Calling for standards

The design industry would benefit immensely from agreeing on a code of practice for the pitching and commissioning process, argues Jonathan Ford

Looking in the wing mirrors of 2004, I am reminded of a familiar problem that holds the British design industry back: we continually devalue ourselves as an industry at the all-important project-winning stage. It is my belief that we need to work together to raise our professional standards, and therefore raise the value of design, by ensuring that it is not just free or low-pitched, but commissioned as an integral part of business and brand strategy.

Rather than lay blame at the door of our industry bodies for lack of action on this issue, I would like to propose that we address the issue of guidance on best practice collectively and take our ideas to them in a constructive manner.

We are working in an ambivalent climate and many are going through hard times. I spoke recently at the Future Design Days forum in Sweden – a country that evidently understands design value. It made me think about how we – clients, designers, industry bodies – are reacting to fearful times. It also made me think about what changes we can make, both practically and on a psychological level, to raise our game. I asked myself the question, ‘what scares me?’ The answer, ‘just being OK at what we do’.

Mediocrity, through lack of benchmark standards, is what I fear for others in the design industry. If we take a closer look at the day-to-day, we see many clients working in risk-averse cultures, with subjective senior management over-ruling them. We need to understand their position, help them evaluate what good design is and educate against ‘pitch fever’ when contracting design. The psychology of designers who contribute to this problem seems to be based on an ill-founded weakness or knee-jerk reaction. They are willing to design for free for fear of asking for a reasonable fee or having to say no.

If we fear losing business and, in turn, industry bodies fear losing their membership fees and our support, the whole industry turns on an axis of fear, which undermines creativity and devalues the impact of design in business.

We need to take responsibility for our industry, present a more unified front, and start a dialogue with our governing and design association bodies about formulating best practice guidelines. As a step forward, we should all agree on freely available standards on pitching. Establishing a code of practice will help to enforce a value to our standards.

If we make a comparison, the world of architecture only has one key governing body: the Royal Institute of British Architects. But despite – or maybe because of – its solo status, Riba presents a robust representative body. It offers a contract code that is easily accessible to all via its website, and it advocates architectural issues. Architecture gets the Government and media recognition that design still lacks. I’m not saying this is all down to Riba, but it is indicative of a collective effort.

The design industry is in the paradoxical position of having different, yet equally powerful, design bodies in D&AD, the Design Council and the Design Business Association, each with its own mission. We should tell these bodies not just to promote the top-level message that good design is an investment in business or brand value, but get them to recognise that design value needs to be promoted from the ground up, across all disciplines.

That said, the DBA has announced a positive change with its client-focused ‘Design Drives Business’ course for clients. In March, the Design Management Institute, ‘the leading resource and international authority on design management’, will be running an Innovation event to question whether design can transform its role in our economic future and if design educators are doing enough to provide leadership.

Are we? It’s my view that we should do more for ourselves from the epicentre. Hopefully, this will serve as a call to action to the wider design community. Let’s start 2005 on a positive note by taking responsibility for our industry. That way, we can again become the international standard bearer.

The debate is open. If you’re going to have a go at me, please put some constructive thoughts forward so we can take this to our representative bodies. Let’s design our future based on a new benchmark.

Actions that would raise standards in the design industry

•Establishing a code of practice for pitching and commissioning

•Refusing to design for free

•Design bodies to promote value from the ground up, not just at top level

•Presenting a more unified front

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