Taking design on the campaign trail

Never destined to be a major election issue, design is nonetheless on some parties’ agendas. Below, Design Week listens to the politicians who talk design

Tories:be paractical

Former design minister John Butcher, who retires as an MP at this election, outlines Conservative promises to the design industry. These focus on raising its profile within the Department of Trade and Industry, and on encouraging businesses within the SME (small and medium enterprise) sector to use design more effectively.

He insists that: “The Thatcher administration was the first Government to recognise the importance of design. We mustn’t let the impetus of those years slow down.” Conservative policy is for support for design consultancies to be steered through the Business Links programme and Training and Enterprise Councils.

Butcher remains keen that businesses, especially those in the SME sector, are introduced “to the advantages of taking on outside consultancies to help improve products and services through design”. And he says that Government has a role to play in supporting design industry organisations in their bid to get messages about the effectiveness of design over to industry as a whole.

On the question of design education, Butcher says Conservative policy is to improve curricula by moving them away from the “craft and woodwork hangover” towards more modern and business-oriented design disciplines. He says that the design industry as a whole will face major changes as we move to the millennium, “looking at things anew, and with more depth”.

And although it is not official policy, Butcher says that the next government will have to face up to the fact that the quality, if not the quantity, of higher education graduates is being questioned by design practitioners. “If we are not careful we could have hundreds of graphic designers on the dole,” he says.

Ian Taylor, the Conservative Minister currently responsible for design, has placed emphasis on the practical implementations of design, as befits his wider role as under secretary for science and technology in the DTI.

He has said that science and design form “the most exciting portfolio in Government”, and has attempted to enlighten DTI colleagues to design’s potential.

Labour: invest

As the shadow industry minister with responsibility for design, Adam Ingram is very convincing in his support of design’s role in industry. He recognises the added value good design can give products and services and talks enthusiastically about encouraging more companies to use design effectively.

One way of doing this, he says, would be to change accounting procedures so that design spend is quantified. “The most successful companies are those which spend the most in those areas and you can then prove to other companies that if you invest in design you will also be successful.”

He is aware of the role Government departments could play in setting an example when it comes to buying design. “We have got to ensure that all departments understand the importance of design procurement.”

In a recent article for Design Export News, he promised Labour would “ensure that the Government uses its procurement practices to provide commitment to long-term high quality design”.

And free-pitching, that thorn in the side of many designers working for the Government, may be better addressed under Labour. Ingram declines to be drawn into detailed free-pitching debate, not because he condones it, but because he isn’t yet familiar with the intricacies of the pitch process. However, designers are likely to find him receptive to their views on the matter.

“Labour will be aware of and warm to what designers are doing and will encourage more people into design.” Not necessarily what the educationalists want to hear, given the well-publicised over-crowding and under-resourcing, although he is keen to improve the “quality” of graduates.

Designers are likely to be comforted by Ingram’s commitment to put the industry firmly on the map. However, it remains to be seen how much such commitment actually filters down into a new Government’s own practices.

Other Labour politicians sympathetic to design or to design consultancies as small businesses are Jack Cunningham, shadow secretary of the department of national heritage; Mark Fisher, shadow arts minister; Gerald Frankel, chairman of the Industry Forum; and Barbara Roche, shadow small business minister.

Tory media centre

Despite its public commitment to design, the Conservative Party is wary of revealing who has carried out design projects for its election drive.

Promotional material for the party appears to have had a less obvious design input than the equivalent material for the Labour Party, with manifesto publications arguably more traditional in style.

Insiders say that much of the work was finalised in-house at the party’s Smith Square headquarters.

WCT Live, the agency responsible for handling the Conservative’s campaign events, has, however, redeveloped the party’s media centre at Smith Square. It now uses a contemporary style in keeping with stage sets used at live events, also developed by WCT, and provides all the multimedia equipment needed to run a late- twentieth century election campaign, including video walls and an interview studio.

The media centre has become a ‘futuristic, branded space’, according to WCT Live, in a bid to gain as much Conservative brand exposure as possible.

Lib Dems: no word

The Liberal Democrats make no mention of design in their manifesto, and there is no record of the party’s trade and industry spokesman Nick Harvey having referred to design as a tool of wealth creation.

On the surface, the Liberal Democrats appear not to have deemed design of sufficient interest. Not that you can condemn them too harshly for that. The political landscape of the UK dictates that the third party must compete on the headline-grabbing issues of education, crime and Europe.

What North Devon MP Nick Harvey does talk about is the future for small businesses and the need for the UK to “have the competitive edge”. So it is to this area which design, as a sector populated by small businesses, must turn for enlightenment as to Liberal Democrat opinions.

Harvey says small companies are playing an increasing role in the economy at home and abroad. “Large firms are shifting from conglomerate business to slimline enterprises, and small businesses are playing a bigger part as suppliers of specialist services.”

Harvey turns to the need to capitalise on the UK workforce’s skills through better education and training. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto pledges the introduction of a remissible 2 per cent levy on company payrolls for training. But small businesses would be exempt – presumably such a burden wouldn’t be the “constructive support” Harvey reckons they need.

Where Harvey may find support from consultancies is over the late payment of debt. Harvey says: “The Liberal Democrats have consistently called for a Statutory Right to Interest.

“We understand that many small businesses enjoy only narrow profit margins, which means that cashflow is extremely important for expansion plans and product development.”

What has to be remembered at this point is that for every design consultancy handicapped by late payers, there is probably another one surviving by holding off its creditors.

Harvey also mentions the abolition of the Uniform Business Rate and its replacement with a “fairer” tax system, a review of how state regulation of businesses is reviewed, and the need for sustainable growth in a low inflation economy as succour for small businesses.

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