Anyone who was at Downing Street for Tony Blair’s design soirÃ©e a month or so ago might be confused as to exactly where responsibility for design lies in the Government. Blair himself intervened in the so-called Millennium Experience (up a notch from Michael Heseltine’s penchant for design-related projects under the various Tory administrations) and his announcement of the three tasks he set for designers that evening is unprecedented (DW 25 July).
Fair enough. But what were so many other Labour heavyweights doing there? Deputy PM Margaret Beckett you might expect – she’s lent her weight to design dos before – and Peter Mandelson’s connections with the millennium celebrations planned for Greenwich warranted his presence.
But why were Culture Secretary Chris Smith and his arts acolyte Mark Fisher so evident? Has design shifted from the Department of Trade and Industry at last, where its role has traditionally been one related solely to competitiveness with little hint of culture?
But, hidden in the Downing Street crowd was a less familiar face, flanked by DTI civil servants. That person was John Battle, the man who took up the ministerial mantle for design dropped by his predecessor Ian Taylor when Labour trounced the Tories on 1 May. I missed him that evening among the all-star cast, as did many others.
Meeting Battle at DTI’s headquarters in London’s Victoria Street was a different matter. Warned by a press officer that he talks very quickly, I was ready for 45 minutes of verbal onslaught. What I got was 45 minutes of passion for the design process and a sense of missionary zeal, delivered in a strong Leeds accent.
As with previous incumbents in the post, Battle’s role in design is not immediately obvious. He is officially energy minister, with a crowded portfolio which contains science, industry as a whole – “from aerospace to zoos” – telecoms and IT. But he aims to integrate everything that falls under his mantle, with design as one of the glues. And he doesn’t see his tasks as separate, but as a circle of linked models.
Battle does not want to simply maintain the status quo across his empire. “New sciences are driving the old sciences round,” he says, and he is determined that engineering and manufacturing are not seen as “oil on a sand floor”, but as part of the 21st century.
His key focus is in boosting competitiveness, and his view on design is encouraging, in that he sees it as a vital part of this process. Design, and people with “lively brains” (a favourite expression of his). “I want to get industry thinking about design at the front end,” he says. “It’s not an add-on, a marketing ploy added on at the end.”
Battle’s holistic view is reflected in his hopes for the DTI. He wants it to be an outward-looking department, interfacing with other Government departments. His ideal is “joined-up thinking between Government departments”, bridging the arts, design and industry, and he would like to see the creative dimension more to the fore in Government processes. He talks of a dialogue with Education Secretary David Blunkett and Culture Secretary Chris Smith; he has much in common with Smith (both having researched Coleridge’s poetry at university, almost “writing in the margins of each other’s pages”), and plans to make the most of this, calling it “a great opportunity to interface”.
The Downing Street line-up suggests that liaison has substance, and Battle does indeed believe it has opened up conversations between Government departments about design.
He sees the DTI’s role as being a stimulus for good relations with chambers of commerce and other business-related agencies across the country, to “explore what’s going on”. He wants to drive the Business Links set up by the Tory government further forward, taking a proactive stance rather than being “one-stop shops in a reactive way”.
The Design Council’s focus for the Business Links will be putting together a model for best practice and spreading the word. All is likely to be revealed in a “vision statement” from DTI small-business minister Barbara Roche, due next month, Battle indicates. And he reiterates the Government’s solid backing for the Design Council, outlined in its manifesto, stressing its potential in supporting innovation.
This commitment to innovation is key in the Government, says Battle, and for the DTI this means an interface with industry too. To this end an overarching policy unit within the department – variously described by Battle as “the grit in the oyster”, “a ginger group” and “the eyes and ears” of the DTI – can stretch across science, industry and design, disseminating influence.
As for the Downing Street gathering and the Creative Britain workshops that have come out of it, “Tony Blair took the initiative without a doubt,” says Battle, pushing on with the Government’s theme of change. “We’re in an age of transition,” he adds, stressing that we need to think not about the past “in a 1957-68 mind-set” but forward to 2005-15.
The aim is to put together bright people with bright ideas and let them interact, and the impending millennium gives a definite focus for that, hence Blair’s design tasks. The outcome of the initiative will feed back to Government departments looking at policy themes. Innovation is the main priority, not just funding the same old ideas: “We’re looking at doing more than lighting up the sky for one night,” Battle says.
He maintains that the best of industry is already there; it is now a case of bringing the best out of the resources of Government and industry. “Government is the coffee pot to bring people together,” says Battle. Sometimes this is in providing money, sometimes in exhorting best practice or spreading public knowledge through the “open conversation” that is Blair’s style. Battle himself seems keen on public debate, and sees an opportunity in using new media to foster it.
Battle has a lot of passion and energy. What he is still unable to indicate is real action. We must wait therefore for the outcome of Blair’s workshops, for Barbara Roche’s statement on Business Links and for the results of Battle’s pledge to examine Civil Service buying policy extracted at that interview (DW 1 August) to see what the Government really plans to do with design.
Design-related Government initiatives since 1 May
June Tony Blair gives a personal thumbs up to the Millennium Experience at Greenwich and enlists the support of former Tory Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine (DW 27 June).
22 July Tony Blair hosts a reception at 10 Downing Street for up to 100 UK designers of all disciplines. The Government team included Deputy Prime Minister Margaret Beckett,
Culture Secretary Chris Smith, minister without portfolio Peter Mandelson, arts minister Mark Fisher and design minister John Battle.
The Downing Street event heralds the setting up of Creative Britain workshops by the Design Council, comprising attendees of the reception. These are to consider three topics set by Blair: the contents of the planned Millennium Dome; opportunities to show off British design at international summits hosted by the UK; and how design can help improve Britain’s image to visitors arriving at airports, stations and ports.
17 September Blair due to launch the Design Council-organised Millennium Products initiative.
22 September Blair due to unveil the new British Tourist Authority identity by Real Time Studio.