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Does British design need a quality mark?

Does British design need a quality mark?

2 October 2014 Written by By John Mathers Chief Executive, Design Council, 2012-2016

The Quality by Design white paper has prompted a debate on how we can uphold standards for the benefit of the UK and the design industry. It is important that we protect the reputation that our design industry has built up, but is a quality mark the answer?

London-based MBC Group’s white paper claims that the design industry needs a universally recognised mark of quality, awarded to organisations and individuals that meet a specific grade of design excellence. The paper argues that ‘simpler and cheaper software means that unlike other professions, anyone can set themselves up as a designer with no training, no qualifications and no experience’. The report goes on to say that this growing availability of the tools necessary to be ‘a designer’ is lowering the overall standard of the UK’s design field, harming its reputation in the process.

It’s an interesting proposition. On the one hand it could be argued that a sign of quality symbolising a stamp of approval could be a highly valuable asset to the industry, maintaining or even increasing standards. If this standardised quality assurance mechanism could demonstrate to clients that good design is important, adds value, and also demonstrates the role they have to play in the process, then it should be considered. 

However, questions immediately arise. Who exactly would be awarding individuals and agencies this mark of quality? What would be measured? Who is this overarching arbiter of good design? What field do they work in? How are they funded? 

We want to see a set of UK recognised standards which enable people in the industry to show off their credentials.”

Robin Horrex, Founder and CEO of MBC Group

In the report, Robin Horrex, Founder and CEO of MBC Group, says: “Being a designer is much more than simply being able to use the latest computer software. We want to see a set of UK recognised standards which enable people in the industry to show off their credentials.”

The process of implementing an industry standard across something as multifaceted as the design sector would be extremely complex. In the Design Council’s comprehensive survey of the design industry in 2009, we defined the industry as ‘including in-house design teams, design consultancies and freelance designers working across communications, digital and multimedia, interior and exhibition, product and industrial, and fashion and service design disciplines’. Each of these disciplines have different principles and practices, are represented by different bodies and would, therefore, be evaluated by different standards. 

Achieving an overarching mechanism to safeguard professional standards across the industry would take collaboration across its entirety, with every relevant body involved. In our role as a convener, the Design Council brings together these various bodies at the Design Industry Roundtable to discuss these sorts of issues. When this subject has been raised before, it has been noted that many sections of the industry are keen to keep regulation limited to their own borders.

As an existing example, look at the built environment sector. Broadly, it isn’t one standalone industry and, like the world of design, it has numerous bodies protecting professional standards. Indeed, Design Council Cabe created the 'Design Review’ and it is now a well-established way of improving the quality of design outcomes in the built environment. It sets out the standards of advice and service that design review panels should adopt, and that users can expect. This was not possible to achieve alone because it covers a breadth of disciplines such as landscape design, planning and architecture. It was made possible through close collaboration between Design Council Cabe, the Landscape Institute, RTPI and RIBA.

Such a scheme, of course, would also cost money. The organisation, or organisations, charged with taking it on would need to receive funding in order to adequately fulfil this task and it is not clear where that money would come from. Other standards agencies, for example - the BSI, are large, expensive commercial bodies that have one core remit – to certify. This raises another significant question: would payment to be certified mean start-ups being left priced out of the market?

Design by its very nature is disparate, fluid and subjective. It has evolved so much over time, both materialistically and ideologically, that trying to define a benchmark would be incredibly challenging. Design Council’s view is that ‘good’ design should benefit the user, progress society and enable people to live better lives. 

Design Council’s view is that ‘good’ design should benefit the user, progress society and enable people to live better lives.

For the last 70 years, Design Council has mentored buyers of design to apply best practice procurement and briefing processes to ensure quality results from the industry. In other words, by enabling, educating and empowering clients of design, we do our bit to ensure a quality outcome. Without a good brief, even the best designer can fail at providing the product or service the client wants – an industry mark would not change this.

The white paper acknowledges that one of the cornerstones of the design industry’s success is its plurality. The number of designers out there, and the fact that this pool continues to grow – assisted by the variety and availability of cheaper tools, could mean that some of our finest designers of the future ‘make it’. So in contrast, would a more stringent set of rules make their path to success tougher, or even unmanageable? One of the reasons our design industry in the UK is so strong, especially in terms of growth compared to other industries, is its dynamism. If we begin to put checks on it, will we be making a rod for our own back?

We’re very keen to hear people’s views on the proposals, both for and against. The findings will be raised at our next Design Industry Roundtable, and shared with the industry as a whole.

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