Design in Britain: The race to redesign British business

UK firms are at last recognising that good design is an integral part of any successful product, rather than just a cosmetic add-on.

Companies of all sorts have long appreciated the importance of design. This is especially true, of course, in industries such as car production and furniture making, where aesthetic appeal is vital. But the pace of change and the rising competition in the business world mean that design is assuming a key role in a range of other sectors.

In particular, the growth of the service economy has fuelled developments of a new design market. In short, at a time of fundamental market shifts - and the arrival of a completely new one in the shape of the Internet - innovation is recognised as the route to survival. Moreover, such is the pace of change that innovation has to be constant. The idea that companies can come up with new products - or, more likely, refinements of old ones - every once in a while has been supplanted by a demand for a flow of ideas resulting in a corresponding flow of new products and services.

Not surprisingly, many traditional companies are finding the transition difficult, resulting in a rise in the profile of organisations like IDEO and Seymour Powell, design firms helping companies in such different fields as lavatories and bras.

But even with all this activity, progress has not been huge. Research published yesterday by the Bourton Group, a management consultancy specialising in manufacturing, found that most UK businesses were not managing the process of innovation well. Though companies rank time taken to design and market new products as one of their top challenges, only a tenth of them report "great success" in this area. Keith Bissett, managing director of Bourton, said: "Any move away from costs and into an innovation culture, to which we all aspire, is still a long way off."

It is in response to such findings that the Design Council, the publically funded body charged with promoting the importance of design to industry, is increasingly talking of "the new business of design". Indeed, it is the underlying theme of this year's Design in Business Week, a series of conferences and workshops up and down the UK which the Design Council uses to promote its work in the business sector.

The opening event, to involve more than 2,000 business people, politicians, educationalists and designers, is a forum led by three leading business thinkers: Charles Hampden-Turner, an expert on corporate cultures; Martin Hayward, an experienced strategic marketer; and John Kao, an expert on creativity. They will examine how the broadly based design discipline can respond to the growing challenges of the new economy.

Until recently, business was thought to be taking a holistic approach to design if that function worked alongside such areas as production, marketing and finance rather than merely acting as a glamorous add-on. Taking such a route is still vital. In the car industry, for example, other companies are following the well-established BMW practice of getting designers and finance people, as well as engineers and marketing specialists to work together in the interests of making production simpler and therefore more cost-efficient. According to the latest Design Council statistics, design is now being used as an integral management tool - as opposed to bolted-on aesthetics or styling - by nearly one in four companies. Similarly, it is said to play a "significant" role in 67 per cent of large firms.

But there is a growing realisation that in an economy largely driven by knowledge, this is not enough. Things are moving so fast that companies must not just involve people across various departments in designing inspiring products, services and communications. They need to design new contexts for them.

Doing this means understanding what might be termed the invisible rules of the game, or the environment that allows design and other aspects of creativity to flourish. The catch is that change is so constant that these rules are not static, but must be continuously rewritten.

Clearly, many will see this as a threat. But to others it presents a huge opportunity. The arrival of the Internet and the growing awareness of the potential of electronic commerce have created a readiness and have raised new business models and cultures. This means a role for design beyond the traditional focus on look and feel.

As Gary Hamel, the US business strategist, said at last year's Design In Business Week, "There's never been a more exciting time to be in business or run an organisation than today. You'll never have more freedom to redesign your business for the future."

Design In Business Week '99, from 24-29 October, is launched at the BFI IMAX in London on 18 October, and includes events in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. See www.dibw.org.uk or phone 0171 420 5277.

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