The UK government is kidding itself if it thinks designers can revive the economy.
Designers, your country needs you! UK chancellor Gordon Brown is vexed about competitiveness and thinks that designers are part of the solution. He wants them to help raise productivity and push the UK up the ‘value-added chain’, away from low-cost economies such as India and China.
Last March, Brown gave design its first ever mention in a Budget and commissioned Sir George Cox, chairman of the Design Council, to report on how Britain’s creatives can boost the UK’s competitive edge. In September, he pitched up to open the London Design Festival and declared that ‘creativity and design [add] value that will make the difference between economic success and economic failure’.
The Cox Review closed the year by reporting that the key ‘barriers’ include business’ lack of awareness and belief in design, not knowing where to find designers, and limited ambition. It recommended an awareness-raising programme, tax breaks for R&D spending, and more enlightened business education and public spending.
Sir George kicked off 2006 with an ‘Innovation, Creativity and Design Strategy’ debate at the Global Economic Forum in Davos, in which he bemoaned the creative state of the nation: ‘I come from a country that is creatively rich and application poor.… We don’t make iPods but export people who design them – Johnnie Ive.’ He stated the problem even more starkly in a recent ‘Design or Die’ debate at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), when he claimed that the choice was between more design and Britain becoming a theme park.
It’s worth distinguishing between this current flurry of design boosting and the Cool Britannia love-in between New Labour and the creatives back in the late 1990s. The Cox Review rejects the new economy notion of living on the thin air of creativity. There is now an emphasis on integrating design into old economy sectors like manufacturing, and on how small companies might exploit the expertise of the creative industries. Cox also rightly fingers the idea that Britain’s future lies in being creative and clever, while China and India will be happy looking after the dirty hard work. Mumbai already boasts a nascent advertising industry and China made it into the top 10 countries for patent applications last year.
This is a step forward, but only a small one – it still confuses a symptom of the problem with its solution. The predicament of Britain’s ‘innovation gap’ is framed as a paradox – as it has been for decades. How can it be that we have so many star designers and great inventors, but our industry seems incapable of capitalising on them? The truth is that it is neither an accident, nor a paradox that Britain is internationally renowned for both its creatives and its industrial decline. The former is largely a result of the latter.
The same few designers and inventors are trotted out time after time: Jonathan Ive, the Newcastle Polytechnic-educated design director at Apple in California; Paul Smith, the self-taught fashion entrepreneur who has built an international brand and retail chain over the past 20 years; and James Dyson of the eponymous Dual Cyclone cleaner.
One of the main reasons why Britain’s creatives are internationally renowned, and so many of them work for foreign companies, is that British industry is awful at innovation. This is not due to a shortage of ideas, but to a lack of the investment needed to bring ideas to market.
Britain fell behind its major competitors on this measure over a century ago and has steadily slid down the R&D investment charts ever since. If you discount spending on pharmaceuticals, aerospace and biotechnology, British investment in innovation is pitiful. This steady industrial decline coincided with the blooming of British design. As opportunities within industry dried up, more designers either worked for foreign firms or for consultancies that had to chase work overseas.
Either way, British designers were therefore forced to promote themselves on the international stage. As a London-based consultant designer of stylish consumer electronics, Ive had little choice but to work for foreign companies like Apple. Dyson got his first cleaner manufactured in Japan in 1985 after failing to license it to a manufacturers closer to home.
So can this situation be fixed by raising awareness of the benefits of design within business, as the Cox Report recommends? Whenever awareness-raising is put forward as a solution, I smell an issue being fudged. Britain’s creatives have never been so feted and their output more admired – whether it be the iPod, the Gerkin or the Aston Martin DB9. After a decade of IKEA advising us to ‘chuck out the chintz’, the subsequent wall-to-wall makeover programmes and a national debate over what the Design Museum should exhibit, are we really expected to believe that the captains of industry are still blind to design’s charms?
Don’t get me wrong, I think design is part of the solution to reviving the British economy; it’s just that other crucial parts of industry tend to be missing. These include a genuine ambition to make things better, the willingness to take risks, and the commitment of adequate resources to get the product or service right.
Lack of ambition and aversion to risk are recognised by the Cox Review, but it will take more than a few workshops and a national centre for design to turn this ingrained culture around. British industrialists lost the habit of ploughing profits back into new product development generations ago. The accountants who run British industry are much more comfortable investing paltry amounts in a brand tweak or an ad campaign to shift existing products off the shelves, rather than developing new ones. They also prefer financial re-engineering to real engineering development.
To really start turning things around, British industry needs to: curb its obsession with next-quarters results, start thinking big, foster a culture of genuine experimentation, and accept that failure is part of the innovation game.
So for now, British designers would do best to seek out firms that take innovation seriously – on whatever shore they find them.
Kevin McCullagh is director of Plan Strategic Ltd.
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