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Design, Economics and Building Back Better

Insights from Design Economy: 2021–2024 Roundtable

Two construction workers in steel factory

13 April 2021 Written by Bernard Hay

In his opening provocation for this roundtable, designer Akil Benjamin asked us to imagine what role design could play in an equitable economy: ‘What does a post-covid business model look like, where design serves both businesses and communities?’

Drawing on his work as co-founder of digital studio Comuzi, Benjamin argued that design’s benefits to the economy lie in its ability to foster collaboration, creative problem solving and community engagement that can drive innovation:

For Benjamin, design can act as a bridge to meet both economic and social objectives. However, any economic recovery supported by design must redress inequalities, rather than intensify them. UK government statistics found that in 2019, only 5.1% of small and medium-sized businesses in the UK were led by a majority of people from an ethnic minority. And in the design economy specifically, 78% of designers identified as male and only 13% as from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in 2016.

Through his work as founder of Mentor Black Businesses, which has already supported over 500 black business leaders since 2020, Benjamin highlighted one way in which design can create new systems of training support and access to business opportunities. One of our ambitions with Design Economy: 2021–2024 is to look at how we gather richer data and insight into inequalities within the design economy and their impact on the designed world, using a greater diversity of metrics and highlighting data –gaps as we find them.

Tessa Clarke, founder and CEO of food-sharing app Olio, highlighted the role design can play in creating a sustainable and circular economy in her provocation piece. With a background in business, Tessa and her team found themselves using design methods without being aware of it, live-testing early versions of the app with customers and redesigning it in real time. Olio is an app that allows neighbours to share unwanted food and is already achieving significant economic and environmental impact. They now have a new partnership now in place with Tesco and over 3 million users. For Tessa the economic value of design “is about problem-solving and doing it holistically”. It is a strategic capability that businesses can use to address the root cause of problems and to innovate.

One way of increasing design’s contribution to the UK economy is to encourage greater use of it by businesses. However, what are some of the barriers we already face to greater adoption of design? The discussion following the provocations focused on three key challenge areas:

The language barrier

We still need to build a shared understanding of design and its value to business.

Despite the evidence of design’s economic value and its role in innovation, there is a mismatch between the ways designers and businesses talk about and measure it. Several roundtable participants noted that designers struggle to describe the value they bring to businesses in terms that commissioners in businesses would understand when pitching for new work, such as being able to highlight the ‘return on investment’. Similarly, many businesses continue to see design as something concerned with aesthetics, rather than a strategic capability.

There is a need to better equip UK businesses and designers with a shared understanding of what design is and its value from a business perspective. Participants noted that this could be done through training; having design leaders in senior roles within business; and also through researching cases of best practice where specific business processes and aims are supported through design. Design Economy: 2021–2024 will also need to find ways to translate new and existing research into design’s value to make it tangible for businesses.

The fear barrier

We need to find ways of addressing the perceived risk of investing in design, especially for businesses who haven’t commissioned it before.

Participants emphasised the perceived risks for businesses around investing in design. It is seen as expensive and time-consuming to commission, with measurable benefits taking too long to materialise. More immediately, businesses new to using design require direction to the support and resources needed to effectively find and commission the right kind of designer for the challenges they want to address. Examples of resources currently available include those provided by the Design Business Association. This is particularly acute for SMEs working to short timeframes and budgets where design could add real value to support scaling up.

Addressing this fear barrier will require change on both sides to help make design more palatable to those who are risk averse. It, requires the design sector to build evidence to counter those perceived risks, and to make practical tools and guidance on best practice accessible to those commissioning design. Previous versions of Design Economy have already begun to show the many benefits design brings to business (some of which are highlighted above). Making the case for design should invariably how why design isn’t an unnecessarily expensive, time-prohibitive investment.

The time barrier

It can take a while for design’s economic impacts to register in quantifiable metrics, which can be out of sync with business reporting cycles.

The impact that design can have on a business, whether it be in a rebrand or in improving operational processes, can take a significant time to materialise in quantifiable economic terms. This, coupled with the perceived additional time it takes to commission designers or upskill a workforce, can deter businesses from investing in design.

Evidencing the longer-term benefits of design to business can be done through in-depth case studies that showcase best-practice use of design, and also through training and support programmes. Design Economy can play a role in helping to provide guidance to inform longer-term decision making around design investment with businesses.

To ensure Design Economy effectively demonstrates design’s economic value, the discussions made clear that it will need to engage people from across the design economy and make the facts meaningful. We also need to strike a balance between evidencing design’s current value and demonstrating its relevance to future needs and trends as we look towards economic recovery.

The challenges facing the UK economy as we come out of the pandemic are stark, and that’s no less true of the design economy. The last year saw the risk of losing £37bn GVA of design to the UK; we have significant regional inequality in the UK design economy with 30% of all designers based in London; and as we have seen, the design economy faces a significant diversity challenge. Now, as we look forward and work to ‘build back better’, we must enable design to act as a key driver for sustainable and equitable economic recovery.

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