Design promotion goes back to the drawing-board

INSIDE BUSINESS Hugh Aldersey-Williams looks at a plan to draw industry into a creative approach

THE Design Council is changing tack in its 50-year crusade to convince British industry of the merits of design. Once it subsidised companies making use of design consultants. Now it is unrolling a programme of research that aims to probe industry's reluctance to use design and provide more rigorous evidence of its benefits.

The change of approach comes as the University of Westminster launches Europe's first MBA in design management on Thursday. The two-year part- time programme aims to attract business managers as well as trained designers, and close the "culture and knowledge gap between them that prevents design initiatives being proposed, implemented or managed effectively".

The Design Council initiative stems from the appointment this summer of Angela Dumas, a professor at the London Business School, as the council's director of research.

One theme will be the attitudes towards investment of various groups of investors. Designers frequently complain that product development cycles are ill-matched with investors' expected return cycles. They draw contrasts with Japan or Germany, where this mismatch is not so acute. But they have been unable to explain why this problem is so pervasive in Britain. By tackling this issue, the Design Council may persuade investors to alter their pattern of investment. Alternatively, the results may suggest ways in which industry and designers could better adapt their work to these patterns.

Quality management is another important topic. Widely used quality models make no explicit mention of design. Working with the European Foundation for Quality Management, Dr Dumas hopes to insinuate the idea of design into future standards for quality management. The trick is to make sure that design is mentioned in the standards that matter, says Dr Dumas, not that separate design standards be published but ignored.

The Design Council is also looking at benchmarking the design process. This is partly a matter of applying practices well understood in other areas of business, but it is also a matter of recognising where design differs from other business activities. In general, says Dr Dumas, "work is done downstream of a fixed specification because you need something to benchmark against. But design happens mostly upstream." There are, therefore, no agreed performance measures to describe the generation or subsequent shaping and development of creative ideas, for example.

In a pilot study, Nick Oliver, at the Judge Institute of Management Studies in Cambridge, looked at productivity, quality, and timing in four local electronics companies. Design quality was assessed by a number of means, including reports of product failure from consumers, the number of specification changes made once production had started, and the volume of scrap generated in the factory. "If you get a high rate of scrap, you probably have a bad design," says Dr Oliver.

Other research aims directly to benefit the design community and education. There is alarming scope for misunderstanding between these groups and the industrial world. This is down to self-perceptions as much as one group's view of the other.

"There is a management expectation that designers have the creativity sucked out of them by time spent on the factory floor," says Dr Dumas. "What does that say about management attitudes?" Clearly, nothing good. If businesses suffer such low self-esteem, how can they expect to enthuse designers?

For their part businesses often criticise the jargon of design research. "The stuff that comes out of academia doesn't have much to do with the everyday work of design managers, which is a world away from some of these highfalutin theories," says David Mercer, the head of design at BT. "It is all about the creative process and making use of the creative process as an effective resource. It's really quite straightforward. There's no room for complex protocols."

Dr Dumas promises that her findings will be presented in a manner suitable to industry first and only for academic readership as a secondary goal. Yet this may prove hard in practice. The fact that, while the Design Council can use the research findings as it sees fit, it is the university side of each partnership that retains the intellectual rights to them, already casts doubt on these aspirations.

But Dr Oliver is confident that the research will be of practical value. "The problem is that design is very varied, and so practice literature can contain generalities. We've got round that problem by being focused on a particular sector and set of issues. We've got a queue of companies waiting to join the benchmarking study."

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