Leadership in Design

The Taking a Lead debate asked how to create a strong, unified approach to the needs of the design industry. Lynda Relph-Knight finds everyone wants the same ends; it’s the means that differ

Passions ran high at a debate, Taking a Lead, organised towards the end of last year by the Design Business Association, when The Identica Partnership chairman and managing director Michael Peters, Enterprise IG executive creative director Jon Turner and Deepgroup chief executive Gary Lockton expressed their views on leadership within the design community.

The consensus among the audience was that it is sadly lacking, and each speaker suggested a different remedy. Peters proposed the setting up of a “maverick” group of practitioners to lobby Government in the way he and other then leaders did in the 1980s when Baroness Thatcher held the reins at 10 Downing Street; Turner said we needed more “pop stars” to represent the industry to the public at large – to displace anti-design heroes such as Changing Rooms star Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen; and Lockton advocated leadership by inclusiveness and chivvying from behind.

Debate was rife, with existing design bodies including the DBA and the evening’s host the Design Council drawing criticism. But the issues – many of which have been raised many times before, not least through the Halifax Initiative of 1997, which in turn led to the formation of Design Unity as an umbrella organisation to improve communication between six design bodies – remained unresolved.

There was, though, an undertaking to try to move things on this time, with Design Week and the DBA co-ordinating opinion. A trawl of diverse views, mainly from people at the debate, is included here. Please send us your ideas about how we might, as an industry, effect change for the better.

I wish that more of our industry would participate in the major issues that concern all of us. Until we all start to contribute and accept the need to change, nothing is going to happen. The different views on the issues discussed indicated a lot of confusion and dissatisfaction within our own industry which needs to be actioned.

We need unity within the industry and clear direction from the industry about the industry. As a business and as individuals, we have always supported the DBA and would welcome consolidation of the various design associations to form a more focused voice.

Ian Silverstein

Managing Director

Creative Action Design

The interesting thing about the DBA debate was how the leadership issue segued into the real issue – regaining status and recognition for the design industry. Compared with the mid-1980s, it has lost confidence and is suffering from a collective “small willie” syndrome. Until the crash of 1989/ 90, design was centre-stage in the consciousness of the British public, and was accorded a status it has now lost.

We need to decide what our objectives are. Until we do, it’s useless to discuss the structure of pressure groups. If we believe that “design delivers sustainable commercial or cultural advantage for its clients”, the objective should be to communicate that to British industry.

Simon Sholl

Planning and development


Siebert Head

Having resigned as president of the Chartered Society of Designers over its executive committee’s refusal to participate in the Halifax Initiative, which led to the umbrella grouping Design Unity, I have every sympathy with the frustration within the industry as voiced at the DBA debate. Successive governments have expressed their desire to deal with single representative bodies of every industry, and it is now overdue for this to be established in design.

Design Unity currently flounders due, I suspect, to vested interests of the various bodies concerned. However, with strong leadership things might change. This would involve a change of structure, with an industry-wide election of an executive team, regardless of any affiliations to existing professional organisations.

However, the organisations concerned would need to endorse the notion without reservations, and co-operate fully in the interests of single representation as required by Government.

Perhaps an articulated plea from Design Unity might sway the situation?

Nicholas Jenkins


Nicholas Jenkins design

I was surprised to hear so many comments at the debate about joining together and forming one voice to raise the standards of the industry. We work in an industry where only the strongest survive, so for someone to suggest we all just say no to free pitches just isn’t going to happen.

And to suggest pop stars are what we need is absurd. Look at what happened to David Beckham, for example. Once you put someone on a platform the media waits to knock them down (let’s not forget the last big thing design wise to hit the public domain the Dome).

Pop stars create awareness and attention, but once you have that type of person, what do the public aspire to? The job or the lifestyle? If this happened we’d be in risk of ending up with an influx of bad, untalented designers who would eventually kill the industry.

The one suggestion that stood out was that of “unity of industry bodies”. If anyone can join forces and make a difference it is the likes of the DBA and all the other bodies. A possible solution is that education and the industry form closer links. To decide you want to be a designer is to be passionate about an industry that allows you to see your dreams and ideas come to life. So the opportunity for people to join our industry must be made more available and accessible.

Steve Royle

Senior designer

Corsie Naysmith

The trouble with leadership is that for real success it needs enormous energy, megalomania and focus. The trouble with design is that it is too eclectic to be focused, it is always a blur. There is no such thing as a designer except when the fashion business uses the word, and that, therefore, is how the public sees us. Elsewhere there always has to be a qualifying adjective – interior, graphic, exhibition, and so on.

The whole of design needs its own special megalomaniac leader. No matter what any particular group claims, we are ill-defined, barely understood, poorly represented, badly paid and underestimated.

Giles Velarde

The idea that there should be one voice for design rather than a disparate array of bodies is the way forward. But the point Michael Peters made that designers are abdicating responsibility to lead the industry must also be considered.

Having any group promote design to industry is just another form of abdicating that responsibility. If designers did more to educate clients on the benefits of a committed approach to design within their business strategies, imagine how many businesses would get the message. This would have more influence than any of the current representative bodies put together.

Martin Devlin


The Workroom

I felt that practitioners who have been working in the design industry for four decades were raising the same old issues, saying the same thing. Michael Peters has fought in the past and it’s the turn of the younger designers to pick up the mantle, if we have the energy and the conviction to see it through. The idea that our industry needs high-profile leaders like pop stars is as incongruous as Marilyn Manson representing country music or the members of Design Unity publicly fulfilling their mandate.

During Deepend’s six years, the design industry bodies provided us with little day-to-day representation. It is only by achieving the reputation we now have, and through the commitment to these organisations of my partner Gary Lockton that we can benefit from the behind-the-scenes knowledge of each of these supposed partners. In theory, Design Unity is a great idea, but in practice it does not have any substance or voice and it appears powerless to keep its stable of labels in some kind of order.

We all try to be different, searching for something that will give us the edge and allow survival in a fiercely competitive market, but unless we have some standards and union we are all on amateur nights singing blind in our locals.

Simon Waterfall

Creative Director

Deepgroup, London

Why not approach the Royal Institute of British Architects to set up an overall design body, The Royal Institute of British Designers? All design disciplines could sit under one umbrella as a series of sub-groups, all belonging to the same charter. This would enable each discipline to have its own guidelines for process, fees, indemnity and the like, but share a code of conduct. This has lots of advantages:

– It is an established, reputable body.

– It would be a single body.

– Each discipline is individually represented.

– There would be a common code of conduct across all disciplines.

– There’d be clarity about what the design body does – a simple one-stop shop.

– It would offer clients and public a single chartered standard for design.

– It would explain design’s role in society.

– It would re-enforce the value of British design as an exportable commodity.

– It would be a vehicle that Government would have fewer concerns about funding.

– It would encourage a common design forum.

Chris Morrison



For too long, the design industry has been disjointed and fragmented; and it’s our fault. It’s now time we rectified this problem, before we cause irreparable damage to ourselves as a whole.

The only solution is that we, as an important industry both in the UK and throughout the world, present a united voice. We have the Design Council, DBA, Design Unity, British Design & Art Direction, and the CSD. It’s time that all these organisations come together, forming one representative body for the whole of the design industry.

Another option is to establish a maverick group within a long-term vision, to lobby the Government, along the lines of what several of us achieved for the design industry during the 1980s. We secured meetings with the then Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher, whose subsequent recognition of the value of British design, especially in export markets, lead her to appoint a minister of design and technology.

She also convinced the Department of Trade and Industry to provide funds for small manufacturing companies that needed to use design in order to compete in the world markets. It took a number of committed individuals at the time and it’s what we need again today, but on a sustainable level.

An area that needs to be addressed immediately is the issue of standards. For our industry to be respected, we must generate a set of standards and practices that prevent consultancies from being asked to pitch for the proverbial “£1000”.

We need one voice that represents all of us, where standards for entry are reflective of the quality of the work rather than the size of our organisations. Clients must realise that if they were to approach the newly established design industry voice, they would only be working with the very best, and the “£1000 pitch fee” would be eliminated. Standards will then become the definitive measure.

Michael Peters

founder and managing director

the Identica partnership

There are leaders in our industry who are becoming powerful by their refusal to contribute. They take a considered, recessive stance. They do not self-publicise, they do not attend industry debates. They do not over-intellectualise or hide behind “brand” nonsense. They lead from the front by doing the best, most intelligent, beautiful, effective work. Their refusal to contribute to a mediocre industry is their message. The majority of us know who they are, we just haven’t celebrated them yet.

Jonathan Ellery



Our industry is diverse and contains many opinionated people. But we have one common thread: we always tell our clients to formulate their offer before going public, and we unwittingly find ourselves in that position – resulting in an understandably confused audience.

Even more confusing is the fact that there are so many claimants to the throne of Leader of Design, but most of them are simply self-publicists with no right to be there. We have self-styled “design gurus” with no idea of popular culture, and TV home “designers” slagging off design training as unnecessary.

I applaud stars, but appropriate stars are many other industries led by individuals not trained in that discipline? n

Jon Turner

Executive creative director

Enterprise IG

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