Design jumps on board

Designers in all areas of the corporate structure are now making contributions to their company’s design management philosophy, according to Naomi Gornick

Design management issues have recently been back on the agenda. Recent comments in Design Week prompted me to make some connections between individual opinions. My first thought is how much the subject has moved on since we first started talking about it in the 1980s. But then why should we assume that our first thoughts would remain static when every sphere of design activity is susceptible to the changes that besiege the creative industries?

We have already been warned that design should not be ignored at board level when reporting the departure and non-replacement of head of design at London Transport (Comment, DW 23 June). Considering its strong design heritage, it is impossible to imagine that organisation without a modern day Frank Pick to lead changes, especially now, when there is such critical consumer and Government focus on public transport. But if companies are now having to re-invent themselves in years not decades, it is hardly surprising that the turbulence in corporate life is reflected in changes at design director level.

It is disappointing that LT is not replacing its head of design. First, because strategic management of design is now a recognised asset in corporate environments; second, because it has always been acknowledged that design cannot flourish unless decisions are made at the highest possible level in the corporate hierarchy.

After prolonged promotion and persuasion, the value of design has now been grasped by most companies. How to integrate it into organisations along with design strategy and innovation is still causing some head-scratching. We may have come a long way, but there is still much to achieve. The picture seems to be quite gloomy, but is it? We have to ask ourselves if the design flame is completely extinguished when a senior design personality leaves. Some working patterns have emerged over the years that show us this may not be the case.

We are finding that design management activity can take place at three levels within a company, sometimes simultaneously. Design directors normally deal with policy issues, the corporate vision and the overall position of design in the organisation. At the strategic level, decisions are made on products relating to the organisation’s aims and strengths. Design management at project level normally guides the whole design process through to completion.

It is the middle ground in this field of activity which has been progressing over the years, and which has longer-lasting characteristics and a good track record. At this level there are now strong and influential design management personnel. Bill Sermon at Nokia, Les Wynn at Xerox, Mike Crump at British Airways and Joanna O’Driscoll and Stephen Challis at BAA are just a few examples. Their precise roles and tasks vary depending on the companies in which they work. They are rising steadily through the corporate ranks. In the process, they have acquired a high degree of trust across many disciplines and become catalysts for innovation and change. When it comes to vision and strategy they are pivotal decision-makers.

As to their work titles, there are no hard and fast rules. Each corporate culture has its own language and the terminology in general has not yet settled down. Design management roles differ from one organisation to the next (Comment, DW 21 July). We have to get used to the idea that definitions are not carved in stone these days but in the ether.

Most design management courses maintain that there are many career pathways which reflect not only the ethos of the organisation, but also the special skills and chosen directions of the practitioners. It is essential to create a language for design management that improves and enhances existing management structures. In that way its role can be developed and prized. Imaginative titles in industry may be difficult to categorise, but they show that new types of professional contribution have been acknowledged.

Ultimately, the key to successful evaluation is what design strategists do, not what they are called. David Bernstein recently wrote about this (Private View, DW 23 June). These new design professionals have a totally integrated role, contribute fully to the organisation and can champion design in difficult circumstances – both as flames and as pilot lights.

Naomi Gornick is an Associate Professor of Design Management at Brunel University

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