Industry can benefit from existing funding sources

You might think we’re over-egging it devoting two sections this week to the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. To write a News Analysis could be seen as excessive. He is, after all, not even a client per se.

But there is method in it. Nesta has substantial funds to spend each year on projects in, as its title suggests, the fields of science, technology and the arts, which includes design (albeit largely under ‘the arts’). Its resources are bigger than many a brand manager’s budget, hence the validity of profiling its chief executive.

The irony is that just as the initiative, launched in 1998 by the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith, isn’t associated with design through its title, so designers and design bodies haven’t rushed in droves to secure funding from it. The four recipients cited in our analysis are on their own this year, and, commendable though their projects are, you could argue that at least two of them are on the fringes of design as most of us define it, focusing more on engineering than, say, ergonomics and styling or strategic research.

The reality is that design is a commercial business, and designers are not used to seeking grant aid for their endeavours. Yet we all bemoan the demise of research and development – in other words, risk-taking – in industry. This is certainly true in product design, where the brightest design groups create their own products to explore ideas and technologies probably out of their marketing budgets – the self-generated efforts of Seymour Powell and Priestman Goode, for example, have won them media coverage and possibly projects. But should they have to pay for it?

Nesta and other such funding sources can help enormously, yet somehow it goes against the grain of design to apply for cash. Anyone who was at the Nesta launch will tell you how poorly design’s case was put by would-be petitioners compared with that of the bodies representing science – no boffins there when it comes to securing cash – or even crafts. The same is generally true of attitudes towards and knowledge of European Community funding and other sources

Design needs to learn to take what support is there – or at least to go for it. Yet most consultancies don’t even consider the possibility of outside help. The responsibility must lie with the likes of the Design Council and the Design Business Association to promote funding ideas. If they could put their heads together, the industry could could surely crack it.

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