We can unite from the outside to the core

The design industry needs to speak with one powerful voice that resonates nationally, regionally and locally, says Roger Proctor

How can the design industry emerge stronger from these challenging economic times and make a major economic, social and cultural contribution to the UK?

The answer, in my view, lies in co-ordination and robust support for the industry on a national, regional and local level.

The Government believes that the creative industries will be a key force in our economic recovery. Indeed, some of the new Local Economic Partnerships have made the creative industries central to their bids to the Government and a share of the £1.4bn Regional Growth Fund. This has to be matched by the private sector and proposals must focus on job creation.

The importance of a national design body to promote the value and relevance of design and to co-ordinate strategy and action across the sector has been recognised. But until recently, the Design Council had a ’red line’ through it.

In a parallel move, the Film Council-sponsored regional screen agencies are reforming into Creative England North, Central and South. Not only will they be promoting the film and television industry, but they will also be extending their work into other creative industries, including, inevitably, design. Creative England is in many ways a sector-specific LEP, and will no doubt be bidding for RGF projects and European Commission money.

Finally, we have to add into the mix the new budget pressures on higher education, which will make it more difficult for it to engage with the design industry.

So, although the ’landscape’ is simpler than it was before, it is still complicated.

One constant theme is the lack of co-ordination between the industry’s national membership bodies. They haven’t yet all signed up to the Design Council’s UK Design Alliance, while many of the local and regional design networks have. The alliance is the first, tentative step towards co-ordinating and supporting the actions of the networks and may be the most positive footing on which to build. The Government wants co-ordinated answers that cost less and deliver more.

However, local design networks, invariably run by volunteers, are under threat. The relatively little funding available to them is likely to shrink and it is often difficult for designers to give their skills and time when they already have businesses to run. And match funding from hard-pressed businesses is just a dream.

So perhaps a centralisation of the networks that still allows for ’localisation’ would be a powerful tool. It would enable us to create a common purpose, build on what we already have, deliver on innovation and entrepreneurship and also, hopefully, jobs.

Fundamentally, we need to join up the dots. We should build upon the UK Design Alliance to give it more backbone, and all of the design networks across the UK need to come together under its umbrella.

They would have a direct route to the Government and Europe, allowing the voice of the industry to be heard

By doing this we could pool knowledge and create real partnerships between the regional networks, the Design Council, Creative England and higher education. This would impress the Government much more than the current fragmentation and it fits well with the European Commission’s need to build design as an economic driver.

I would like to see regional design councils established to help bring all of this together. The Design Council would then have to be brave about its brand, but that is a small thing when so much could be gained. Maybe we could even have regional design centres based around some of the existing design incubation units, bringing together local practitioners, undergraduates, graduates, education and policy-makers.

This structure would allow the creation of centralised strategy, policy, research and bid-making that would then release funding for projects that the industry really needs to undertake in the face of increasing global competition. It would create more businesses that employ more people, and export more.

It could distribute the funding to the local networks, monitor and report and ultimately be the ’translation agency’ between Government and the practitioners on the ground. They would have a direct route to the Government and Europe, allowing the voice of the industry to be heard.

All of this is not so that designers can become politicians, but simply so that we can get on and do our jobs better, build our industry and really help deliver what it does so well – economic, social and cultural wealth.

So locally, designers would have a voice, relevance and sustainable design networks that deliver properly funded programmes. Nationally, we would have a co-ordinated design presence with a voice, shared strategy, relevant solutions, and our proper share of EC and other funding.

This model offers a cheaper solution, is non-competitive to the national subscription bodies, and delivers more from the design industry.

The benefits of localisation

  • A simpler model – design will talk with one voice to the Government and the European Commission
  • Consensus on strategy – understood between all parties – both inwards and outwards
  • Mechanisms for delivery – designers engaged in common objectives centred on key issues and strategies, that can be shared across the country
  • Regional specialisms – can be applied nationally and vice versa, and will also encourage the retention of regionally co-ordinated higher education participation
  • We deliver much more – the Government spends less overall and gets a better return on investment

Roger Proctor is managing director of Proctor & Stevenson and Intimis and former chairman of South West Design Forum

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