Skip to content

Sarah Weir OBE: Design Council's first female CEO

Sarah Weir OBE: Design Council's first female CEO

6 February 2018

Sarah Weir OBE is the Design Council Chief Executive, the first woman in our history to be appointed to the position. During a career spanning the public, private and third sectors, Sarah started out as a broker at Lloyd’s of London, going from office junior to Managing Director at Aldgate Group Brokers; making her the first female MD in Lloyd’s.

Before joining Design Council in 2017, Sarah went on to have a distinguished career in the arts industry, and was awarded an OBE for services to the arts in 2011.

What does ‘design’ mean to you?

Design has been a part of my life since I was a child. I was always fascinated by how things looked, how they worked and how different parts of our world came together. I visited, and adored, the modern designs I saw in the Design Council shop in Haymarket and was strongly influenced by working in the Richard Rogers-designed Lloyds building – then completely alone in being such a modern building in the City where I was a young insurance broker. I ran a theatre during the times of immense change in lighting, rigging and scenery, as well as ticketing, seating and marketing. Design and technology changed them all in so many ways.

I have lived through mobile telephone systems going from being grotty, cold phone boxes plastered with adverts for ‘women’, to the slick and sleek iPhone X. I also saw the enormous impact of design in my seven years on the Olympic Park. From re-designing contracts so that they worked for smaller creative businesses, to the serious integration of inclusive design across all facets of the park, which took the fulfilment of the legal obligations of the Disability Discrimination Act into a different realm. Weaving design skills into everything we did across the park also had a big impact on areas such as health and safety, security, transport as well as arts and culture.

Why do you feel design is important?

The best design provides imaginative, thoughtful and workable solutions to challenges people and society are grappling with. The very best of these are not really noticed – until they are not there. Most of the best and most successful global companies have design at their core. That is no coincidence. From consistent and coherent motorway signage across the country to internet banking, smartcards and online tax returns. From driverless cars to Building Information Modelling and from pixels to cities, we have never existed and could not exist now or in the future without design.

What do you feel design can achieve?

Understanding the past, redefining the present and holding up a light to see into the future.

February 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, where some women over the age of 30 gained the right to vote for the first time – what does this anniversary mean to you?

It was hugely significant. Until that date, women had no political voice, although they already had to pay taxes in the UK. For the first time, some women’s voices and women’s views were able to be heard. It was not until 1928 that full voting rights were granted to all women over the age of 21. However, the debt we owe those women, across different geographical, political and socio-economic backgrounds, who actively took part in the campaign for women’s votes right is immense. For me, it enabled me to be one of the first 50 women among 5000 men to work in the Lloyd’s insurance market and to then go on to become the first female Managing Director. It also enabled me to take out a mortgage without a male guarantor and to campaign for equal rights as a Trustee of Stonewall in the 2000s. None of that would have happened without those early campaigners.   

Do you think there is genuine equality for men and women across the design industry today? 

No there isn’t. We know from our independent research (carried out in 2015) that the design economy is 78% male compared to 53% male across the whole working economy. We also noted a gender imbalance in terms of pay. The figures are also very skewed in regarding BAME, with areas such as digital design employing 19% of people, so well above the average of 11% across the country. And yet both architecture and graphic design employ well below at just 6% and 4% of people in those areas.

What does equality mean to you?

Just that. Equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunities. I discovered several times in my life that this wasn’t and isn’t the case, either for me or other people and have always sought to do something about it.

What does diversity mean to you?

Difference. We are all different and if we limit ourselves to being with people who we think are ‘like us’ we would be in a very small world of just us. So, diversity means that multiplicity of views, opinions and positions which come from having people of different genders, age, ethnicity, and from the breadth of social and cultural backgrounds. The reason diversity is important is that one-dimensional views produce one-dimension results. And in design terms, that is incredibly limiting. It would mean that probably any of the innovations we have seen over the past decades would not have happened.

What does inclusion mean to you?

That you feel as if you belong in an environment, a group or a situation, even if you haven’t been in it before.  You need to be conscious about achieving this, as everyone sees things differently and feels differently about them.

Do you think that real ‘talent’ is being hindered from coming into the design industry because of a need to fit a certain box, which includes a need to have a degree or formal qualification of some sort?

Yes, I do. Although I would question the meaning of ‘real’ talent, as opposed to talent. Talent is talent. It just may not have been noticed, sought out or given an opportunity to flourish in a less trammelled way. And we can see that in certain parts of the design economy, where the need for qualifications, the length of time those qualifications take and the cost of getting them narrows the field of who is in there, ploughing the same old furrows.

What can we do to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in design?

Ensure design is seen as a career choice for many more in schools by presenting the different range of jobs that use design skills: have different, more diverse role models talking about their design skills and their jobs; promote and ensure delivery of more paid internships so people from a wider range of backgrounds can see what sort of jobs they could get. Not be so obsessed by asking for degree level qualifications for all jobs needing design skills: campaign for more apprenticeships and T levels to include design; for design skills to be more clearly embedded into the Government’s national retraining plan and, lastly, for design to be woven right through all STEM subjects, so the clear symbiosis between design, technology and engineering are more clearly seen, understood, valued and used.

There have been high profile reports across the media recently of a gender pay gap across certain sectors and industries. Do you feel this is the case in design? And if so, what can we do to change that?

Yes, it is, and we have research stats to back that up. Our 2015 Design Economy study suggests that the average salary of all workers across the design economy is £635 per week. Yet when we cut the data by gender, we see that the majority of female design workers – a whopping 68% – earn less than this. When we cut the data further, we also found that women designers are more likely than men to work in low paid design subsectors. We will be exploring this further in an update to the Design Economy, due in 2018.

If you were to start all over again, what would you tell your younger self when you started considering your career pathway?

Don’t believe people who say you won’t be able to do things. Have more confidence, try things out, trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to fail every now and again. You will learn most from the things you try and which go wrong.  You will become a more flexible, adaptable and self-fulfilled adult.

Who were your role models growing up?

I didn’t really know where to look for female role models. School pretty much passed me by in a haze (no inspirational teachers), I didn’t go to university, and in my first career, I was often pretty much the only woman in the room. So it was David Bowie, who I was just in awe of how you could be so different, so yourself and so confident, as well as George Michael, Freddie Mercury and Boy George. Then, apart from Debbie Harry and Annie Lennox, it was my aunt who was a doctor, training at a time when women were a rarity in medicine, and who then rose to be the first female Chief Medical Officer for Marks & Spencer.

Additionally, it was my sister’s godmother who was, to my teenage mind, extraordinarily intelligent and knowledgeable about arts and culture. She took me to the Design Council shop in Haymarket many times which I just loved, had high powered jobs (that I didn’t really understand) at the Edinburgh Festival and running the Aldeburgh Festival – she lived in London, which was a different and fascinating world that I was hungry to inhabit. But didn’t know how to.

You have achieved huge accolades in your career, however, has it been challenging to get where you are because of a male preconception of you as a person?

I always remember a comment to me as a junior Lloyds broker by an older man, that I shouldn’t worry when a particular event didn’t happen as ‘it was a man’s world’. Sadly a quick, witty retort failed me, but inwardly I thought ‘just you wait’. If anything, his lack of belief in my abilities (and many others at the time) made me double my efforts to prove him wrong.  Many things have happened to me, or not happened to me, due to male misconceptions about me. I have moved around in my career, spanning both different types of work from insurance, to visual arts, theatre, public art and design and in both public, private and third sector. Several men along the way found that difficult to understand and so used that as an easy way to dismiss me, as they couldn’t find the box to put me in. I am now very happy to not be in a neatly labelled box.

Or has design got it right, and does the industry promote/recruit on talent and not the packaging the talent/gift arrives in?

It is a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly. Looking at the current stats from 2015 regarding the gender balance, the gender pay gap, the lack of BAME in many design industries there is still lots to do. But of course, design is changing hugely as well, and areas such as digital design are both much younger, and much more culturally diverse. There are also great opportunities for areas which use design skills much less than the average – such as administration, hospitality, retail and food which employ 1 in 3 people, to focus in on the talent, not just the packaging. And for areas such as architecture and others with long, expensive years of training to continue to explore different ways of learning to broaden out their attraction to more talent.

If you could speak directly to ‘the next big thing’ in design, what you say to them to help them on their way to a successful career in design? What does the future of creative industries look like to you?

Phrases such as ‘the next big thing’ are ones I approach with both caution and joy. Caution because the expectation of the word can mean it turns out not to be all that it is cracked up to be. An overpromise and under delivery moment. And joy because the unknown is a thrilling and immensely freeing place to be, as you can make up what that place is going to be. I would say keep your mind open to what might seem like crazy ideas longer than you feel comfortable with. Set some boundaries – but not too many – gather a few different people around you who will challenge and provide different viewpoints and don’t give up if things go wrong.

In terms of the future of the creative industries, we will never stop being creative, and if we can use AI and robots well, then we can use the human characteristics which we really need in the fourth industrial revolution, in a much more interesting and useful way. So that means complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity, among others. For me, this goes way beyond the box called creative industries. So whether you are a shop fitter, electrical engineer, planner, landscape architect or digital designer – there is still lots more space for the currently unique human skills. 

Subscribe to our newsletter

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

Sign up