Entrepreneur Alex Pratt has spent the past 18 months on secondment to the Department of Trade and Industry, bearing the title export promoter.
During this time he has not only become a “full convert to design” himself, but he has made an enormous effort to convince the DTI of design’s importance. He has encouraged it to look at its own identity, convinced DTI staff that “the Design Council is worth listening to on an ongoing basis” and strengthened design’s presence in the North America Now export campaign.
“I never really thought about design before,” says Pratt, whose Aylesbury company Sunalex has made a fortune manufacturing an industrial version of an Anglepoise lamp and caused Pratt to be named a British industry Rising Star by financial services agency Price Waterhouse.
Pratt was not originally asked by the DTI to champion design. “The Government was looking to see if it should get involved in export at all. Then we commissioned a KPMG survey, the results of which revealed that design was the best sector to promote – it would be receptive to Government involvement and there is a good skill base we can sell.”
Pratt had “never thought of design as a particularly important tool” until his DTI role, despite the fact that he employed local consultancy Vale Design to create his lamps.
“I started to realise that my company is actually based on design. It is totally customer-focused.”
He started to look at the DTI’s relationship with the Design Council and community, and found some changes were necessary. Such as the role of design in export promotion. “In Taiwan, for example, design is seen as essential to its export arm, but the DTI still uses it on an ad hoc basis.”
Pratt made contact with the Design Business Association and helped organise the North America Now’s first export mission for designers. The response has been unquestionably strong, three trade shows have followed and one third of the audience at a recent DTI seminar about exporting services to North America was from the design community.
Pratt has also attempted to “get people interested in export services to work together, such as the British Design Initiative and the DBA”, with some success.
Pratt’s secondment ends on 5 September, but his reign is not yet over. Another part of the DTI has “expressed an interest in him” and he feels it is “pretty likely” that he’ll stay on in some design capacity. He plans to continue to “try and help the DBA by using my influence”. Its Export Task Group is now considering where next to export.
Pratt has engineered a process which has started to deliver concrete help to designers who wanted to export their services but didn’t know how to go about it. His entrepreneurial spirit and dynamic drive to help the design industry are rare and extremely refreshing.
There are few people who know how to effectively promote design to industry, government and foreign clients, but Alice Rawsthorn, Alex Pratt and Vicky Sargent are three of our most successful champions for the industry. Beverley Cohen uncovers what motivates them in their roles
” Alice Rawsthorn is adamant that she has “no design talent”.
As a child, she was dragged “kicking and screaming” round galleries, and later realised that she loved them. She studied art and art history at Cambridge which was “useless and antideluvian”, but which opened up the world of architecture and demystified the “exclusive world of design” for her.
She was able to enter that world as design correspondent at the Financial Times between 1988 and 1991. Now entertainment industry correspondent for the paper, she just can’t let design go, and remains a trustee of the Design Museum, a non-executive director at the Design Council and a pundit on TV and radio when they need a design quote. She’s also writing three books, all connected to design.
Rawsthorn uses the word “passionate” a lot when she talks about design.
“I feel passionately that design has an enormously important role to play in improving Britain’s competitiveness, in terms of how the financial community does or doesn’t fund projects,” she says.
The financial community is what Rawsthorn knows about, and she feels this is why Sir
Terence Conran sought her out for her Design Museum role.
“I’m a conduit to the world outside the design community. I have up-to-date information which can be useful at fundraising brainstorms,” she says, seeing her role as semi outsider as crucial.
Rawthorn believes “passionately” in the importance of the Design Museum’s role, has been a trustee since 1991 and was closely involved in the planning for the museum’s seventh birthday gala.
“I remember when there was the threat of closure, there were redundancies and wrist-slashing all round, then it turned itself around. As a journalist it was deeply stimulating to see this process at close quarters.”
Rawsthorn’s highest-profile job for the Design Museum has been following in the footsteps of designers Jasper Morrison and Ross Lovegrove as curator of the Conran Foundation Collection. Her selection of 27 000 worth of items in current production was exhibited from last November until mid-April.
“I think Terence particularly wanted someone who wasn’t a designer for this collection,” she says.
Rawsthorn “feels much more comfortable” talking about people other than herself. “If you were Newsnight wanting a soundbite about the Design Council I’d be much happier,” she says during the interview.
She doesn’t see herself as a champion of design. “I’m not trying to influence anyone,” she says. Yet she spoke on behalf of the Design Council at a presentation to the Department of Trade and Industry’s export promotion unit in May, attends board meetings and is on hand to help. She spends at least two days a month in her totally voluntary capacities for the council and the museum, and has no intention of giving up either.
Rawsthorn is also in a position to publicise successful design collaborations in the FT, such as James Dyson’s Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner.
“Maybe I can help get more support for design by raising these issues,” she says – yes – passionately.
Vicky Sargent is always described in Design Week as an “independent consultant” – which – of course – is technically correct. But Sargent, whose curriculum vitae includes “first chief executive of the Design Business Association”, plays a multi-faceted role in the design world.
Design education has become her specialism. She has been involved in marketing National Vocational Qualifications at the Royal Society of Arts and is consultant director of education at British Design and Art Direction. She also acts as a consultant to the Design Council.
Sargent’s most recent commission was a new education strategy for D&AD, the result of six months’ intensive investigations. It includes a programme for design tutors, who Sargent sees as having been “totally neglected” in the past.
She has strong opinions about the difficulties designers experience in the training arena, as opposed to advertising executives, and she is in a position to lobby for them. D&AD, the RSA, the DBA and the Chartered Society of Designers all listen to her views.
“It is difficult if you’re a graduate designer. You can be an advertising copywriter if you’ve trained as a lawyer, but with design you need a lot of training and it’s hard to get work. I wanted to do something for designers,” she says.
Sargent has enabled D&AD to establish workshops for graduate designers, which will start this autumn.
Applicants are set a brief by a consultancy and have it criticised in order to join the workshops. Places are limited and it won’t be easy to join, but they will “perform a very useful function, even if graduates don’t get on to the workshops they can at least get feedback for their work”.
Sargent also campaigns for the introduction of design into marketing and business courses.
“We don’t need to set up courses about what design is, as we did in the Eighties,” she says. “But design needs to be an integral part of other courses so tomorrow’s marketers are aware of its importance.”
In her capacity as consultant to the Design Council, she works with education and training director Moira Fraser Steele on awards and on the education and training side.
As a former DBA chief executive, Sargent has a certain perspective.
“When I first came into the business there was less need for designers to understand business aspects. If you were a good designer that was all that was required. People didn’t like the DBA for the juxtaposition of design and business in its title.”
The DBA was just “a nice idea” in 1988 when Sargent joined. By 1992, when she left, it was an independent body, had a large membership and a significant programme. As a result of these experiences she wrote a Department of Trade and Industry publication called Choosing and Appointing a Design Consultancy.
Sargent herself has no connection with design. “I failed art O-level – but I always felt it was an interesting area,” she says. “It’s good to work with creative people and design is such a powerful tool.”
Before joining the DBA Sargent had a marketing and communications background.
“I learned a lot through working in business,” she says. “When I was a client I was aware I didn’t know how to commission design, then I’d feel disappointed at the results. I don’t exactly see myself as a champion of designers but I would like to change this situation.”