New Design Council CEO Minnie Moll: “You can’t retrofit design thinking”

We speak to the incoming CEO about why design needs to be at the forefront of “build back better” operations, and how her previous business background will help in her new role.

Earlier this month, the Design Council announced that Minnie Moll would be its next CEO, effective 1 March.

She replaces Sarah Weir, who stepped down from the role after three years in late 2020, due to illness.

Moll’s career has largely fallen into two chapters. The first was focused on “commercial creativity” and included work in design, advertising and innovation. The second was focused on retail and saw her hold leadership roles at the East of England Co-op and Norwich department store Jarrold.

Now working with the Design Council, she feels her career has come “full circle”. And as the country looks to navigate and then rebound from the coronavirus pandemic, she says she is keen to encourage design to be part of that recovery.

“Learning from and engaging with the people we were trying to help”

Part of what attracted her to the new role, Moll says, was design’s ability to “impact experience and be part of societal change”. This is something she is familiar with thanks to her previous roles, and of course what the Design Council aims to champion in each of its projects and initiatives.

Moll gives the example of her work as joint-CEO of the East of England Co-op. There she led the supermarket through a period of intense community engagement targeted at helping older shoppers, and particularly those with dementia, feel comfortable instore. The initiative, which aimed to position the Co-op at the “leading dementia-friendly retailer”, led to several instore design changes.

“It was a hugely enlightening experience because we were learning from and engaging with the people we were trying to help,” she says. “Some of the things we were able to change would have been impossible to know without having spoken directly with these people.”

Because of this work, Moll says she has a particular interest in the work that the Design Council is doing in regard to ageing populations and people with dementia. She says: “It’s an area I will always be looking to learn more on.”

“Like building a house and then laying the foundations”

The Design Council’s work with ageing populations mainly falls under its health and wellbeing “pillar”. There are two other pillars which also govern the focus of the organisation: sustainability and design thinking.

All three pillars will be hugely important to our collective recovery from the pandemic, Moll says, but design thinking in particular will need to be embedded early on. Ideally now, she adds.

“[The Government’s] Build back better is all very well as a mantra, but if we don’t put good design thinking at the heart of this, it won’t be effective,” she says. “It would be like building a house and then laying the foundations.”

“Helping businesses foster a culture of innovation”

You can’t retrofit design thinking, Moll says. She adds her experience of working in innovation – as a leader at global innovation company What If – has positioned her well to encourage design-led solutions to our current issues, both pandemic related and otherwise.

“Much of my work within innovation was targeted not just at the outcome, but about helping businesses foster a culture of innovation in the first place,” she says. “It’s very common for companies to know they have to innovate, but not have an idea how to begin that process.”

Design and innovation are “inextricably linked”, she says, and both are more than just “blue sky thinking days” and colourful flipcharts. In the wake of the pandemic, Moll suggests much of the work to “build back better” will rely on a well-established culture of innovation that is structured and targeted at what it wants to change.

“It will be very easy to slip back into however we were doing things before, once everything settles down – we should be conscious not to do that,” Moll says.

“It’s given me a great understanding of the value of design”

Moll expects her extensive business experience to be of substantial benefit in her new role. As she explains, she has worked with designers both as part of a creative team, and as a client commissioning them.

“It’s given me a great understanding of the value of design,” she says.

Additionally, the pandemic’s impact on business has provoked a huge wave of “entrepreneurial spirit”, Moll says, and this is something the Design Council will paying attention to. And though she says she’s hesitant to use the word, the crisis has encouraged some remarkable pivots from businesses.

“Who would have thought Primark would have a pop-up in Selfridges? Or that Quorn would say it was okay to eat meat in these troubled times?” Moll asks.

“I’m interested in how this might all play out and how we might be able to help,” she continues. “It just shows that when everything is shifted, you can really get some pace behind you.”

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  • mike dempsey January 25, 2021 at 10:41 am

    The Design Council started its life in 1944, as it happens the year I was born. The Council’s mission was to investigate, exhibit, promote, educate and publish on all things design. As a young designer back in the early 1960s, I would regularly visit The Design Centre in Haymarket, London. Open to the public in 1956 and free. It was the place to see innovation in all design disciplines. There were regular exhibitions and a comprehensive directory of design firms and even a label awarded to products that achieve high design standards.
    It was an exciting place to visit for all. Along with the Design Centre, the monthly magazine ‘Design’ (1946 to1978) appeared with stories and interviews embracing the wold of design. All that died out with continual government cuts and The Design Council moved its focus away from designers and the public in favour of the business/manufacturing world. Terrence Conran picked up the baton for exhibited creativity by opening The Design Museum in 1989. Today most designers I know, from a wide range of disciplines, are unaware of what The Design Council exists for. A great pity for an organisation with ‘Design’ in its name. Perhaps Minnie Moll will put that right?

  • Monty January 30, 2021 at 5:30 pm

    That’s great insight and context behind the council. Thanks, Mike, and let’s hope you’re right.

  • Simon Manchipp February 5, 2021 at 3:31 pm

    I agree Mike. I loved the Design Centre too.

    Minnie is terrific — if anyone can give the Design Council the lift it deserves, it’s her.

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