University challenge is to support, not compete

The British Design Innovation report ‘Delivering the Innovation Dream’ and your article ‘Facing the university challenge’ (DW 2 April) provide strident critiques of the perceived danger of universities undermining the commercial design industry.

However, the report leaves out two aspects where universities might make significant contributions to a wider culture of innovation and the well-being of the design industry.

One is that we stimulate opportunities for designers. The other is we provide research and consultancy that networks expertise and functions over longer time-frames than the commercial design sector can support.

At Design Leeds, the design research and consultancy centre of Leeds Metropolitan University, we have been involved in a long-term collaboration with Leeds City Art Gallery to develop an approach and design brief for enhancing its youth area.

This has involved students and academics in envisioning processes. It has helped lever support funding, which has then been used to engage commercial design practices in completing the design brief.

In effect, our role has been to create demand for design services where it didn’t exist. We also undertake long-term projects that use experts in academic disciplines including health, human geography, cultural policy and tourism to assist in local authority and regional development agency policy development for sustainability and regeneration. Design thinking remains at the core of these.

All this involves university research and consultancy work for a public sector under Government pressure to adopt innovations. This benefit is something the BDI report doesn’t cover in depth.

Our mission isn’t to compete with the commercial design sector. We have to be cost-effective, and given our high overheads we could never compete. Ours is a different kind of resource.

Professor Guy Julier, Head, Design Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan University, by e-mail

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