Do a three-point turn

Next week Sean Blair will represent the Design Council at a series of seminars on the way forward for small businesses. He suggests a three-step plan in which the industry reassesses itself, wises up to management policies and realises who its real compet

More creative, more strategic. Is the design industry obsessively navel gazing when it needs to be searching far and wide for new strategic direction?

I recently asked a friend of mine who design’s biggest enemy was. “Itself,” he replied. “The enemy within,” he added. “It’s too inward looking,” he concluded.

While the UK now has a stronger and tougher design industry, which creates some of the best work in the world, there are still disturbing signs that the industry is looking inwards and pursuing old debates, rather than cementing its place in the evolving world.

So what does the future hold and will the design industry be a winner or a loser in the rapidly changing business world?

Durham University Business School and NatWest run a Small Business Foresight Programme which aims to offer scenarios for the future of business and possible responses for small businesses. At their conference next week we will discuss three possible scenarios for the future. The common elements given a different spin in each scenario are future confidence, future fearful, and future uncertain.

Our future fearful scenario suggests a business world that is more conservative, operating in a risk- averse business climate, with owner managers less open to opportunity spotting and with many groups operating in the lower value-added sector. Tough, price-based competition will rule, squeezing profit margins and earnings; training of staff will only be carried out when necessary for survival; and those who vote with their feet and work abroad will be poached.

This cloud of doom seems to me to be drawing ever closer in today’s design industry. So now is a great time to think and act positively to shape the future of the design industry.

This means, of course, creating a learning industry, working in partnership with itself and other industries, investing in people, taking risks, trading internationally and yielding maximum value from information and technology. Only by taking this view will the industry avoid an uncertain future. Only by looking ahead and thinking now about the possible implications can the industry move to the high ground and become future confident.

We must be an industry that is outward looking, not merely talking about professional standards, but actually setting them. Not being afraid of the future but welcoming it. The industry must invest seriously in its people. By nurturing a dynamic combination of left and right brain thinkers the ultimate creative/strategic mix is possible. The industry should also hire the best non-design graduates and catch and keep them. This combination of creative and strategic thinking could set professional standards that would make members of the Law Society look like the queue for Eurodisney’s Space Mountain ride.

It blows my mind to think of stars like Damien Hirst teaming up with someone like the creative and strategically advanced management consultants McKinsey and realising economic and social success – all in the most devastatingly innovative way.

My hope is, of course, that this marriage of the highly creative with the highly strategic takes place in the design industry, and not as a result of, say, management consultants capturing and dominating the design industry, in the way that Manchester United Football Club relies heavily on a large intake of foreign footballers.

You’ve got to look at the industry as a whole. When you do this, you quickly realise that the industry is not “in the design business”, but that it’s in the “improving prosperity and well-being business”. This analogy reminds me of the man who asked the chairman of Rolex how the watch business was going. “I don’t know. We’re not in the watch business,” he replied, “we’re in the luxury goods business, and that’s doing just fine.”

If design big wigs were to take this rounded perspective, the industry would quickly see that competition comes not from each other but from management consultants, accountants, advertising agencies and the like.

Diversity, future confidence and an outward looking industry would help overcome “the enemy within”. Only then can design entrepreneurs introduce strategic creativity and guide the industry on to that higher ground.

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