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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Sales Assistant / Buyer

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers a range of ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'