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Designers of the future: Seven ways to make the best even better

Designers of the future: Seven ways to make the best even better

17 March 2015 Written by By Bel Reed Programme Lead

Design Council recently got a group of twenty leading figures from industry and education together to talk about how we can make the best of our design education even better. 

We know we’re doing a lot right. We have the largest design industry in Europe, and the second in the world, after the USA. According to the latest government statistics, the sector grew 10.8% each year from 2008-2013; compared to 4.2% for the rest of the economy. 

Our design education is world renowned - but we must continue to invest in our design capabilities to retain and build on this competitive advantage and keep the pipeline strong. 

So we asked: 

•    What skills will the designer of the future need? 

•    How can industry and education work together to ensure we stay ahead?

Here are the seven key points that emerged from our discussion:

1. Building mindsets

In addition to technical skills and the core “craftship” that underpins design practice, the industry is looking for people with a strong point of view and the ability to defend their ideas. They are looking for people to “row the boat and rock the boat.”

Similarly, 91% of the design sector is made up of businesses employing four people or less. So a high proportion of design graduates will be launching their own start-ups; they will need resilience to succeed and challenge the status quo. Many of the universities represented at the discussion fully backed this and see it as core to their purpose.

2. Skills fusions

While the industry looks for graduates with a skillset that integrates people-centred design, technological understanding and business sense, they acknowledge that the concept of an ‘oven ready’ graduate is not useful. 

For the large industries represented at the discussion this is perhaps more understandable as they have the means to induct and hone their new starters – for example, IBM’s Missing Semester programme or Bentley’s internships.

However, for small and micro companies is ‘oven-readiness’ more desired?

3. Collaborative working and cross disciplines

Designers, like sports people, need to be competitive as well as team players.

Wayne Hemingway, co-founder of Red or Dead

Boundaries will continue to blur across disciplines, and while designers won’t be expected to turn their hand to any and all disciplines, empathy and understanding for areas such as psychology, science and economics will enable the designer to know when to collaborate and who with.  

Walls need to be taken down between subject areas, figuratively and literally, as we have seen in Manchester School of Art’s new building and Unit X, their end of year module bringing all students from across the art school together to work on a live brief. 

A particular mindset is required to support this. As Wayne Hemingway stated at the discussion: “designers, like sports people, need to be competitive as well as team players.” 

4. Design is at a fork in the road

Organisations are realising the value of design beyond styling and aesthetics. Design is being recognised for its strategic value. 

As Neal Stone, visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and director of leapSTONE put it: “I see a fork in the road fast approaching for design: on the one side you have the traditional specialisms [product, graphic, interior etc.] that continue to involve the craft of design, on the other we see the more facilitative skills of the designer hard at work, convening and problem-solving in new ways such as service or business design. The power of the design process, though, is common to both.”

These two areas emerge from the same core competency base – but as they emerge into the profession or diversify within it, the role of convener starts to surface. However, these design roles appear to be valued differently, evidenced by a typically lower agency salary (crafter) vs. a higher consultancy salary (convener). Will the two areas continue to diverge?  

5. Diversify to compete

Industry statistics show that the UK design sector is dominated by the white, male and probably middle class (94% employed in the design sector are white compared to 90% for the UK economy, 67% are male compared to 54% for the UK economy).  

However, we know that the most successful companies are the most diverse. According to McKinsey & Company, for companies ranking in the top quartile of executive-board diversity, return on equities were 53% higher, on average, than they were for those in the bottom quartile. We must promote diversity within the design industry in order to enhance cultural understanding and compete globally.  

Education has a clear role to play. Admissions procedures need to be looked at and an understanding of design built with parents and young people from school age upwards. 

Industry also has a responsibility to start recruiting individuals that break the mould of the current designer stereotype.

6. Design for non-designers

Professor Julius Weinberg, Vice-Chancellor at Kingston University, is convinced of the value of design and believes design approaches could be embedded within every discipline of his university.

Ideally, design graduates would have the ability to work within a range of sectors and also to be better represented in leadership positions, for example as MPs and CEOs. Other professionals would understand basic design concepts, in order to apply them to their own work.  

But beyond this, as seen in our Design Challenges and work with cities, enabling communities to use design as a tool for co-creation with developers, planners and local authorities etc. can support meaningful grassroots activity with community interest at its heart. 

7. Design literacy from early years upwards

Future design talent is a product of education received from early years upwards. We must build in design literacy at every level of education. 

We are winning in this area to some extent. For the first time, Design & Technology (D&T) is written into the Early Years Framework (learning for under 5s). Design Council contributed to the re-writing of the D&T curriculum which resulted in the removal of artificial silos entrenched in the subject, such as food tech, textiles and so on. However, take-up of the subject at GCSE and A-level is falling as a result of current education policy.

We believe updating the subject will encourage cross-disciplinarity and build awareness of the transferability of design approaches for all young people, whether they want to be professional designers or not. 

Let us better advocate about the contribution design can make and build on what we’re doing well.

John Mathers, Chief Executive, Design Council

So there is clearly work to be done, but are we asking too much of our future designers? Is this hybrid of skills impossible to attain?  

We think the only way forward is to push those boundaries and find out. As John Mathers, Design Council’s CEO, summed up at the end of our discussion: “Let us better advocate about the contribution design can make and build on what we’re doing well.” We can always do better.

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