Standard Civil Service furniture – blue sofa, blond wood conference table et al are not what you might expect a Government minister for design to surround himself with. Yet this is the style of the office of Ian Taylor, latest incumbent in that job.
Is this really the lair of a man who believes that “design pervades everything – or ought to”? Where is the “design that makes a difference”? It’s obvious that 50-year-old Taylor has more on his mind than the interior of his office. Like his predecessors, his brief on design is part of a broader portfolio, and not part of his official title. And it is no doubt as Under-Secretary of State for Science and Technology that he had put a copy of the Science Museum’s catalogue of seminal scientific gadgetry, Making of the Modern World, on the coffee table rather than a design glossy.
Hardly a meaty tome, but the science book gives a clue as to where the minister’s passions lie. He’s had ministerial responsibility for technology in his portfolio for some 18 months, and showed a keen interest in multimedia when last July he acquired science – and design – to complete what he describes as “the most exciting portfolio in Government”.
Potentially it is, given Taylor’s view of his role as overall co-ordinator for innovation in Government. He sees the job as an aid to “adapting good ideas and making them commercially viable”, he says, “and design should fit into that process”.
The emphasis was very different for Taylor’s predecessors in design. Baroness Denton, Lord Strathclyde and Earl Ferrers all held the crowded portfolio for small business and consumer affairs, to which design was an adjunct. The small business function now falls to
Taylor’s Department of Trade and Industry colleague Richard Page – and with it responsibility for the Business Links network with its band of design counsellors (numbered 22 at the time of going to press).
Taylor and Page share an interest in the output of those counsellors, but as both ministers quickly pointed out last summer when a Cabinet reshuffle brought them their current jobs, Taylor is our man when it comes to design.
Believing design can further the Government’s quest for increased competitiveness among UK companies, Taylor identifies three main strands to his role. He wants to make sure his DTI colleagues see design as an important part of improving the performance of British industry; he aims to get “the right support” for bodies such as the Royal Society of Arts and the Government-funded Design Council in carrying out their work in promoting good design; and he is talking to ministers in other Government departments to get the message across, he says. Unfortunately, here he quotes as a key example Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, whose department’s free-pitch policies have rankled with the design industry.
Despite this agenda though, we’re unlikely to see bold political gestures from Taylor, rather a nurturing of initiatives that either exist or could do given a bit of encouragement. “A minister’s job is cajoling, but I wouldn’t want to over- emphasise my powers of persuasion,” he says, presenting himself as a facilitator rather than an activist. “My job is to provide encouragement… to raise awareness.”
And what of the legacy he’d like to leave design whenever he is moved from his current office? “I’d like to hear people involved in design excited by the take-up of their ideas in industry,” he says, again stressing his role as intermediary.
To achieve this goal, he is clearly looking to the Design Council, over whose budget he has ultimate control but which he feels should have a fair amount of freedom to run its own show. Like all of us, he awaits with interest the council’s strategic plan, due to be tabled shortly.
He speaks with great respect of the council’s director Andrew Summers and his team, and particularly of its visionary chairman John Sorrell. Taylor also singles out RSA head Prue Leith, who had input into the Tomorrow’s Company initiative, for a special mention in the pursuit of corporate excellence through design.
“One of the attractions of being a minister is that you visit a lot of companies,” he says. And so many practice design by default, he observes, adding that it’s his job to “cajole” them into understanding that “design properly integrated can improve add-on value” and that good design does not necessarily cost more.
One company that has particularly impressed him is Courtaulds. A visit to the company’s lingerie department shortly before Christmas merited a mention in his speech at the Design Council’s 50th anniversary dinner. He speaks earnestly of the involvement of Courtauld’s design department throughout the production process. This is evidence of the efficiency design can bring to a job if it’s properly integrated, he maintains.
As for Taylor’s interest in multimedia, that continues through the DTI’s Multimedia Industrial Advisory Board. Computer interfaces and CD-ROMS have demonstrated what designers can do to make complex equipment accessible to a wide public, he says. Now he and his colleagues are looking ahead, analysing the possible impact of all manner of electronic systems, from tele-banking and tele-shopping to the Internet as a business communication network.
This month, for example, Taylor is “bringing forward” an Information Society initiative to explain to business the importance of using new communications media. He also talks of creating catalysts to encourage businesses to adapt to the electronic age, and speaks of “sponsoring” and “challenging” industry to come up with ideas for multimedia applications. Asked if sponsorship takes the form of grants, he indicates guardedly that there could be incentives of a sort for companies rising to the challenge.
It’s early days for multimedia, Taylor observes: “The revolution’s only just beginning.”
Taylor is refreshingly broad in his perspective on design, and he claims to be equally eclectic in his sources of information. The single industry voice that his one-time DTI master Michael Heseltine demanded appears not to be as crucial to Taylor. “I have to be aware of good design ideas from wherever they come,” he says. “We absorb ideas from many sources.”
The main official design industry contact for the department’s civil servants is the Design Business Association, one of Taylor’s DTI colleagues interjects. But as it represents probably only about 50 per cent of the design industry, the department tends to meet DBA representatives alongside those from the Chartered Society of Designers.
Taylor is content for this to be so. “I expect the team to be in regular contact with trade bodies,” he says. But his own judgement emanates from a number of sources, and that judgement is that British industry is underestimating the potential of British design. He talks of the “remarkable achievements” of British designers, particularly with overseas companies such as Danish home-entertainments giant Bang & Olufsen, which sells on design and boasts a UK designer on the team.
Our industries “need to pay more tribute to design”, he observes. But it’s not just client industries that are to blame, he maintains, posing that it’s partly down to the design community itself that design is so undervalued.
He appears well-versed in the concerns of design. Yes, “more work needs to be done” to improve the way the Civil Service procures and manages design; yes, UK industry needs to follow Continental competitors in realising the potential of good design to improve its performance; and yes, British design is a valuable export.
And he has a message. One thing that applies to every sector, including design, he says, is that they need to talk to people other than just themselves. “Part of my job is cross-relating across disciplines,” he says, suggesting more of us could benefit from doing just that.m