Skip to content

Design skills are not just for designers – Spark proves this

Design skills are not just for designers – Spark proves this

16 May 2018

This year, our product innovation programme Design Council Spark has seen an increase in successful applications from groups under-represented in the design industry and people without a formal design education.

Read more about the Spark 2018 finalists and their products.

Samantha Jackman, a finalist on Spark, is not a ‘Designer’ in the traditional sense. But she is most definitely using design skills and so can be termed a designer. A fact she recently, after much deliberation, added to her CV. “I’m so proud that myself and my business partner, Rosie Brave, have won places on the Spark programme,” she says, “and I wanted to express that. But it felt so alien to describe ourselves as ‘designers’. We keep thinking, ‘Is that really us?’” Rosie is equally reticent. “I think if I called myself a designer now, actual ‘designers’ might have something to say about it,” she says, laughing. “Let’s just say I am a work in progress.”

“Everyone is a designer”, Tim Brown of IDEO stated at Davos in 2014. Whether or not you agree with him, he has a semantic point at least. Like Samantha and Rosie many people use design skills in their day-to-day work, sometimes without calling it that. Design Council’s Designing a Future Economy report, published in December 2017, found that designers working outside the recognised design industry made up the largest proportion of people working with design in the UK. Their contribution to the economy was vastly undervalued.

People using design skills contribute £209 billion to the UK economy and are 47% more productive than the average UK worker.

Designing a Future Economy, Design Council, Dec 2017

The design industry, however, does not have a good record when it comes to embracing a diverse workforce and harnessing all the talent out there. As recently as 2016 the DCMS published research showing that only 37 percent of the design workforce was female (in comparison to 48 percent of the overall workforce at the time). And another more recent piece of research by Create London found that less than seven percent of the workforce in London was from BAME backgrounds.

Historically, Design Council Spark has consistently attracted people from outside the design community. But this year the programme has seen an unusually varied set of skills and backgrounds reach the final stages. More than 50% of this year’s intake are women, and almost 40% are from a BAME group.

As a student of industrial product design Connor Musoke-Jones, another finalist on the programme has the formal design background that Samantha and Rosie lack. We asked him about his experience of working with people without similar education on the Spark programme. “To be honest, I really haven’t seen much of a difference in the way that they approach the problem,” he says. “They completely understand the processes. If they struggle with any of the basic techniques needed to communicate design ideas, Design Council can help them build networks to find the people who can do that. A massive bonus for the whole group is that we have a bunch of people who are all experts in their fields – it’s a ready-made advisory board with first-hand experience in so many areas.”

Design is all about bringing together a diverse skill-set to achieve aims. That’s what it does.

Rosie Brave, Finalist, Design Council Spark 2018

 Connor also sees the advantage of the programme’s intake for himself. “It proves I can be myself in this industry,” he says, “I don’t have to fit into a box. I don’t have to be a part of the accepted design world to be a designer, and that’s quite okay.”

Like Samantha and Rosie, Gary Smith, creator of Dryphoon, is reticent about the label ‘designer’. “It’s a hard mindset to get into, calling myself that,” he says, “and that’s even despite the fact that I have come up with a product and we are now approaching the fourth prototype. Before Spark, I always thought of a designer as someone who sat in an office using powerful software to come up with concepts.”

Gary grew up in pubs, completed an IT apprenticeship in a brewery and continued to work behind the bar even after he started his career as an IT professional. His idea came about as a result of insights he had, that would have been impossible without his background. “Meeting other finalists and mentors who have a design background, and who accept my product, has given me so much more confidence,” says Gary, “and it’s reassuring to be in a mixed group regarding design experience. You know there’s a lot of you in the same boat.”

For Michelle Kong, the Spark programme has transformed her outlook by helping her to harness the potential of skills she never realised she was using. Michelle came to the UK from what she felt was an oppressive environment in the Caribbean. “I was escaping a future mapped out for me,” she says. “In my family’s eyes, I could only be a maid or get married off. I threw myself in at the deep end; and from nothing, I ended up owning a salon in Kensington.”

From the start, Michelle had an instinctive customer focus. She wanted to solve her clients’ problems and was willing to experiment to do so.

The result of her particular mix of skills and experiences was a product aimed at her clients with extensions, which allowed them to care for their scalp without damaging their weave. Michelle and her husband Andrew, who has some engineering experience, created a design and tested ideas. “I couldn’t have put a name to what we were doing back then,” says Michelle, “I realised that it was a process, but to me, it was just common sense. I wasn’t thinking about it as ‘design’ at all.”

I wanted to prove to myself and to my sons that I could leave a legacy and that hard work and not giving up eventually pays.

Michelle Kong, Finalist, Design Council Spark 2018

Michelle’s journey with her product took a more difficult turn after she and her husband lost money financing it. “I’ve never told anyone this,” she says, “but we almost ended up homeless. We lost our house and were living in a business centre for a while. I was even thinking about going back home to the Caribbean.” But resilience is another important quality Michelle possesses. After seeing the Spark programme on her Facebook feed, she decided to apply. She soon found herself not just on the shortlist, but a finalist. “They recognised our work,” she says, “and that was a wonderful feeling.”

That recognition was crucial for all the finalists without a design background. They expressed deep pride about it. For Samantha Jackman, who was once told she could not progress her career without a graphic design degree (she promptly resigned... and progressed her career) it changed her perception of her own abilities. “I now realise that I was always drawn to problems that needed design-thinking skills,” she says. “That kind of attitude, that you need a degree in it to be allowed to do it is so narrow-minded. It puts people off, makes them self-limit. What Spark has shown Rosie and I, is that we can do it. We were already doing it in many cases - we just didn’t realise it.”

Abid Gangat, Media and Communications Manager at Design Council thinks that Spark’s inclusive application process has given a greater range of people the motivation to apply . “We try and make the application process as easy and clear as possible,” he says. “On our Design Council website, we provide examples of good applications, including how to make the 1-minute product video which is part of the application process. People realise they don’t need significant design, filmmaking or engineering experience. They just need a great idea for a sector they know something about.”

Spark has given many instinctive and untrained designers the confidence to pursue their ideas. Perhaps there is a lesson in there for the design industry, which struggles to attract diverse talent.

Design Council Spark is a support and funding programme designed to help you turn your bright idea into a commercially successful product. Since its creation in 2014, Design Council Spark has helped more than 100 innovators and entrepreneurs to develop their product ideas, intensively supported with mentoring, funding and specialist workshops in order to progress to market.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Want to keep up with the latest from the Design Council?

Sign up