Find a chief par excellence

Colum Lowe argues that the DBA’s chief executive vacancy is of limited appeal because the rewards, although potentially huge, could be outweighed by the pitfalls

The Design Business Association board will announce its next chief executive and future vision at its AGM next week. This made me think; who’d want the job? If the DBA is seeking a designer first and foremost (and I hope for our industry’s sake it is), who’d give up a senior creative or management position in a consultancy to manage a small, internal team and report not only to a chairman, but to a board of seven non-executive directors? Who has the business acumen to save the DBA from extinction, unite the industry, promote it to the commercial sector and will work for a limited salary on a fixed term contract with no safety net?

It seems the person who gets this position must, above all, have a passion for the design industry bordering on obsession. They must have a real desire to see it grow from a marginalised and disparate ‘profession’ to a truly national industry – if this is not their overriding ambition how can they dedicate three years to the design business and, possibly more importantly, the business of design.

The first issue facing the new incumbent will be to ensure the DBA’s survival, which means increasing the number of members. So what tangible benefits do members actually get for their annual subscription? Many of the DBA’s services are also available to non-members, the networking and marketing activities are hardly exclusive and add few tangible benefits, and most of the other activities are being better delivered by other organisations.

The Interiors Forum has stolen a march on the DBA in terms of public debating, the Design Council is at the forefront of promoting design to industry and providing research, the DBA’s professional development programme seems dated and ‘fluffy’ compared to the plethora of MAs and MBAs available in design-related topics and the Chartered Society of Designers gives you letters after your name. I could go on.

So what’s left for the DBA? What does it actually do for its members, what is it really trying to achieve? Is ‘Design Effectiveness’ really a broad enough remit? Vinnie Jones was a very ‘effective’ midfield player, but hardly exemplary.

For me there is one answer: promoting design excellence. If the DBA can’t promote excellence, then for my money it has no raison d’être. And there is more to being excellent than being effective. Effective focuses on the end result not the process, which is at the heart of providing great design. Excellence, through every part of the design process, leads to effectiveness and should be the key focus. I take nothing away from the brilliant work the DBA does with regard to the Design Effectiveness Awards.

It’s more about continuing to push the boundaries of what clients and design consultancies should expect from each other. Sadly, this results in a small problem: defining what design excellence is – and, more importantly, who judges it, gets to say what’s good or bad, and is prepared to refuse membership to consultancies that are not ‘excellent’, or, worse still, reprimand existing members for non-excellent work. And if that happened, who’d want to join an association that had that kind of power based on potentially speculative judgment? The answer is, of course, only consultancies totally committed to design excellence, that are able to deliver it regularly, and believe having the DBA’s seal of approval is a valuable marketing tool.

Would that increase or decrease membership levels? Who knows? But it would be an organisation I’d be proud to be a member of and one that stood for something in the eyes of clients.

It’s easy to view the DBA chief executive position as a poisoned chalice. It will look great on your CV, but may prove an impossible challenge and instead of making your reputation could destroy your career. But a place in design history awaits the lucky candidate who can turn the DBA into an industry body that every consultancy in the land wants to be associated with and one British industry takes seriously.

As designers we all know that having an idea is one thing, getting it implemented unscathed quite another. Whoever takes on the chief executive role has a near impossible task given the resources available and the scale of the challenge ahead; and if you want to know who it is I’ll be seeing you on 10 December. I for one wouldn’t miss it.

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