Inside Business: Thumbs up with a finger on the pulse

Design is big business in Britain. Latest estimates suggest that about 300,000 people are employed in an industry that, when related activities are included, is worth pounds 12bn a year. And nobody is more aware of what such competition means than Roger Cleghorn.

The managing director of the Thumb Design Partnership describes the time since he took the helm as "four-and-a-half years of slog" because "changing the perception of an existing company is probably more difficult than starting from scratch".

The solution adopted by Thumb which, though one of the longer-established consultancies, still numbers only 20 people and last year achieved turnover of pounds 1.5m, was to use technology to gain the much sought-after unique selling proposition. Andrew Wakelin, the founder, who is now the organisation's technical director came up with Ringmaster, a computer system that links clients with Thumb's studio through cutting out delays and the need constantly to send material back and forth.

Mr Cleghorn, a veteran of larger consultancies such as the Michael Peters Group, reckons the reduced costs associated with the development are attracting many clients but says the real gain comes through creating an integrated team between client and designer. By allowing the client 24-hour access to the project, he is given greater control. "Ringmaster attacks the real soft belly as it links the client into here and cuts out all third parties," he says. "The best thing is we don't have a client-designer relationship. We are all pulling the same way."

But powerful as the innovation - based on commonplace publishing software - is in reducing the chances of mistakes and reducing lead times in its core work of producing companies' annual reports, Mr Cleghorn insists that it is just a means to an end. "The real strength is the people in the studio. It is solutions to problems that are key."

Hence the appointment of Simon Carter, the former creative director, to the position of "director of optimisation". Describing himself as a "translator and sifter of information", Mr Carter explains his title by saying that he is responsible for following the design process from the first meeting with the client to the finished product and "making sure at every stage that it's as good as it can be".

The idea is to bring a design understanding to the business situation and, increasingly, to produce an integrated communications campaign.

For example, Thumb has developed a new identity for the venture capitalists, Cinven. This involved producing a corporate brochure and related material in a form that could be quickly understood, typically in the back of a taxi on the way to a meeting, as Mr Carter explains. Since then, the partnership has produced Cinven's advertising and other promotional efforts.

Likewise, its solution to a small West London cable telephone service's lack of penetration was to give it a sharp and consistent identity. "It is built on the idea of relationship marketing. A lot of it is common sense," says Mr Carter.

That may be, but Mr Cleghorn realises that concepts need to be given names. And he chooses to say that Thumb, in Islington, north London, is based on the idea of a "message-driven communication" and the innovative pragmatic use of technology.

For the moment, he is having to call upon just those qualities as he tries to fit in extra staff to cope with an increase in business that is expected to lead to a substantial improvement on last year's income.

And he is also looking to move beyond annual reports. "The big-fee jobs are in consultancy. People are buying the benefits of intelligent thought," he says.