Clive Grinyer: Small fry need big ideas

While big businesses can credit a good deal of their success to effective design strategies, says Clive Grinyer, design can also benefit smaller enterprises

Do you know what an SME is? Do you work with one? Small to medium enterprises represent 85 per cent of UK businesses. Officially defined as any business employing up to 250 people, SMEs represent a huge range of activities from window cleaners to manufacturers.

SMEs collectively create much of the nation’s wealth and are key to tomorrow’s prosperity; among them are the companies that will grow into our next big corporations. And from banks to Government departments, there are many organisations that focus on advising and supporting them, to ensure they grow to offer employment and prosperity for all.

Sadly, most SMEs are poor users of design. Research shows it’s our larger companies who have a sophisticated strategic view of design. For most small companies, the balancing of time, resources and financial management as they grow leaves little time to consider such esoteric matters as design. It’s something that will be familiar to many design companies, most of which are SMEs too.

It’s an amazing feature of UK design that even the smallest design group will boast a major large company in the client list. Design groups have always splintered off from larger, more established companies and as design commissioning is so dependent on individual relationships, the move of a marketing or communication manager will be the catalyst for change and another new design group.

So though many design consultancies are small, they mostly work for large companies. Putting together a workshop recently on design for SMEs, it was hard to find well-known designers who worked for small companies. Our vast army of creative talent is sustained by the 15 per cent of companies that are larger than 250 people and that see design as a powerful communication and delivery tool.

So why don’t designers work more with SMEs? Or perhaps the real question is: why don’t SMEs use design to help grow their businesses?

One of the main reasons is cost; designers sell their time, at rates that often make small companies quake. Investment in equipment, technology, advice or an accountant is easier to understand, but people forget that when they need a package or a we

bsite, they need a design as well. It’s not factored in to an already stressed financial plan.

For designers, though, many benefits can be gained. One designer recently talked about the difficulties of working for a large, well-known brand. He knew it was only a matter of time before another consultancy, desperate for that client, undercut him. Forty per cent of his consultancy was involved in business development, just to keep the company alive – it’s a common complaint of design consultancies that only 10 per cent of their time is spent designing, the rest is looking for the next job.

So for him there are great benefits in working with SMEs: long-term relationships, gaining a real understanding of their business and seeing them benefit from design success. Maybe the fees aren’t so high, but neither are the marketing costs, or the worry that the client will be poached at any moment.

Many SMEs have a good knowledge of design, but it’s usually very specific and a reaction to a need. It’s about a brochure, or the shop window for their output. It’s about a logo, rather than a brand; engineering rather than usability; or cost-cutting rather than value-adding.

Huge Government initiatives go into SMEs. Organisations such as Business Links will advise across all aspects of business activity, including marketing and design. There used to be a small army of dedicated design advisors across the company, but changes in policy have removed these from the core service, though enlightened regional development agencies have seen the need to retain these advisors. The design advisors provide a unique service that works with SMEs to help them understand what design can do for their business and help source and manage appropriate designers.

Design may not need SMEs, but SMEs need design. Finding ways for design to nurture future business successes must be something designers want to do. Go find your local design advisor, stop at that small company round the corner; there’s a huge number of businesses out there that we can educate and help to mutual benefit.

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