David Kester: Forget Gherkins and ivory towers: design gets its hands dirty delivering the goods

Britain needs to tap its neglected talents to turn hi-tech innovation into winning products, the Design Council chief tells Jason Nissé
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Ask people about design and what will they mention? The Apple iPod? Lord Foster's Gherkin? Virgin Rail's Pendolino trains? Not if you ask David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council. He will wax lyrical about initiatives to reduce medical accidents in the NHS, 360-degree schoolrooms and Ken Livingstone's congestion charge.

Ask people about design and what will they mention? The Apple iPod? Lord Foster's Gherkin? Virgin Rail's Pendolino trains? Not if you ask David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council. He will wax lyrical about initiatives to reduce medical accidents in the NHS, 360-degree schoolrooms and Ken Livingstone's congestion charge.

Kester took over as chief executive of the Council last year, with a remit to review the whole idea and function of the 60-year-old institution. Based in a distinctive, if noisy, building opposite the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden, the Council has a 1960s feel to it, harking back to Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" and the days when being an architect was the next-best thing to being a rock star. But the appointments of Kester and the Council's new chairman, George Cox - once an industrial designer but most recently director-general of the Institute of Directors - have promised a more hard-edged, business-focused approach from the body, something more in tune with the market-driven world we live in.

Looking like an art teacher and talking like a rather driven management consultant, Kester uses phrases such as "design to promote the social good" or "talking about design as more than the object". But he is enthusiastic and engaging, and when he talks about "not just leaving design to the designers", you begin to get the message.

"We in Britain have the most vibrant design economy," he says. "We have the largest design consulting businesses in Europe. But a lot of their work is abroad."

To get to the root of this problem, the Council has just completed a study of 1,500 British companies, finding that only 8 per cent of them do anything about managing the use of design and just 3 per cent can work out what return they get on their design investment. "Fundamentally we have a problem in Britain because we don't have the processes to manage design or calculate its importance," says Kester. "That is why so many UK designers end up working abroad."

Indeed, the irony is that if you asked most people to name a great British designer, top of the list would probably be Jonathan Ives, the brains behind the iPod, who works in California.

Kester and Cox have just delivered a manifesto of policy recommendations to the Government to put the subject at the forefront of British business thinking. Though this includes the sort of things you might expect - promoting the teaching of design management and getting it placed higher on the agenda in publicly funded business-support bodies - there are some quite radical ideas.

The first is asking for 3 per cent of the Department of Trade and Industry's science budget to be used for commercialising new design-related technologies. Given that the science budget is scheduled to rise to £5bn, from its current £4bn, this would add up to a useful £150m a year.

"In the UK we have a phenomenal science base, but what we are not good at is commercialising that technology," says Kester. "At the moment we have the Government spending over £4bn a year on pure science research, but design is not in the script of engineering, science and technology."

The Council is already working with venture capitalists and universities - including Cambridge and Imperial College - at four incubator sites in the east of England where designers are being brought into the technology development process earlier. Kester argues that in this way, companies can "accelerate the journey to market" and cut the risks of product failure. He calls the process "understanding the user and humanising technologies".

He points to the example of a Darlington electronics company called Peratech, which discovered a malleable material that conducts electricity, and brought in designers to work out how it could be used. The result has been products including jackets with music players built into them, as well as a burgeoning relationship with Nasa.

The other radical suggestion is to invest 0.5 per cent of the public procurement budget in using design to understand end users' needs. In 2001-02 the Government bought £109bn of goods and services, so Kester is asking for over £500m to be allocated for design-related projects.

He argues this is not that radical because design has been a part of every big change in industrial history - from the shaping of cities to the creation of production lines. "We are at the point of a major shift to a more service-driven economy," he says. "Business talks about customisation. In public services they talk about personalisation."

The Council has been involved in a series of joint initiatives with government departments to bring design into public procurement. One, called Design for Patient Safety, was a study into preventing medical accidents that found the NHS was seriously out of step with modern design thinking, making equipment and building layout confusing, complex and unwieldy.

Another initiative, Kit for Purpose, has focused on the education sector. One of the innovations undergoing trials is a 360-degree classroom, with different visual aids dotted around the room. This has already been adopted in Scandinavia and been shown to help concentration, especially among boys.

Kester is scathing about a lot of the new schools and hospitals being built in the UK. "What we are putting up are just Victorian schools in a modern idiom. They just stick in a whiteboard and an internet connection and say it is modern," he argues. "If you tell businesses that they have to work in a Victorian office, they are not going to work efficiently."

Kester does like some public-sector design. For instance, he cites motorway signs as design classics and heaps praise on the London congestion charge, from the branding to the payments booths to the systems running the scheme. And there is encouragement from areas of government - including the DTI, the Treasury and the No 10 Policy Unit.

In the end, with a budget of just £7.5m, the Design Council can only do so much. But Kester does not lack ambition. "The organisation has moved into a new zone. We are now a practical enabler. We will be hands-on working with businesses and business organisations to help bring change and transform business."


Born: 23 May 1964.

Education: Highgate School, north London, and Bristol University - joint honours degree in English and drama.

Career (1988-93): Friends of the Earth - director, Arts for the Earth.

1993-94: Chartered Society of Designers - development director.

1994-2003: British Design and Art Direction - chief executive.

April 2003 to present: Design Council - chief executive.

Other roles: council member of the Royal College of Art and the Royal Society of Arts.