Staying one step ahead

Venturing into design, or even starting a design business, is something on the minds of several hundred students graduating from the UK’s design schools over the next few months. As always, leaving college and earning a living is a big transition.

The business world is rapidly evolving, so designers need to think in new ways if they want to make a difference, says Jim Northover

Venturing into design, or even starting a design business, is something on the minds of several hundred students graduating from the UK’s design schools over the next few months. As always, leaving college and earning a living is a big transition.

The good news is that there are plenty of new, or unmet challenges in the design world, just as there were 40 years ago when I started work (or even 30 odd years ago when I started Lloyd Northover). But back in the 1960s it all felt different.

In many ways, that period heralded the beginning of design as a force in business, where it has gradually grown in influence ever since. Inevitably, many still feel that design is underrated by management, but, for good or ill, design is now deeply embedded in the world of business.

So, for someone setting out today, what are the new challenges, the new frontiers? Or has it all been done? Has the spirit and passion that was so evident back then been progressively extinguished over the intervening years?

One of the things that drives designers, and certainly drove me in those early days (and ever since) has been the thought that you could change things through design. I remember thinking then that so much of what the corporate world generated was stuffy, cluttered, unco-ordinated and often plain ugly. A sense of bringing order to chaos was a powerful motivator. Today the motivators lie elsewhere.

The recent trend for everything and everyone to be ‘customer-focused’ is great, but it leads to more of the same. Focusing just on the customer doesn’t tell anyone what makes you different, while capturing the true identity of a business is not easy, especially as business conditions change so frequently and chief executives have shorter and shorter tenures. Part of what we can do, as designers, is to remind clients of the need to be themselves. The corporate self often needs to change too, but not so much as to lose sight of the originality that may have distinguished the business in the first place.

The other aspect that younger designers will be quick to pick up on is the diverse way in which we experience brands nowadays. The brand is increasingly becoming a two-way street. The brand owner is no longer in control. Customers today often tell companies when they are straying ‘off brand’. This high level of participation must mean that people are engaged with those brands. Apart from anything else, it provides valuable insight.

So, what specialisms, sectors or niches look interesting right now?

We have been through a period when specialising meant having a focus on a discipline or craft skill. Some designers devoted themselves to annual reports, packaging, digital media or retail environments. I think that specialisation does have a role, now and in the immediate future, but it’s not craft-based, it’s market-based.

To start out by keeping a broad view of the design contexts and a more focused view of specific market sectors may be no bad thing. No one wants to be typecast, but there is enough work to be found in individual sectors, where there’s often a real, unsolved job that needs doing.

Today we see designers working on brands for places or people, as well as for organisations and products. The concept of a brand being a motivating idea can be compelling for places or communities undergoing change and facing new futures.

As we know, towns, cities and regions are in competition with one another for funding, investment and talent. Depending on how Government policy develops, we could see a similar need for educational, cultural and healthcare institutions to use branding methodologies and design to focus on a direction and signal their difference in a more competitive world for social and civic services. We will also see more manufacturers bring their products directly to the customers.

I believe designers will increasingly have a role to play in creating content, as editors, generators of visual material and as producers. Greater interactivity, whether on-line or off-line, is becoming commonplace, as designers start to grapple with social networks as well as business ones. There’s plenty to be done out there. It just needs new thinking to make the difference.

Jim Northover is Chairman of Lloyd Northover

Re-energising your design approach

• Think about how you can change things through design
• Remind clients that they need to be themselves
• Find your specialisation
• Start by looking at niche markets, not design disciplines
• Consider how you can create ‘context’

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