The shape of things to come

London's New Designers show highlights how design can boost sales. Roger Trapp reports
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The Independent Online

The Design Council - as befits its role as the Government-funded body charged with promoting design - makes much of the power of design to boost competitiveness. It also highlights the fact that there are still comparatively few businesses prepared to harness this power. "Design in Britain 2004-2005", the Council's survey of the design world, reports that only 30 per cent of businesses are investing in design.

Yet there is one section of the population that needs no convincing of the appeal of design - students and other young people. The end of this month sees the the annual New Designers show, which enables young designers to show off their work and themselves in the hope of breaking into this highly competitive field.

Other figures from the Design Council show a 35 per cent increase in the number of first-year design students in the UK over the course of seven years, from just under 15,000 in 1995-96 to just over 20,000 in 2001-02. Moreover, there are nearly 2,000 courses covering various aspects of design in the UK.

It seems that young people do not have to be encouraged to become designers in the way that they are urged to consider teaching, engineering or chemistry, but it does mean that there is intense competition for jobs.

David Worthington is managing director of Conran Design Group and a member of the Creative and Cultural Skills Sector Council, one of a group of specialist councils designed to provide employers in various sectors with a forum for telling the Government what they need in the way of skills and training. He says that, given that the industry employs a total of about 75,000 to 80,000, there are only about 3,000 vacancies a year. This means that thousands of young people are "not going to pursue their chosen career".

But at least an event like New Designers gives them the chance to try. Held at the Business Design Centre, Islington, north London and split into two parts spread over the weekends of 30 June to 3 July and 7 to 10 July, the New Designers show has over its 20-year history attracted support from some of the biggest names in design. Over the two weekends, 4,000 graduates present a diverse range of work, including ceramics, glass, jewellery, textiles, illustration, fashion and architecture, with the aim of getting noticed enough to win an award or, better still, a job or contract.

Hallmark, which describes itself as "the world's largest 'greetings' company, is proud of its reputation for "giving today's brightest young movers, shakers and content-makers the opportunity to show off their skills". Over several years its four group studios within the UK have developed and recruited a blend of diverse creative skills (from car designers to animators, from graphic designers to writers, via direct employment, freelance and placement) and sent them to work on its products.

New Designers, which has among its backers the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, is also important because it gives designers a chance to show off their wares. Tim Evans of the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship says that the competition for jobs means that many design graduates are going to have to consider setting up their own businesses if they are going to stay in the field. Evans says that schools and colleges are becoming better at introducing students to the concept of business, but he believes that still more can be done to encourage them in this direction. After all, much of the design sector is a cottage industry, with many businesses only employing a handful of people each.

But the real beneficiary of this and similar activities should be the country as a whole. As Worthington says, "The Government has recognised that unless we really improve the intellectual capital in the country we're not going to have as rosy a future as we would like."