Designers need skills to compete in global market

The UK’s design and creative industries must develop specific skills complementary to their design abilities if they are to compete effectively in the global markets, according to research presented by Imperial College London’s Innovation Studies Centre this week.

Against the backdrop of the Cox Report, the college’s interdisciplinary innovation group at the Tanaka Business School is conducting research to identify how these complementary skills are vital for innovation in the design industry. It will offer a range of case studies illustrating some of the challenges facing designers operating in a ‘vastly more competitive world’.

‘We are looking at the skill sets that designers need to make the most of their design talents,’ says Jennifer Whyte, research fellow at Tanaka Business School and leader of the research. ‘The way that products and services are put together now, with the rising complexity of the products themselves and the international context of production, means that designers need additional skills.’

An event to present the research findings, titled Creativity: Technologies and Design Skills for Innovation in the Design Industries, took place as part of the London Design Festival on Tuesday this week at the Tanaka Business School.

Taking cues from the findings of Design Council chairman Sir George Cox in his report to the Treasury, the research points to the global nature of manufacturing processes, complex technological systems and the continuing internationalisation of markets as factors affecting the level of innovation in the UK design sector.

The research looks at skills for innovation needed by all designers, but there has been a focus in historical research on product design. Innovation is defined as the whole process of identifying new or improved products and services, and the subsequent commercialisation of these ideas to market. In order to compete successfully here, designers need to raise their abilities in areas outside their core design disciplines, says Whyte.

An understanding of production processes is one area where today’s designers may lack the experience of previous generations. ‘Production is often handled overseas, so UK designers don’t have that hands-on knowledge of how things are put together. This means they may not understand the limitations of the machines, don’t know what tolerances they should deliver [in design specifications] and what materials are available,’ says Whyte.

The question of how design consultancies can get clients to appropriately value their skills was also addressed during the discussion. Whyte notes anecdotally that designers do not always possess the client relationship skills needed to secure new business, despite their ability to create the final product. ‘A design consultancy and a management consultancy pitched for the same business and the management consultancy won the work, but then it got the design group to execute it. This is because the management group had a slicker presentation and a better understanding of how to present the work,’ she says.

The ability to convene external experts as part of the development of product is also increasingly important for designers, adds Whyte. ‘The nature of complex and international products and services means that designers are not able to do everything themselves anymore,’ she says.

Also speaking at the event were John Cass, business development manager for the creative industries at Imperial College, Audi Design Foundation director Isobel Pollock and former IBM industrial designer Nick Leon.

Skills for innovation in the creative and design industries

• Internationalisation of production and increasing complexity of products are creating new demands on designers

• Designers need skills complementary to design in order to boost innovation

• Research co-funded by the Audi Design Foundation and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

• Full report published in the autumn

Source: Innovation Studies Centre, Imperial College London

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