At least students have a fresh angle on design

We share Professor Peter Isherwood’s hope that design management issues will continue to be thrashed out in Design Week (see Letters, page 13). Buying and managing design effectively is crucial to everyone with an interest in the creative industries – and it helps us and our predominantly design consultancy readership to understand what concerns clients face.

Isherwood points up the divergence of opinion about how design is best managed that came across at last week’s seminar on the subject at the New Designers graduate show in London. The upshot is that there is no single approach. Every client organisation is different, be it a Government agency, a cut-and-thrust retailer, a big multinational conglomerate or a small local firm. How, therefore, can the design management task possibly be codified, and is it even desirable to try?

But there are recognisable qualities that make a great design manager, whatever their remit, as seminar participants agreed: passion; thinking; a readiness to take risks; courage; commitment and good communication skills. This is what design “champions” are made of. Given consensus about all this from an audience comprising many of the leading lights in UK design management education, it was surprising to find little evidence that the philosophy followed through into teaching in work by graduating students in the exhibition hall upstairs.

Earlier that day, I was privileged to judge projects by design management students from three universities and to award a £1000 prize, thanks to the generosity of award sponsor M&K Design. My fellow judges and I were depressed to find that the courses we’d all supported at their conception in the 1990s appeared reduced to preaching a formulaic approach to managing design, even to MA students. Carefully crafted research appeared fundamental to this approach, with little scope for intuition, let alone courage.

It is little wonder, given this scenario, that clients often confuse design management with project management. Research is an element, but not an end in itself. Commissioning and implementing design are similarly but a part of brand guardianship, which has as much to do with “selling” design to colleagues as running projects.

Our judging had a happy ending. We identified in De Montfort University BA graduate Megan Francis the personal qualities we were looking for, regardless of the college’s apparently straightjacketed approach to student projects. But the projects generally would not have “enlightened” many would-be employers wanting to adopt design management practices. The students themselves offered the only freshness.

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