Universities shouldn’t be undermining design groups

In a response to Tony Robotham’s letter, published in Design Week on 21 August, 19 signatories argue that we must stop academic institutions offering reduced-price design services and undercutting local groupsTony Robotham’s letter supporting university consultancies ignores the fact that many commercial product design consultancies’ existence depends on their small businesses clients. The design industry has an unsurpassed track record in adding value to micro-businesses and companies spun off from academic research, helping deliver dramatic growth with professional and strategic product design help.

Nesta’s recent report Hidden Innovation in the Creative Industries reveals the true motivation behind academic institutions that offer design services and its impact: ‘Universities – eager to generate cash and provide a visible career route to graduates – have established their own commercial design consultancies (often operating on advantageous terms with free premises and high levels of business support). Such consultancies promote themselves aggressively and have been reported to undercut incumbents in some regional and niche markets.’ This is independent Manchester Business School research. Nesta is an independent foundation set up by the Government to make the UK more innovative. The report reflects widespread concern within the design business that large amounts of public money intended to stimulate innovation isn’t being spent effectively.

Robotham’s claims that ‘sufficient innovation isn’t happening’ is at odds with Nesta’s findings that in the UK’s more than 600 design groups, ‘technological innovation is rife’, and that ‘product designers have responded to the challenges that confront them with significant and widespread innovation’.

Previous reports show that significant UK commercial innovation is unreported in Government statistics. In Nesta’s words, ‘a gulf between how innovation happens and how policy supports it’ has emerged. This gulf is being exploited by some universities and other publicly funded agencies to abuse their immense resources. These massive institutions market subsidised or free innovation and design consultancy in direct competition with small businesses in the creative sector. In parts of the UK, this has led to income reduction, job losses and liquidations, totally unreported by agencies only concerned with recording dubious employment measures resulting from their intervention.

The UK is lagging behind its international competitors. The Chinese government recently legislated to make universities focus on real research. In China, cut-price university design consultancies stifled the private sector, under-delivered on quality and damaged the perception of design as a worthwhile investment. We have to follow China’s lead.

Ensuring that academic institutions collaborate to deliver research using skilled, experienced commercial product designers will help Britain compete more effectively, and help universities too. The value added by consultants that take placements, employ their graduates, lecture and participate in projects is immense. Many designers have stopped engaging with competing universities, affecting employment prospects and leaving students without essential real experience. Sadly, we are emulating China’s mistakes.

The product design industry’s knowledge and skills are of paramount importance to innovation and the growth of both SMEs and global firms. As a matter of urgency, the Government must ensure that universities focus on research and engage with commercial designers effectively. If public bodies continue to fund waste and unfair competition, they will kill the golden goose.


Jonathan Butters Managing director JAB Innovation Liverpool

Adam Gordon-Stables Manager PDG Nottingham

Mark Helmich Managing director GX Design Engineers Usk

Neil Kernot Managing director Chelker Skipton

Jonathan Kennedy Director Jonathan Kennedy Design Leamington Spa

Matthew Link Director Matthew Link Knutsford

Joseph O’Connor Head of design Pearson Matthews Kingston upon Thames

Jeremy Offer Creative director Geo Industrial Design Wilmslow

Mike Pearson Founder Pearson Matthews Kingston upon Thames

Louis della-Porta Director Firsthand Design Warwick

Peter Red Director Trig Creative Leeds

Marcus Smith Managing director Marcus Smith Design Cambridge

Robin Smith Director 4C Design Glasgow

Ben Smithson Technical director Edge PD Manchester

Carl Stone Creative director Lucid Group Manchester

Michael Thomas Managing director PDU Stockport

Mark Wells Senior partner Xenophya Design Cramlington

Nick Williams Director Maddox Design Chepstow

Alistair Williamson Managing director Lucid Group Manchester

Start the discussionStart the discussion
  • Post a comment

Latest articles