Council?

a: I was recruited at a time when the organisation was looking for re-invention and that was part of my brief. We have turned the corner of the 21st century and design is now central to how companies and whole countries will compete in the changed economic landscape.

In a very practical sense, the Design Council now helps government as well as many thousands of businesses to use design smartly in order to out-innovate and out-compete on the world stage.

q: What is the contribution that design makes to the economy?

Yorkshire Flowerpots - a design success story

a: The UK design industry is highly regarded all over the world. Our latest survey shows that the sector is the largest in Europe, and contributes about £11bn to GDP. And that’s just the turnover of consultancies and in-house design groups. We have to multiply that up many times to calculate the impact for the real economy as a whole.

However, design isn’t necessarily being utilised in the UK to maximum effect. I was speaking to a number of leading UK designers last week and happened to ask them how many UK clients they had. One – a multi-award winning designer with a worldwide reputation – said, “Well, David, I only have one British client – and that’s the one that the Design Council introduced me to otherwise they are all international”. That is, sadly, a common story because we don’t take full advantage of what we have on our own doorstep – particularly in the SME sector. A survey we commissioned recently illustrates this neatly: it found that only 16% of British businesses say that design tops their list of key success factors. But among rapidly growing businesses, a whopping 47% rank it first.

« design isn’t utilised in the UK to maximum effect »

q: It seems that we have a reputation for being good at innovation and a reputation for good design and the missing part is putting it together to make good products.

a: I would add to that. We are good at science, too, and technology. Frequently the route to commercialisation is through design and not by pushing technologies at consumers. In so many world-class firms design, technology and enterprise work in total harmony – Apple springs to mind as an easy example. We have been encouraging this sort of multi-disciplinary approach within higher education. As a result we have helped establish new university centres that form a bridge between business and creative education, such as a new collaboration between Cranfield and the University of the Arts.

q: Your recently launched “Design Bugs Out” initiative for the NHS is a case in point?

Patients chair - design the bugs out

a: Absolutely. That is a really interesting example of what can be achieved by bringing designers, manufacturers and technologists together around something that is a national and international priority. The transfer of infectious diseases is very current at the moment and the key for us was recognising what patients, doctors and the media had been saying for a long time – can’t we make our hospitals and care homes cleaner and easier to clean? We found that, by taking a design approach and by using designers and modern materials and modern designs, we got some real innovations. Designers went in using their own techniques to try to understand the problem – using ethnography, filming and looking at the behaviours of staff and patients and how they really worked and interacted – not by filling in surveys, but by spending time observing. From that the real projects and briefs were developed and the teams were established from which remarkable things resulted.

The designer’s art is in bringing different parts of the world together. Little things like a Cannula that shouldn’t be used for more than three days. It is difficult to track that using the traditional systems – referring to patients’ charts – so they are often in place too long. The simple addition of a time strip – something that has come from a different application – makes a huge and effective difference.

Similarly, the use of hydro-chromic ink in the mattresses – a simple idea to show immediately if the mattress is compromised and should be replaced. The designers have brought together technologies and made them work – whilst improving the aesthetics and how they work.

q: As a Non-Departmental Public Body the Council has a huge brief – how do you cover it all?

a: We do have a big brief, but what singles us out and makes us effective is our approach - what you might call “think – do”. The “think” is about being a strategic body. If you are trying to have a truly national impact with a 60 strong team, then you have to be very catalytic. So we influence national policy work with many industry partners. Doing is all about delivery, and again this has to be done in a smart way. So we have a network of design associates, who deliver on our behalf. The interplay between ‘think’ and ‘do’ is, however, where the great things happen. By doing we have our sleeves rolled up and that means our policy advice to government is much more meaningful.

q: What sort of things will you be doing this year?

Desiging Demand

a: This year through Designing Demand, our business change scheme, we will support about 1000 UK firms up and down the country. We are working with CEOs and looking at the wholesale reinvention of their companies. We put in mentors, who look at how the companies work, and become deeply involved in major transformation programmes. This involves the redesign of whole businesses, changes in the design of their products or services, often completely re-orientating their business.

Alongside this, we are advising government on how best it can support advice to business in order to help us on and out of the downturn. We’re pleased to see the radical overhaul of business support services including the one-stop shop Solutions for Business. A simplified approach with Designing Demand as part of just 30 programmes on offer is good news for SMEs. Our message is that, regardless of sector or size, when times are tough it is change, dynamism and vitality – not hunkering down quietly – which are the keys to success.

q: How do you “put the theory into practice” when you are working with companies?

a: What is very interesting is how design can help in different ways – particularly in the context of the recession. There are three fundamental ways. One is the adding value, one is reinvention and finally there is disruption.

q: Do you have an example of the adding value approach?

a: Adding value is about design helping an existing business to differentiate itself in the market place. This is bread-and-butter for design work. It is often achieved by helping a company that lacks clarity in the market – it might have too many products and need to hone them down.

A good example is Challs International – a cleaning materials firm. When we met them first they were a small company with a confused look and feel. They had lots of different products that didn’t stand out on the shelves in the supermarket. They were surviving, but not doing particularly well.

Challs - new products

They went through our Immersion process which involves working with a mentor and expert designers and they looked at where the full range of opportunities. They decided to go for a lock-stock-and-barrel approach and put some £30k into design fees – which, for some companies is not a great deal of money. For Challs, however, it was a whole year’s profit and a major commitment to change. They completely re-designed the look and feel of the company and brand, took out products and introduced new ones. As a direct consequence, Challs has grown and grown and they are now exporting into the European market. Their relatively small investment has been multiplied many times over.

q: And re-invention?

a: This is the area where many businesses don’t even recognise the role and value of design. Maybe the business is looking in the wrong direction or what the business is producing is fundamentally wrong.

Yorkshire Flowerpots

Naylor Drainage is a good example. It was a family business in the drainage industry making vitrified clay pipes and accessories. A highly-commoditised field with a lot of competition. But they recognised that they had valuable expertise and technology that could be used for other products. In fact, they had already started a small-scale attempt at making flowerpots.

The design team recognised that this new idea was actually the future for them. The technology and experience from the drainage industry put them in a strong position – an understanding about frost-proofing and the strength of the materials that others might not have. This uniqueness was used to design a whole new business – they called it Yorkshire Flowerpots – which gave a great “heritage” feel. They designed the products and the business around them. It is now hugely successful and the other day, Edward Naylor, the MD, told me that they now have a 30% share in the market this year – the same as his main competitor – and the business is now exporting.

q: What about disruption – that sounds more serious – like BPR?

a: This is about science and technology – entering completely new markets with new ideas and products. Here we find that designers are too frequently ignored. Scientists and technologists do not routinely employ designers to help develop their ideas. We have brought designers into University settings to work with science research teams at the very earliest stages. It is at this development phase that users’ needs should be considered.

For instance, at Oxford University, one of our design teams worked with technologists who were exploring “smart metering”. In a matter of days the design team had applied the researchers’ technologies into rough and ready prototypes for domestic and industrial use. Together with a coherent brand story, they were able to attract venture finance and spin out the idea from the university.

q: Richard Lambert of CBI commented that links between design and business are weak – how is that changing?

a: There are indications from our own research that UK business leaders are investing more and not less in design. There is a sense of innovating ourselves out of the recession. In the main, however, UK firms do not use design smartly enough. I don’t think that this is just something to berate SMEs about – it is absolutely endemic in our society and reinforced in the education system. The latter tends to place design alongside art and things like sciences, maths and business tend to be put in a different box. The two are not well mixed at all. My view is that this is something we need to address throughout our education system – schools, colleges and in the work place itself. Only when you get that real sense of fusion between design, enterprise and technology do you get great innovations happening. I should add that the business organisations - including the CBI, IoD and British Chambers - have been supportive and vociferous on the role of design. We have just launched a partnership programme with the Chambers in order to further strengthen links at grass roots.

q: Are there any particular sectors that could benefit greatly from more design input?

a: That is difficult – there are so many!

« waste and waste management needs a big rethink »

The whole area of waste and waste management needs a big rethink. Design has a huge role to play in developing holistic system solutions. We need to get designers working with Utilities, local Councils and national Government as well as manufacturers.

A second area is crime. We are already doing some work with the Home Office and the Design & Technology Alliance Against Crime. Our current focus is about industry led solutions to reducing mobile phone theft – particularly as mobile phone commerce is introduced.

q: What have been your major achievements so far at the Design Council?

a: There are probably two main things of which I am very proud. One is the team itself. The Design Council has become a passionate and expert team with a unified vision in terms of what design can do and our role.

Secondly, the creation of a fresh set of relevant and very practical programmes that are making a real difference on the ground. Both in the business and public sectors, we take a great deal of pride in being a practical, enterprising and well-networked organisation.

q: How do you see the future?

a: Looking forwards I think that there are three distinct, but inter-related areas.

One relates to what we were set up to do so many years ago and has become more and more relevant now. That is about manufacturing – creating the products and services that create jobs and wealth in the UK.. That was the fundamental part of the original Churchillian idea. Tapping our creative capabilities to redesign the business, innovate hard and out-compete our competitors is incredibly important and design has a major role to play.

There is also a real issue about the leadership role that Government can take. Our “Design Bugs Out” project illustrates this well with the NHS. There are many other areas where better design procurement could deliver public sector efficiency and business growth.

Thirdly, viewing design as a root to service efficiency. Traditionally, designers have been viewed as creators of “stuff”, but now they are helping to re-contextualise things, and increasingly they are designing experiences instead of objects. A good example of this is Virgin Atlantic, where half its design team are now service designers. Another example is the car-sharing scheme Streetcar by design consultancy Live Work. Whilst the design team is made up of industrial and interaction designers, the outcome of their work is all about the service rather than the artefact.

There are huge lessons to be learned in both the public sector and across industry about using design to help develop really good experiences – think about your journey through your local library or GP’s surgery. Understanding what consumers really want and need is critical and designers are very good at interpreting rather than just listening. At a time when major cuts are threatened across the public sector, we would do well to get radical and creative in order to root out cost-effective alternatives. Sometimes the answer is not to cut – it’s to reinvent.


The Design Council
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