Cat Drew: “You don’t have to be from a creative background to be a designer”

Design Council chief design officer Cat Drew is on a mission to open up design to anyone who has not had access to studying creative subjects and even those who might feel they are stuck in the wrong career.

The UK digital sector now accounts for over 7% of the country’s economy, with the creative industries pulling in a staggering £111.7 billion in 2018, according to the latest figures from DCMS. Design alone contributes £85.2bn GVA to the national economy. That’s about 73% (or three-quarters) of what the financial services and insurance industry contributes.  

While the sector’s huge growth over the years has created fertile ground for creatives across the country, as a whole we are still struggling to attract fresh and diverse talent to harness the many opportunities that design skills and careers hold.  

Signs of interest in the sector among young people have already waned over the past two decades. The number of students studying design and technology at GCSE has plummeted from 424,468 in 2010 to 99,659 in 2019, yet design undoubtedly remains a skill that people need in order to turn their ideas into action, to humanise technology and to achieve radical reimagination of today’s world — something that is becoming blindingly apparent that we need to do now.  

For many individuals looking to discover and build their design skills — especially those coming from non-creative backgrounds — knowing where to start can be difficult. Part of the Design Council’s charitable mission is to spread design skills to non-designers, including graduates, SMEs, people wanting to change careers, as well as those who could benefit from design skills in their current roles.  

Design Council, chief design officer, Cat Drew

To do this effectively, we as an industry need to work harder to dispel the various myths around what it means to be a designer. This means helping those with different backgrounds, outlooks and experiences better navigate all that the sector has to offer. 

There is no one design career path

Possibly the biggest myth that has shrouded the design industry for decades is the idea that the only way to learn and practice design is to become a designer. You don’t have to be from a creative background to become a designer. 

Yes, the more mainstream pathways into design roles such as freelancing, launching your own agency, working in-house or in-agency as a designer are still there, but the opportunity for people to adopt design skills within, or indeed regardless of, their current job or career is more prevalent than ever before. 

Currently, of the 1.69 million people working in design roles in the UK, over 1 million are working in non-design sectors according to our Design Economy report. The findings also show that when you widen the national economic contribution of the design industry in terms of GVA to include all people practicing design skills in their jobs, the number soars from £85.2bn to £209bn (according to our Designing a Future Economy research).   

Some of those professionals might be working in automation, accommodation or banking, and some may have indeed studied it formally. However, it is more likely that many will have picked up design skills due to the changing nature of the modern jobscape. The demands that new and continuously emerging technologies have placed on almost every sector have meant that more organisations are embedding design thinking as a core practise across multiple disciplines. Now, businesses of all sizes are picking up design skills as a general approach to generating new revenue streams, diversifying their product offerings or solving complex challenges. 

Organisations often commission external design work for this, but could just as easily utilise designers within their own workforce that they probably didn’t know they had. For example, the Design Council worked to train up 70 local councils’ teams across the country in user-centred design approaches, allowing around 350 people in non-design roles to learn design skills & mindsets  relevant to their careers and to their wider department. The best part is that almost 90% of them felt so much more confident in their design skills afterwards that they would be able to pass them on to other people in their organisation. 

You don’t need a design degree to get going

Another widely-held belief that’s been holding the industry back is the myth that you need to have an arts or design degree in order to excel in a design career or bring design practices into your role.  

I started out with a degree in French and History and joined the civil service after I graduated. This might seem worlds away from my current role at the Design Council, but I’ve always kept up my passion for visual creativity and design-led approaches throughout the course of my career, even though I didn’t know it was called design. I was frustrated at writing strategies about how I was ‘empowering’ people that I had never met. So I started experimenting with different types of research, such as using blogs to directly talk to people, information design to present data in engaging ways, and ethnography to really understand what people’s lives were like. But it was hard, as this was not the norm. After taking 2 years out to live in Berlin (and make art), I came back and decided to study a graphic design masters degree.  

However, that’s what worked for me at the time. And luckily, at the same time, the Government’s Policy Lab was set out, and I was fortunate enough to be one of its founding members. Its role was to bring design thinking into the heart of policy making. So suddenly I was studying design, and able to apply it to social issues. But a lot of that was improvisation, and working with many non-designers to see how they can apply design practices. We had no teachers there, but Policy Lab has skilled up thousands of civil servants through doing design-led projects. So formal education is by no means the right or only path for everyone.  

In a sector as vast and varied as design, it truly doesn’t matter where you’re coming from or when or how you start out. What matters is that you have the drive, curiosity and the right resources to start and keep on developing your skills. 

I recently contributed to the free Digital Skills for the Workplace online courses, developed by FutureLearn and the University of Leeds, in partnership with the Institute of Coding, which have been specifically launched to support people without backgrounds in the digital industry, helping them gain the foundational skills they need to take their careers forward. Using flexible online resources such as these are a great way to access a quality design learning experience no matter where in your professional path you are or wish to be. That means anyone can feasibly pick up design – whether that’s half way through their careers or at the start – and unlock a number of exciting new skills and opportunities that employers and clients are looking for. 

It’s about mindset not just skillset

When we talk about having ‘design skills’ we also talk about having a ‘design mindset’ or attitude. This is what will allow you to approach almost any problem with a design-led solution. At the Design Council we frame the main aspects of a design mindset in three ways: the head, the heart and the hand. 

The ‘head’ relates to cognitive problem solving or question asking skills. It’s important not to jump straight to conclusions when thinking about solutions in design, but instead to really dig down into the problem first, think about what the real challenges are and the different ways they can be approached. And sometimes using design to pose provocative questions which open up the space for others to answer, or ponder, is extremely powerful. 

The ‘heart’ is all about empathy and trying to put yourself in the shoes of those you’re designing for. It goes without saying, but it is so important to make sure that your final product or place actually works for the people who will be using it – keeping them in mind from the start and throughout the process will ensure this. It’s also about a heart for the planet, being careful with materials and resources, using what exists already, and thinking about how things can be repurposed once they have been used. 

Naturally, the ‘hand’ skill is about making physical things and using materials to bring ideas to life and make them tangible to others. Rather than simply theorising, it’s important to learn by doing, seeing what works and then trying something different. Designers know their materials well – whether they are physical like clay or brick or more intangible like data or power – and how they can manipulate them to bring about change.  

Through the Design Council Spark programme, we’ve spotlighted countless examples of people from the most diverse range of backgrounds I’ve seen in the industry embracing this design mindset in order to create new solutions to age-old problems. Building the foundations of a truly design-focused mindset will have helped them, and many others, to achieve this goal. 

Employers, take note: design is everywhere!

Design is an incredibly empowering tool that can be used across a number of industries and job functions. There is even academic evidence demonstrating that co-design or participatory design increases wellbeing of staff. It’s a great way to encourage continuous learning and collaboration while giving professionals a greater sense of agency and helping them to realise their own ideas and solutions. 

What we need now is to see more companies embracing design and giving permission for their employees to try out things no matter what their current roles are. This could give people who have never thought of themselves as designers a chance to demystify the design process and really flourish within their careers. 


If you want to hear more about different careers available in design, check out our How to become a… series.

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