Design should not be ignored at board level

It is great that Habitat head of design Tom Dixon has been awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Quite apart from recognising Dixon’s undoubted talent, the honour brings a younger generation of designers into the honours scheme than was previously the case.

More importantly, the honour acknowledges the link between design and innovation, demonstrated by Dixon projects such as the award-winning light/ seating concept, Jack. And it applauds entrepreneurialism in design – Dixon set up west London furniture shop Space and made products through his company, Eurolounge.

But, coupled with news this week that London Transport has not yet replaced its design head Christopher Nell, Dixon’s honour also points up the changing face of design management over recent years.

Not that long ago quasi public sector concerns such as LT, British Rail (pre-privatisation) and British Airports Authority boasted exemplary design management practices. Design management pioneers working for these organisations, such as Jane Priestman (BAA, then BR), Dick Petersen (BAA), Tony Key (BAA, BT, then BBC) and Jeremy Rewse-Davies (LT), gained the respect of the design and client communities alike, adding a welcome new dimension to the industry.

But privatisation policies and management shifts have put paid to that function in many of these organisations. Though most of the above “names” remain active in design, all have retired from their former jobs and have not always been directly replaced by the organisations they previously championed.

Things have changed and the cult of the individual star that gave us the likes of Priestman, Nell and Key has waned as teamwork has become more important in management. At the same time, more design management graduates have come on to the market, creating more junior design management structures.

But while these are healthy developments, there are some organisations that would benefit more from having a fully fledged design director, preferably at board level, because of the complexity of their operations. They need potent internal and external communications and a strong customer interface.

Habitat, as a retailer in the lifestyle sector, obviously realises this, hence Dixon’s position. So, until recently, did London Transport, but now, like the BBC, it has had a change of heart. Yet if such organisations are to remain effective in a fast-changing world, they must manage design well to harness its full potential. They are using it anyway, so why not do it properly and with pride?

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