Getting down to real business

A conference in Halifax last week gathered key members of the design community together to discuss the future of the industry and its representation. Lynda Relph-Knight discusses a few of the ideas generated and the next steps to be taken

The design community will take a positive stab at anything, given half a chance. But when the future of the industry itself is up for debate, real passion and vision come into play and any petty political squabbles are cast aside.

This is what happened in Halifax last week when some 50 designers, clients, educationalists and civil servants got together to thrash out the thorny issue of how design might best be represented.

The two-day conference at Dean Clough came in the wake of highly emotive events for design, notably Nick Jenkins’ resignation as Chartered Society of Designers president because the CSD executive committee refused to back the review of design representation. The CSD is still refusing to pay the 5000 pledged to the review funds by Jenkins, on the grounds that no formal agreement was made with change management consultant Kinsley Lord, even though publication of the pledge in Design Week went unchallenged by CSD elected officers or its executive.

The CSD’s withdrawal from the review fed speculation that the sole purpose of the conference would be to find a way to close the CSD and merge it with the Design Business Association. Add to this the CSD’s announcement on the eve of the event that it had done a deal to settle a large part of its 950 000 debt by the year 2004 and design’s “political” factions were well fuelled.

Aims of the review

The aim set down by the review team – Design Council design director Sean Blair, DBA chairman Jonathan Sands, former CSD president Nick Jenkins and myself – was to generate fresh thinking and, setting conflict aside, focus on the common ground between various interests in the industry.

In the event, delegates saw rationalising the professional bodies representing designers as a relatively small hurdle to be overcome on the road to getting design a much more influential role in Britain’s future. Though there was overwhelming agreement that the industry needs a single voice or “door”, the Halifax Initiative, as the venture is now known, centres more on an information-based approach using electronic media to communicate design’s strength to a broad global constituency.

Ideas and solutions

Ideas around this theme ranged from a University of Design, to be based at the Millennium Dome in Greenwich post-2000, to match the Government’s planned University for Industry to an Internet-based, BT-funded Design Highway. The latter, evolved by a group including Douglas Cooper, design co-ordinator at The John Lewis Partnership, British Design and Art Direction director David Kester and Design Council chief executive Andrew Summers, gave free access to design-related data for all, but had a subscription-only Design Channel for surfers needing more detailed information. Considerable thought had gone into how these initiatives might be funded and the infrastructure which they were based on.

Fantasy organisations

“Prosperity through design” was a popular sentiment to emerge from role-playing exercises about the future. One group, including Pentagram partner Kenneth Grange, business advisor Lorna Dallas Conté and Paul Siodmok of Octo Design, portrayed a thriving design organisation, dubbed Design Business Achievement, with 20 000 members and enjoying the stature of the US Harvard Business School.

Many of these ideas were echoed by other teams, such was the general optimism.

Grange’s group tackled the issue of design’s trade bodies head on. Born out of the DBA, Design Business Achievement took a strong business line for design. Other ideas about a body representing designers and design consultancies were less directly money-motivated.

The fictitious Design UK, for example, was portrayed five years on by Fitch’s Bill Sermon as having a strong research base, while the Design Association proposed by Summers’ team was notionally formed in 1998, through an interim marriage between the CSD and DBA, but had long ceased to exist by 2007, superseded by the Design Highway. Then there was Passion Fruit, brainchild of Mark Rollinson, Quentin Newark and friends.

Role of trade body

There was debate on the fundamental difference between an organisation representing design per se and a trade body representing designers and consultancies and meeting their business and education needs. The consensus was that having only one trade body made sense, and a membership figure of around 20 000 was consistently quoted as ideal. At present the DBA has some 250 company members and the CSD around 6000 individuals, including design managers, design teachers and clients.

Delegates thought any new trade body should include design groups and in-house design teams, individual designers and design managers as its core membership. There was less agreement about educationalists, with some maintaining they should remain independent.

But education in itself was a recurring theme, in the form of undergraduate studies and continuing professional development. Many felt a trade body should have control over qualifications for entering the design profession, as the Royal Institute of British Architects does over architecture, and should regulate the number of graduates entering the industry each year. CPD, meanwhile, was seen as vital for the development of the design community and very much the remit of a trade body.

Setting and maintaining professional standards was high on the wish-list for a trade body. The need for an accreditation system for designers and design groups was also considered key. But there was a slightly broader perception of how the industry could be unified to give one strong voice for its diverse interests, with most delegates agreeing that diversity was one of design’s great assets and should be preserved.

One model has a united trade body as the voice of, and point of access to, design. Alternatively, an umbrella organisation could be established as a filter to the trade body and other bodies such as the Design Council, the Royal Society of Arts and D&AD. But these ideas are just for starters and an ideal structure will be addressed by a task group of delegates to be set up as part of the action plan coming out of the conference.

Action plan

The action plan has two main strands: exploring the best way to give design a unified front; and a communication strategy to broadcast ideas generated by conference delegates to a wide audience and encourage ownership and development of them by others in the industry.

Task groups of conference delegates are to take on the first job, while a series of evening meetings in design groups across the country and more conventional written communications will be used to tell the story. Where appropriate, other people with particular expertise will be brought in to lend a hand.

Timescales and funding targets and sources have yet to be determined – a task DBA chairman Sands is taking the lead on. But Summers has agreed in principle that the Design Council will continue to back the project to an extent, having already put 25 000 towards the 35 000 the review has cost to date.

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