Boxing clever at the DTI’s innovation unit

With his impressively solid background in design education, Alan Brickwood’s secondment to the Department of Trade and Industry is good news for designers. Beverley Cohen reports

Professor Alan Brickwood – whose early job titles included “inventor” as well as “industrial designer” – is the second design-oriented heavyweight at the Department of Trade and Industry, joining Alex Pratt in promoting UK design to business.

Pratt is now in his second year as the DTI’s export promoter to North America, focusing on North American companies crying out (so he says) for UK design skills. He organised export missions to Comdex (DW 24 November 1995) and Salt Lake City (DW 5 January) and has been a catalyst for several potentially happy marriages between British consultancies and US firms.

Brickwood’s secondment is to the DTI’s innovation unit. His job title is industrial advisor and his target is to raise awareness of the design process to small and medium-sized companies in the UK, a familiar litany.

Pratt, certainly, is an avid supporter of the design industry, and Brickwood follows suit, though he stresses his role is not purely to grind the axe for design.

Does the DTI’s appointment of these heavyweights indicate a surge towards finally accepting that design is not a frill but a necessity, as it is in the US? This is taken as read, according to Brickwood.

“The DTI is extremely friendly and supportive to the design industry, and has a long and impressive record to show it. The introduction of Alex Pratt and myself just emphasises further the importance this arm of Government places on design,” he maintains.

Few would question that the DTI puts design high on its agenda, despite the appalling failure of its 3m Consultancy Brokerage Service, which aimed to provide a national directory for Business Link advisors to source design and other services (DW 3 November 1995).

Brickwood’s favourite meta- phor for his new challenge is a cardboard box. “It’s no good giving potential clients a box, it just drops them in at the deep end. We need to show design clients how to unpack the box, to demystify the design process,” he says. “Design is still seen as a bit risky, firms are shy of it, but they’re also getting the idea they can’t do without it. So they stagnate.”

At this stage, he is unable to explain how this will be achieved in practical terms, stressing that the innovation unit’s role is to look at opportunities and make recommendations rather than take direct action.

The simple, visual box metaphor is a clue to Brickwood’s background in design education. Currently Professor of the Department of Design at Brunel University’s Design Research Centre, he has been Head of Industrial Design at Coventry University and Pro Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire Polytechnic.

Brickwood is one of 15 secondees to the unit, the only one with a design background. If his mission has good results, it will be passed over to the DTI to run once his two years are up.

“I’m promoting innovation as a whole to firms, which includes engineering and project management, all the interconnecting components without which design would be undermined,” says Brickwood.

Brickwood puts the “vast amount of underachieving companies” in the UK down to “lack of unpacking”, and is immediately going into action to put things right. But how?

Back to the box. “I’m hoping to leave companies with an appreciation about what the design consultancy was doing, so they actually understand their solution. Design methods are far too jargon-ridden and complex.

“The first step is education. In the innovation unit we’re involved in Young Enterprise, a programme to give opportunities to the next generation of entrepreneurs, so they have more awareness,” he says.

The second step is direct contact with small firms, following the trail pioneered by Business Links, although again he cannot give any specific plans as yet.

“I’m promoting the innovation process as a whole, and the realisation that design is an important part of it. My aim is to get design into the mainstream and deliver its message to the smaller firms for which it still has mystery,” says Brickwood.

Demystifying design … it feels like a long battle has been fought in this direction, yet there is still a significant lack of awareness to overcome. Will Brickwood be able to unfold this particular cardboard box for British industry or will design remain an enigmatic extra? Check out this space in two years’ time.

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