The British Design Paradox

With 2009 the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, it was appropriate that the keynote speaker at the latest Design Support Network (DSN) meeting was from the ‘Danish Designers’ organisation.

The DSN’s mission is knowledge-sharing to support and promote design as a tool to enhance life and boost business, whether in the private or public sectors.

The Danish design example

Steinar Valade-Amland’s fascinating presentation proved to everyone present the advantages of looking outside our own borders for inspiration in achieving these aims.


Providing a timeline of Danish design policy, he stressed the importance of making the benefits of design measurable.

Arguing that quantifiable data is vital when talking to industry and politicians, he is responsible for the recently published. ‘Design’s Economical Effects’ that charts 1, 071 enterprises that have used design and the effects over a 4 year period.

The Danish government was a pioneer in launching a coherent national design policy in 1997, even though its focus was primarly on the design of objects and products.

Since then, it has since been revised, following a campaign by Danish Designers, to include the design of services and processes.

On the distinction between product and service design, Valade-Amland presented some worrying statistics: 80% of the European economy is generated through services, not products.

Manufacturers are traditionally brilliant at R&D, but only around 10% of innovation resources go into services. He suggested that if we want to boost the European, and UK economy, the service sector is where we must invest and innovate.

Danish Designers launched a programme called ‘User Driven Innovation’. One branch of the programme, ‘Desinova’, focused on the retail and services sector including call centres, retailers and insurance companies. The process was to match designers to businesses with a problem to solve.

The results proved the economic value of such a cross-disciplinary approach. For the service providers with the problem, the most surprising outcome was the usefulness of the designers early input in the process, often redefining the original brief.

Too many designers = better design
PhD student Gisele Raulik-Murphy talking about her thesis on ‘Design Policy, Promotion and Support Programmes’, began by explaining the ideal policy-to-implementation process, with feedback forming an integral part of the most successful programmes.

Her research has compared countries at various degrees of development, and where they succeeded or failed on this cycle.

She found South Korea to be exemplary in not only recognising the economic benefits of design, but also of strong policy implementation processes.

South Korea’s policy works at several different levels. One counter-intuitive strategy is to train too many designers. Those who can’t get jobs as designers take their design understanding and skills with them into other areas of the economy, and also become informed consumers of design.

Additionally, there is strong government procurement of advanced technology products alongside a quality-based points system awarded to design practices that helps the government know who to procure from.

This in stark contrast to local government processes in the UK where there is often perceived to be a favourite who always wins the job, which stops others from pitching.

Gisele concluded with some guidelines for good design policy, and in more general terms said that multiple pieces of legislation with a clause about good design were always preferable to one over-arching design policy.

Britain’s design paradox
There is a paradox when it comes to British design. We are a highly skilled nation in terms of design and the creative industries, but the internal recognition of the importance of design, amongst non-designers, is seemingly very poor.

APGDI research has shown that not a single MP from the South East responded to a questionnaire asking if they thought design was relevant to their region.

The problem is often one of perception.

Many people equate design with designers, and think of designers (wrongly) as temperamental, arty and irrelevant to business. Design can be making an object more functional or beautiful to sell more product but it can be put to more complex uses.

This problem of perception begins at school, with design often tacked onto art, and given very little attention in its own right.

Being able to communicate visually is important, requiring a whole new way of understanding and seeing the world that many never learn. Perhaps it is not surprising that non-designers don’t see its relevance.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The British Design Paradox

  1. Harris Chapman

    I agree, I’ve been brought up like so many across the globe with the British Curriculum that ‘markets’ design as an addition to the ‘Art & Design’ subject, considered by Cambridge University to be a ‘soft’ subject. If the UK is happy to have design understood to be of no importance to the greater wealth of knowledge and understanding then there’s little hope British design-centred industries will be given a competitive edge over its international rivals!

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