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Design Council CEO Sarah Weir looks back on 2017

Design Council CEO Sarah Weir looks back on 2017

19 December 2017 Written by By Sarah Weir OBE Chief Executive (2017 - 2020)

I remember the first time I walked through the doors of Design Council, taking up my role as Chief Executive Officer of this iconic and impactful organisation. I felt I had a good idea of what the role would entail. However, what I hadn’t fully grasped was the enormity of the challenges that lay ahead of me.

From so many people believing that design was just about shoes and jackets or not realising and recognising the value that design brings to peoples lives and the UK economy, the challenge of not having design established within the curriculum alongside STEM subjects, and the lack of diversity that exists across the industry, to name but a few. 

One of my very first tasks, only a week in, was an appearance before the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee to provide evidence on the impact of Brexit on design. No hiding in the shadows for me there! If I hadn’t already understood the complexity of UK trade, investment, IP and design rights before the session, then I certainly did after it. Soon after this we commissioned a film from Film Roundhouse examining the challenges faced by young people in trying to achieve a roof over their heads. And the lengths and ingenious methods young people are having to go to, in order to fulfil this basic need. The film was a key feature for us at party conferences, where it provoked intense debate and a positive reaction from politicians and sector partners alike.

Our programmes, Transform Ageing, Spark, Design in Public Sector and Design Academy have all flourished this year with numbers and the quality of applications for each are up on last year. With Transform Ageing participants (including people in later life, social entrepreneurs and public-sector leaders) valuing being able to work collaboratively with others. Participants from Design in the Public Sector felt more confident to undertake design-led innovation in their own work and fed back that the programme and the tools provided have helped them better understand those who use their services so they could improve them to more closely meet their needs. Students who attended Design Academy felt they had increased their ability to collaborate with other disciplines and increased their confidence in applying a structured design process to their projects, as well as improving their employment prospects. Our Spark partners are impressed with the quality of design and innovation led products that have gone from strength to strength over the last few years, succeeding through the intensive application process and delivering on our aims of purposeful design for public benefit.

In December, we published ground-breaking research on design skills. Using US and UK data, we have, for the first time, developed a skills index for design, measuring their importance across design and non-design based occupations. This research is truly unique. We carried out this important work because we knew from our 2015 research that designers work in high-value jobs, they are more productive, and in the main, they work outside design industries – from engineering and digital, to transport and banking. So, what is it about the people working in design and the skills they use that makes them more productive? And, if designers mainly operate in non-design industries, are more people than we think using design skills in their day-to-day work?  

What we found surprised even us. We expected design skills to be valuable, we knew designers were more productive than average and operated in high-value sectors. However, we didn’t expect this value to be worth £209bn to the UK economy. That is a combined value higher than the GVA for Scotland and Wales! But perhaps even more interesting is that just 2.5million people across the population of Britain are generating this value, with huge concentrations of design skills utilised in the south-east. So whilst the £209bn is of interest to everyone from the newest design graduate to the most senior Treasury official, the real finding is the scope for much more to now be done with that evidence on the economic and social value of design. Its capacity to generate high-value jobs, to provide innovation for the future and to improve living standards mean it is simply not enough to publish nice figures and share these to a captive audience. We have to break through into new areas.

Despite the evidence on the impact design can have on our society, it is still currently underused in the UK, too heavily concentrated in the south-east, lacking government backing in tax incentives and innovation investment and dropping off the education agenda. Think about the impact we could have if design was fully recognised in policy, business, infrastructure and places in the same way that other innovation areas are? It is changing, there have been positive steps forward in housing and planning policy, across infrastructure and some places in the industrial strategy. But these changes are at a  micro level compared to the evidence on the potential value of design.

Also in December, I was recognised as one of the top ten individuals delivering an impact on design in 2017. It was very flattering to be recognised for my first eight months work leading the Design Council, but the truth is that it’s the work of skilled designers and the contribution that design makes to our society and economy that deserve the recognition. Only by having design included alongside already recognised core STEM subjects can we ensure the UK maintains and ideally enhances its position as a global leader in design for the future.

As I look to the year ahead I will be focused on the issue of diversity in all its forms. We need the design industry to focus on the gift, and not the box it comes in. What I mean by that is for all of us as industry leaders to make a concerted effort to address the diversity issue together. We have a long way to go to bring about a positive change that impacts not only the current talent involved in design but also the future talent coming through. One of our biggest challenges today is the imbalance that exists between the male and female members of our talented workforce. One hundred years on from the Representation of People Act which first recognised some women’s right to vote, we are still nowhere near the pay and gender equalities that we should all enjoy.

We also need to demonstrate our positive impact and value to society through the work we do and for that, we need more partners from business, other charities, universities and government to realise the full potential of design. In 2018 you’ll see a growth in our partnership with others, whether in infrastructure or city development, skills or research. This is how we will achieve change and deliver impact, putting design at the centre of social and economic and change.

Lastly, I aim to lead the call to break down barriers to talent, be they based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or educational accomplishments and to encourage purely based on talent to achieve the heights of success that we all deserve. The economic future of our country is in the hands of the talented few. Each day 2.5million people use design skills delivering an economic contribution to the UK of £209bn, imagine what we could achieve if we unlocked the potential of the entire nation, and supported all those with talent to come to the fore. Let’s focus on the gift, not the packaging it comes in!

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