Opening doors to the real world

Cross-fertilisation between business and design education is a core function of the growing network of centres of excellence, explains Gina Lovett

When Sir George Cox, chairman of the Design Council and author of the Cox Review, unveiled his recommendations for higher education in 2005, he had a vision of multi-faceted centres of excellence producing some of the most skilled and well-rounded design graduates in the world.

Two years on, these centres are slowly beginning to spring up around the UK. Of the higher profile ones, those such as Design London, the strategic partnership between the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London (DW 31 May), claim to be shaping the higher education landscape.

Outside of London, centres such as Coventry University Enterprises, the commercial arm of Coventry University, are working more quietly at integrating design into local businesses.

But, while the emergence of a national network of centres of excellence is ultimately attempting to bring design in to business through entrepreneurship and innovation, it is also bringing about a host of varying interpretations and approaches to these issues, based on fostering an understanding of the importance of design, as well as encouraging its integration into different disciplines.

This individual approach is something that Cox is applauding. ‘Why should we go down the route of a national programme? This is not something that’s meant to be prescriptive. It’s about creating an enlightened self-interest,’ he says. ‘If everyone does their bit, it will have a ripple effect on the creative economy. Creativity will spread. It’s not something that comes from the top.’

Championing a practical approach to these issues is Coventry University Enterprises’s Design Hub, led by programmes manager Kathryn

Stewart. ‘Our centre is born out of practical experience and a lack of facilities,’ she says.

Stewart explains that the Design Hub operates on a partnership basis with local companies, whereby there is benefit for all involved through swapping knowledge, creativity, ideas, resources and facilities.

‘It’s a four-part model that pulls in the client, a university expert, final-year students and suppliers, who all work together to solve particular client problems. The idea is to get the local area engaged with design in the first place, while the students go away more equipped with business and technical skills,’ she says.

With the hub supported by a series of networking events and innovation initiatives, Stewart feels that the university is playing a major role in raising the profile of design at a regional level. ‘Our ultimate intention is to help graduates get jobs and encourage people to stay in the area,’ she says.

Similarly, London’s Central St Martins Innovation, led by head of enterprise and innovation, Dani Salvadori, is looking at nurturing innovation through integration with business, although from a more academic direction, with both cutting-edge research projects and an MA Innovation Management course.

Head of Central St Martins College of Art and Design, Jane Rapley, explains, ‘We’re trying to look at how innovation can make a bridge into the real world from the academic world. We’re also looking at how we can enhance the applications of scientific and medical advancements for cultural purposes.’

The cross-disciplinary approach, bringing creativity into other areas and fostering understanding of how design can be used in business is something that Design London is expected to spearhead through its strategic triangular partnership, involving the prestigious design, business and engineering institutions the RCA, the Tanaka Business School and ICL.

‘The idea with Design London is to merge and mix the disciplines to encourage cross-fertilisation,’ says Jeremy Myerson, Professor of design studies at the RCA and director of the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre.

‘One of the challenges in innovation, for instance, is the application of new technology. The social application of these new inventions is precisely what designers are good at,’ he says.

RCA rector Professor Sir Christopher Frayling explains that this approach has its roots in the concept of a ‘T-shaped’ designer, with the vertical bar representing specialist knowledge of design. The horizontal represents additional skills and knowledge from other useful areas that might be science, technology, business or engineering.

‘The T-shape is about creating additional value and know-how. It’s about introducing these at the right time,’ he explains.

Professor David Gann, head of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Tanaka Business School, says that the simulator part of the centre, which will help established businesses with innovation, as well as offering entrepreneurship courses, will play an important role in creating a synergy between business and design.

‘It’s not just about the design of products and services, but about how they are used. It’s about business costs, end-use and the processes required to make them,’ he says.

Inventor Sir James Dyson, who will chair Design London’s advisory board, agrees. ‘Design, engineering and business are intrinsically linked,’ he says. ‘Without innovation, design is merely superficial styling. Innovation and design play a vital role in business.’

• The Higher Education Funding Council for England Strategic Development Fund
• The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts
• Regional development agencies, including London Development Agency and Advantage West Midlands

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