Product Leader

Lynda Relph-Knight speaks to product designer Paul Priestman about his plans for the Design Business Association when he takes over the role of chairman

In October, the Design Business Association enters a new chapter when Paul Priestman takes over as chairman. He is only the second product designer to take the helm – Ken Grange was the first in 1994 – of an organisation whose board of directors is made up largely of the “suits” of the branding world, but he is pledged more than any of his predecessors to play up the “business” aspect of the association’s title.

The business aspect is, says Priestman, the DBA’s real point of difference with other representative bodies such as the Chartered Society of Designers, which represents individual designers, and British Design & Art Direction, which is mandated to push creativity. It is also key to London, he adds, where many DBA member consultancies are based, including his own company, Priestman Goode.

“We shouldn’t get diversified into other activities. We should be involved in a range of things, but only if there’s a business angle,” he says.

“Industries are changing so rapidly that it is important to bring in the bigger picture,” he says. To this end, at the top of his agenda is a proposal to broaden the DBA membership to include in-house design teams and design managers – a controversial move that should not only bring the bigger picture to the association, but boost its influence with clients as well.

“The most successful projects happen when there is an in-house champion,” he says. This is something he’s experienced in a range of Priestman Goode projects, from the radiators for UK company Bisque to work on the massive Airbus A380 and the Voyager tilting trains just coming on stream for Virgin Trains. “We should recognise the way design is changing,” he adds, “and be more embracing.”

He is not only keen to attract in-house design teams to the DBA, but also more of the smaller creatively led groups which have not been tempted by the DBA’s services to date. He and his peers detect the disappearance of the old guard, and with the polarisation between big global and small local groups; the turn of the designer/ manager at the lower end of the size scale has come round again.

He is keen to raise the profile of design, for it to become “a real point of contact for the design business”. He currently detects “hesitation there”, when the association is called upon to deal with issues such as its own move to make entry to the DBA International Design Effectiveness Awards incredibly expensive.

One element in this will be the reinstatement of the DBA annual, detailing member consultancies and in-house teams, but also broadcasting the Idea winners – effectiveness, he believes, should continue to be a central plank in the business argument. Combined with the website,, he sees this as providing a Who’s Who in design in the UK.

He also aims to concentrate the DBA’s activities to play up its business aspect, boosting its services on legal issues, copyright, export business and the like. He plans to trawl opinion from members and non-members about what they think is best about the DBA and what they think its focus should be.

On the contentious issue of leadership, he has ideas to bring together the main design bodies and to form allegiances with the CSD in particular. He cancelled his own membership of the CSD, some time ago, but early thoughts include discussions with the CSD next year to launch a joint student programme. Priestman would also like to resuscitate Design Unity – the umbrella initiative set up in 1997 to improve communication at grass-roots level between the DBA, British Design & Art Direction, Design Council, Royal Society of Arts and Design Museum – and stress to members the DBA’s continuing role within the Design Industry Creative Export Group run by the Department of Trade and Industry.

But he accepts that for the DBA to really represent and lead design it has to attract members from across the spectrum. Members tend currently to be from middling companies.

You could say that Priestman was groomed for the DBA job. DBA chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill, who, along with outgoing chairman Lynne Dobney, asked Priestman to stand for election, says he wanted him to be DBA chairman the first time he met him, largely because of his personality, but also because he is a product designer.

“The DBA chairman doesn’t have to be a designer,” says Rowland-Hill. Indeed, Dobney was London chief operations officer at Interbrand until she left last week to go it alone, and Jonathan Sands – arguably one of the DBA’s most successful chairmen – was managing director, now chairman of Leeds group Elmwood. “But,” adds Rowland-Hill, “it’s nice to have a designer and to have a product designer. Priestman has excellent ideas about design and the design business.”

For Priestman the DBA was something he aspired to joining “one day” when he set up his own business, Priestman Associates, in 1987. His rise to fame within it has been rapid since he became involved some 12 months ago, almost immediately joining the association’s board. He is highly impressed by the quality of his fellow DBA board directors. “There are some very good people there,” he says – so we can expect to see strong teamwork during his stint as chairman.

He’s never been a chairman before, though he runs his own company with partners Nigel Goode and Ian Scoley. But he is used to coming in as an outsider – Priestman Goode had, for example, never previously designed a train before it won the job to create Virgin Trains’ Voyager advanced passenger trains, including the exteriors and interiors.

“It’s good to approach things in a naive way,” he says. But don’t be fooled, his naivety is underpinned by creativity and good business sense. Over the next two years we will see what the combination can do for the DBA.

Paul Priestman’s CV

1981-4 Central St Martins foundation and BA in industrial design

1984-6 Royal College of Art MA in industrial design

1987 Founded Priestman Associates

1990 Nigel Goode became a partner of Priestman Associates

1996 Priestman Associates became Priestman Goode

2000 Priestman Goode became a limited company

Projects include:

1990 Belling cookers

1997 Digital camera for Vision

1998 Virgin Atlantic airline seat

1998 Designed complete trains – Voyager for Virgin Trains

2000 Designed interiors for part of Airbus A380

2001 Started work in Brazil for airline Varig and in Germany for Lufthansa

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