And nothing but the truth

A new Design Council initiative has resulted in open, honest dialogue between the participating designers and manufacturers. Colum Lowe gives a candid account

When did you last walk into a client’s boardroom, sit opposite the directors and tell them what you think of their business and products? I mean really tell them, honestly and truly, no holds barred, no pampering egos. Given the current economic climate, not recently, I’d guess. Unless that is, like me, you’re involved in the Design Council’s Design Led Business 24/7 project.

This initiative aims to deliver upon the Design Council’s mission of getting design into, and higher up the agenda of, British manufacturing. Here’s how it works: take a dozen or so leading designers, design managers and brand consultants, including such industry luminaries as Dick Powell, Paul Priestman, Clive Grinyer and Chris Thompson, drop them in groups of four into carefully selected British manufacturers, with a brief to analyse the current business in relation to how it understands its brand, design, its management, and the new product development process, and make recommendations on how to improve the current situation. Two drawbacks: you only have one day and you probably don’t know the other designers. But by mutual consent, the project as a whole, and the ‘Emersion’ days in particular, have proved a stunning success.

This is down to two main factors. First, the designers attended the Emersion days not as individuals, but as Design Council representatives, giving them added credibility and impartiality in the eyes of the manufacturers. Second, all the designers signed contracts preventing them marketing their services to the manufacturers for the project’s duration. This encouraged the designers to be totally honest and unguarded in their opinions while giving the manufacturers the confidence to disclose company information that designers are rarely privy to. Having access to all the strategic toys in the corporate toy-box is an enlightening experience and is why I worked in-house [at Homebase] for a while. It allows you to understand the broader business context and so produce otherwise impossible insights.

The Design Council has recently been criticised for not communicating its activities to the design industry, so this is my own small attempt to rectify that. It also raises an issue currently doing the rounds in the design press and debating arenas: ‘Should consultancies offer clients strategic advice?’

Johnson & Scholes defined a strategy as ‘the direction and scope of an organisation over the long term which ideally matches its resources to its changing environment and in particular its markets, customers or clients so as to meet stakeholder value’. Are designers equipped to deliver this? How many scientifically conduct analysis on their client’s value chain, business portfolio mix, corporate structure, market segmentation and so on; how many have experience in managing cultural change programmes and calculating hurdle rates; how many provide detailed, substantiated reports on the business’s external trading environment? Few, I suspect.

We are designers, not trained business consultants, and to claim we offer real strategic services is to belittle organisations like Boston Consulting Group, which, no matter how much we like to mock them, provide a valuable service. As an industry, design is frequently belittled by those claiming their activities are ‘design’ but are purely superficial exercises in making ‘stuff look nice’. So I’m not a big fan of claiming skills I’m not trained or experienced in while at the same time belittling other industries.

However, there are three elements of corporate strategy designers are well positioned to analyse and advise on; consumers, competitors and brand communications – some of the least tangible, but ultimately most important aspects of an organisation’s business. And it was these elements we became heavily embroiled in during the Emersion days. In fact, in small to medium-size organisations, such as those visited, these issues can be disproportionately important and as such so was our input. Let’s be clear though, we didn’t set ourselves up as the poor man’s BCG. But until it, and other business/strategy consultants like it, gain a fuller understanding of how design can contribute to the bottom line of British manufacturing, designers will always be forced to take on this aspect of corporate strategy themselves, qualified or not. Manufacturers are better off for it, not because it is the perfect end solution but rather because it is a continual raising of the bar.

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