How do you measure the value of design and designers? Ahead of the launch of our latest research exploring the value of design skills, Stephen Miller reviews how the measurement of design has evolved over recent years.

This is perhaps the most important time to demonstrate the value and impact of design since the end of Second World War. The UK is once again entering a long period of uncertainty, with stagnant productivity and growing automation putting pressure on living standards and job security, at the same time as the country also negotiates its exit from the EU. Design and designers must play a central role if the UK is to make a success of these structural changes.

Yet design is still misunderstood and underused by businesses and policymakers. Along with others, Design Council has played a leading role in measuring the value and impact of design over recent years, and we believe our forthcoming Designing a Future Economy research provides the most comprehensive case for the economic value of design skills ever. To do so it uses an innovative research methodology, building on a distinguished history of research approaches and evidence.

Design and industrial revolution

Originally from arts and craft roots, the evolution of UK design has been heavily influenced by the evolution of capitalism. The first and second industrial revolutions up to the end of the 1800’s brought the division of labour and mechanisation which gave birth to the industrial designer. In 1944, this resulted in the establishment of the Council of Industrial Design, the forerunner to the modern-day Design Council. Since then, design has evolved beyond aesthetics and form-giving and is now widely used across the economy, not just in heavy industry or design studios. As the academic Richard Buchanan put it, during the twentieth-century design “moved from the traditional concept of the visual or tangible artefact through to orchestrating interactions and experiences, and to transforming systems”. With a fourth industrial revolution set to transform the way we work and live through automation and artificial intelligence, the role of design is evolving again, designing digital experiences and delivering products and services that are transforming the way we live.

As the applications of design have changed and grown, so too has the number of designers and where they work. Design Council has been measuring the value of design for many years, historically through its surveys of design firms (such as graphic design studios). While we were able to demonstrate the value design adds to the products and services it interacts with (such as in the image below), we have not always been able to comprehensively evidence where else in the economy designers were working (such as in aerospace or retail for instance). We knew the impact of design ran far deeper and we needed to understand more.

An infographic from Design Council’s 1983 report ‘Design and the economy’.

An infographic from Design Council’s 1983 report ‘Design and the economy’.

In recent years we have been exploring alternative approaches to measuring the value of design, inspired by research methodologies used elsewhere, such as the Danish Innovation Survey and more recently, the Creative Industries Economic Estimates (CIEE) by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS).

The birth of the design economy

While playing a key role in demonstrating and articulating the value of the creative industries, a few years ago it became apparent that the ongoing CIEE study does not adequately reflect the changing nature and wider impact of design to the UK. While evidencing the value of fashion design, interior design, and industrial design, it overlooks the contribution of architects, graphic designers, advertising executives and digital designers, among others. Furthermore, nowadays designers do not just work for design companies but will be embedded within firms in other sectors. As such, restricting the analysis to just one Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code – ‘Specialised design activities’ (74.10), was problematic.

Building on the methodology developed by DCMS and Nesta, in 2015 Design Council published The Design Economy, which looked beyond the traditional definition of ‘design sectors’ to provide the most thorough and accurate measure of design’s contribution to the UK economy ever produced. Instead of one SIC code, Design Council analysis identified 10 SIC codes and 23 Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) codes, highlighting that designers work across all parts of the economy, such as retail, aerospace, and banking.

While by no means perfect, this approach enabled us for the first time to better estimate the true economic value and impact of design and is an approach that has since been replicated in other countries. It also showed that not only is design a highly valuable part of the UK economy, but that design workers were 41% more productive than the average UK worker. With the country entering its tenth year of stagnant productivity levels, we subsequently set out to explore this further.

Measuring design in a future economy

Our latest study ‘Designing a Future Economy’ builds on this work. It investigates the skills used within the design economy and the link between these skills and productivity and innovation. To do this we have developed an innovative research methodology, utilising the US Department of Labor’s O*Net dataset of job characteristics to investigate the skills which are distinctive for design. By mapping this data back to UK SOC codes we have been able to identify the most important skills associated with design occupations, as well as identifying other occupations that use the same skills, which weren’t identified in our 2015 study.

As such we believe that the Designing a Future Economy study proposes an even more developed definition of design, reflecting its changing nature and role in a rapidly developing economy. By identifying the occupations using design skills wherever they operate across the economy, we are also able to estimate the economic value of these skills for the first time. Designing a Future Economy provides key intelligence regarding the role of design in promoting economic growth, productivity improvements and stimulating innovation, which we hope will be used by business leaders and policy-makers as they prepare for the future.

The Designing a Future Economy study will be launched on 6th December.

Read the report

Download the Designing a Future Economy report – our groundbreaking research on the value of design skills.

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