Summers’ time

New to the world of design, Andrew Summers has taken on the hot seat at the restyled Design Council. Gaynor Williams finds out what’s on the agenda

SBHD: New to the world of design, Andrew Summers has taken on the hot seat at the restyled Design Council. Gaynor Williams finds out what’s on the agenda

Andrew Summers has just taken on that most difficult of jobs, the chief executive of the “new” Design Council. The appointment is intriguing, because he is new to this game: a complete unknown in the reasonably clubby world of design. His background is in business and in management, and design has apparently always been one of his hobby-horses.

The day we meet is his first in the job. Despite my best efforts I still know nothing about him other than what I have read on his CV: people at the council are asking me what he’s like. The only person I manage to find who does know him turns out to have been on the council’s interview panel. Their verdict? “Very impressive: very intelligent… very nice.”

The CV? A Cambridge graduate in natural sciences and economics, Summers was once managing director of Sharwood’s, where he was “responsible for designing and developing the company’s speciality food ranges” and then managing director of RHM Foods. There he was “responsible for leading brands such as Robertson’s, McDougalls and Bisto.” So when he describes himself as a design “user”, you realise that he must be pretty practised at it.

Also good on paper is the most recent entry, as first chief executive of the Management Charter Initiative. Cast aside the fact that, post-citizen John Major, the word “charter” has ceased to mean anything at all. MCI is not a “citizen” anything: it is a non-profit-making body dedicated to improving British management standards. As I try to find out more about MCI, one informed contact, caught slightly off-guard, comments: “Oh bloody hell, that lot.” I ask what this means. “I suppose I’m just a bit cynical about these initiatives to promote good works” is the answer. The magazine Management Today, meanwhile, initially said it hadn’t heard of MCI: a bit of research revealed that the name was familiar, the good works not so.

Still, straw polls are notoriously misleading. MCI, after all, has only been going a few years, having been set up by Sir Bob Reid with backing from big business and government. Summers’ job was to make the concept work: he was its first official employee. Though it hasn’t set the world on fire, MCI has “had a strong impact in a quiet but effective way”, according to the council’s chairman John Sorrell.

In any case, Summers is evidently used to developing and selling a concept. This is good. He will have a lot more selling to do from now on. Most importantly, as I discover, he is friendly and approachable: on first meeting at least, his style is light miles away from the repressive, autocratic Design Council regime of old. He even threatens to make a complete break with tradition and talk to his employees.

This is a man who is going to have to take some tough decisions. Sorrell describes him as “quick, and highly enthusiastic”. He’ll need to be. He’s in charge of a small organisation of some 40 people which somehow has to make a significant impact on UK plc for the good. It’s an organisation whose image was allowed to fester at the very time when the quango became about as fashionable as the bowler hat.

The scenario is complicated by the fact that working for a government organisation can be a bit like running on an exercise machine. Your body and mind may be working at the max, yet that’s no guarantee you’re getting anywhere. In the past, getting the Department of Trade and Industry off its back has been a major problem for the council: in some cases, no sooner was a policy formed than it was changed.

Our hellos over, we begin with some definitions. To many people outside the organisation – and perhaps to some inside it – the “new” Design Council’s aims seem nebulous and ill-defined. So how exactly does Summers see the quango’s new role? “It’s here to encourage better use of design and therefore better performance from businesses and organisations,” he says. He agrees that if it addresses all the “audiences” its famously rhetorical Review of 1994 talks about, the council’s job will be huge. But he seems undeterred: “There’s absolutely no way we could do it all by ourselves. We are going to have to work with other people, other organisations. If we can get the concept of design being key to effectiveness imbued in the thinking of other organisations – the business schools, the Confederation of British Industry, for instance – then we at the centre can stimulate action. I don’t think size per se is a determinant of that process.”

Time was when the very mention of the word “publicity” made the Design Council run for cover. It was perceived to have failed at least partly because it didn’t communicate any of its successes. Isn’t this concept of working “through” other organisations problematic? It will be difficult to claim the credit for design initiatives undertaken or paid for by others. Summers agrees, but seems to think he would much rather have it this way. “I’ve run large organisations and I’ve run small ones, and I would far rather work for a small one. Anyway, a lot of satisfaction comes by encouraging and inspiring others, and seeing others take ownership of your ideas.” I demur, and Summers laughs. OK, so he doesn’t take it all too seriously, either.

Encouragingly, the new chief executive promises that the Design Council’s approach will be practical. There will be research that solidly demonstrates design effectiveness – “although I recognise it won’t necessarily be a totally open and shut case”. This research will demonstrate ways and processes – in different business sectors – through which design can be best used. It will then be fed through to companies via the Business Links network.

He claims to be a practical man, and reckons that his understanding of what businesses need is what won him the job – for which, by the way, he was headhunted. “We have to understand what companies need to be successful. We have to give information to companies that will help them look to the short-term, the long-term, international/national and, of course, make that work in different sectors. Providing that information clearly is going to be a key challenge.”

He is, for example, involved with the Royal Society for the Arts’ Tomorrow’s Company initiative, looking at issues such as what measures of performance a company should be judged by (other than purely financial). How, then, will the council’s own performance be judged over the next few years? Will he be setting targets? “I prefer to say measures,” he says cautiously. “I have yet to work out what’s realistic and what’s not. And some of those measurements will be qualitative as well as quantitative.”

It seems from this first meeting that Summers has been chosen for two main reasons. The first is that he doesn’t just understand business: through his work with MCI he also understands government and the public sector. Either he can walk that tightrope, or he will be sucked down by the bureaucracy: there are still forces at work in the Design Council that believe you should fill in forms about a phone call. Sorrell obviously believes that Summers’ experience will help him through all that. The second is that he’s a manager of the modern school. He believes in team-work, and in the fitter, leaner dogma that is now management petty cash.

Perhaps the most intriguing moment of the interview was Summers’ unprompted mention of historian Correlli Barnett’s Audit of War, a litany of woes detailing the UK’s industrial decline. The book seems to have gone through Whitehall like a dose of salts, prompting an orgy of inaction, because it lays the blame squarely on misguided government intervention and bad British management. Ironically enough, it was favourite reading material with the council’s former director-general Ivor Owen.

The new chief executive has spent some of his career trying to improve one half of that equation, British management. Now he’s moving on to the other: intervention. Summers has got it all to do. All I can say is, good luck.

See Emma Dent Coad’s Private View, page 35.

Latest articles