What makes a British brand?

The creative industries employ 2 million in the UK but Lucy Tobin finds that often design is an after-thought

Walk down a street anywhere in the world and you'll see British-designed products, from Mulberry bags to Minis and Marmite," says Nicola Mendelsohn, chairman of the ad agency Karmarama, whose clients include the BBC and Nintendo.

"We're world leaders in design – just look at Lord Foster's airport in Beijing, and the iPhone – no one remembers it's a Brit at the heart of Apple's design. But while the rest of the world knows about British design, we seem not to be able to work it out. Our greatest weakness as a country is the fact we don't step back to celebrate what we're good at."

The Design Council's Design Summit2012 – of which The Independent is media partner – aims to just that. This year, it's asking "Who do we think we are?" and examining how Britain's national characteristics can turn our products and services into greater export successes and drive investment.

The creative industries, including design, contribute 6 per cent of GDP in the UK and employ 2 million people. But there's still work to be done.

"British companies are terrible at incorporating design into running companies," complains the designer Sebastian Conran, who, like Ms Mendelsohn, is one of the speakers at Design Summit2012.

"Corporate boards will have representation from accountants, lawyers, operations, but no one from design. There's often a cynical approach to design, plonking it on the end of the process with a focus on making things pretty. The companies that incorporate design into the start of a product, alongside marketing and engineering, they're the ones who flourish."

The architect Sunand Prasad, another Summit2012 speaker, warns that companies need to be more aware of "the connection between making and design".

The former Riba president explained: "We're in danger of forgetting the importance of design for the sake of short-term savings. Well-designed infrastructure is a crucial investment for the long term to boost the economy. And a design-aware public will nurture better designers who go around the world and become a great British export."

Mr Conran believes it is British retailers who must be braver with design.

"They say they want a new design, but they only buy with a rear-view mirror, looking for things that sold well last year, and saying, 'Let's do the same next year'," he said. "You show retailers the next big thing and they run a mile. Britain's retailers could be a lot more supportive to new designs, and not just buy copies from China and obsess over finding the cheapest things to maximise their margins.

"We need to give designers the same status as lawyers, engineers and architects – it should be seen as a profession not a hobby. Just look at Apple – it is one of the most profitable companies in the world, and a major part of that is due to design. Apple is helping change the world's perception of design – there's nothing like being top dog to make design aspirational."

A second major element helping to boost the importance of design is copycat manufacturing.

"A decade ago it would take someone like Procter & Gamble a year to copy, say, a Unilever product; now that's not the case, it can be done in weeks," said Ms Mendelsohn. "The only way companies can differentiate is through design and brand. CEOs misunderstand that at their peril."

Style: the UK look

SEBASTIAN CONRAN

"National characteristics are prevalent in design," said Mr Conran. "It's a stereotype that the Germans are dull and efficient, and Scandinavian design is spare and clean, but that really does come through in their products. Take the iPad – designed by a Briton in California – but the styling is very modest and British. You wouldn't get the French or Italians designing anything as sparse and simple as this. The Italians use lots of colour and have a visual flare to their products, and the French are obsessed with making things novel and different. In Britain, it's incredibly multicultural and that comes through in our products. They employ lateral thinking – they're often multi-tasking and ingenious. They have a sense of humour. The only thing the British aren't good at is designing things beautifully. The French and Scandinavians are far better."

NICOLA MENDELSOHN

"We have a rich heritage but we like to subvert it," said Ms Mendelsohn. "British design is all about not respecting authority, and that's why we often come up with unusual ideas. Paul Smith is quintessentially British, likewise Mulberry and Jamie Oliver – they are classic, but with a twist. That's what makes something British, we don't take ourselves too seriously."

SUNAND PRESAND

"The best way to describe British is by comparing it to that of other nationalities. In contrast to French design, it's highly functional and routed in excellence in manufacturing. It's quirky and seems to have multiple personalities, which makes it diverse compared to German and Swiss design. British design readily assimilates influences from other places, making it a world experience, which in architecture is very evident in the work of, for example, David Chipperfield, Thomas Heatherwick and Ted Cullinan. British design absorbs global influence – just look at the work of Ross Lovegrove, Vivienne Westwood and Scorpion bikes. They're the right scale, functional, quirky, inventive – so British."

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