Professor Dame Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, has a career spanning multiple senior roles in academia at Cambridge and Nottingham Universities and Imperial College in London, in engineering for Rolls-Royce and as a government adviser on education and technology issues.

We spoke with King about her vision for better engineering education, which includes design skills – particularly from product and user-centred design – as a vital component to strengthen the UK manufacturing sector.

“All engineers should be taught elements of design, marketing and psychology as part of their course,” she says, “as it is absolutely critical that they can communicate with other specialists and work with them in teams.

“We need to teach people to think out of their box and look at things in different ways, and I sometimes feel that people do this better in design than in engineering. We don’t use words like ‘imagination’ and ‘creativity’ often enough in engineering.”

A presenter at our Leading Business by Design summit this year, where she talked about using design to develop talent and potential, King urges companies to combine engineering with user-centred design to drive success.


King spoke at the Leading Business by Design summit this year about using design to develop talent and potential.

She says that engineers must learn to be empathetic with customers: “One of the things engineers really miss is the interface with people, and how people interact with what we’ve designed, whether it’s an app or a vehicle or a submarine control system.

“To run a successful business, you need to engage with the customer, and integrate it better with the engineering. Some of the companies doing this best include Apple and Dyson, where people have come from a design background and developed a passion for engineering.”

King cites the success of Rolls-Royce’s TotalCare service, under which the company assumes most engine maintenance and the customer pays a dollar rate per engine flight hour (rather than the traditional model of the customer purchasing the engine up front and then dealing with maintenance costs). TotalCare incentivises the manufacturer to make its engines as reliable as possible; in other words, it rewards reliability, a factor that customers value highly.

King says that Rolls-Royce changed “from a mindset of ‘we sell aero engines’ to ‘the customer really wants an aircraft that works’.”

As companies grow, those with a genuine understanding of how their product relates to their customer will gain a real competitive advantage.

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