The design industry’s collective banging of its head against the brick wall that is Whitehall might not yet have produced the desired result of design being championed by the Government as a wealth creator.
But designers looking for a little encouragement should cast a glance at Glasgow, where the message has been taken up with apparent vigour by the Glasgow Development Agency.
It is unique in the UK for such a local agency to have taken design to its heart and employed a dedicated full-time design promoter.
Listen to Adrian Searle, the GDA’s design executive: “The economists have identified design and technology as two major contributors to increased competitiveness for Glasgow domestically, in Europe and further afield.
“There is no way we can compete in terms of labour and material costs. Principally, we are aware that for Glasgow as a city to develop its economy, particularly in terms of manufacturing, then design and technology are the two tacks we have to take.”
The proximity of design and technology in the GDA’s thinking will come as no surprise to designers, who are well aware of how each brings added value to products and companies. But again it is refreshing to hear it from an arm of quasi-officialdom.
Technology came first as a theme for the GDA. Design followed, on the back of the city preparing for the 1999 City of Architecture and Design bid and subsequently as design was briefly held aloft in the glow of winning the title.
But pioneering ways of promoting investment in technology should prove handy now that it is design’s turn.
Concrete benefits from the GDA’s emphasis on design are not yet abundant. One of the first tangible results has been The Directory of Design Capability in Glasgow, produced earlier this year with Glasgow City Council, Strathclyde Business Development and Scottish Design.
The GDA’s senior manager for business development, Margaret McGarry, explains that the directory took a “broad brush approach” to the city’s design economy by including architecture and engineering.
The next step involves Searle in a much more sophisticated exercise, narrowing down the field in terms of what is a design consultancy but also including in-house design teams. As McGarry puts it: “By the end of this year we will have a much tighter handle on what the city’s design economy is.”
Except McGarry, Searle and the rest of the GDA hope the design sector is going to grow as fast as new figures can be compiled.
Glasgow’s 1999 bid talked about creating 400 new design jobs by 1999. A database has been deployed to track this. Searle is confident: “We are well on target in terms of time. We would hope that 400 will be reached quite easily and also hope it will be fairly exponential since design is now a key strategy of all the activities of the GDA.”
For McGarry, the next stage raises new issues in terms of business development: “It is a question of how we assist companies to introduce new products that are well-designed, both for effectiveness and aesthetically.”
As part of this month’s Festival of Design, an exhibition entitled Fly on the Wall takes a look at how 12 Glasgow firms brought new products to market. The exhibition, the GDA hopes, is part of the education process local manufacturers must go through to adopt design.
McGarry says: “Companies say it’s all very well, but it’s expensive to take this on board. But of course it is also a good investment because we have to compete on quality – we are talking about world class design.”
Once this month’s festival is done and dusted, Searle and the GDA will get down to a design project which has amazing potential. It has already worked for the GDA’s efforts with technology.
The project, to be piloted this autumn, involves the GDA subsidising companies to take on a designer. The GDA declines to name names at this point. But Searle describes four of the six or seven firms that will take part in the pilot: a well-established family-run furniture company which wants to set up an in-house design team; a young product design group specialising in plastics; a corporate communications company trying to develop a multimedia offer; and a textile design consultancy.
It’s the mix of manufacturing companies taking on a designer and design consultancies taking on an extra design skill which makes this project both unusual and one worth following.
If the pilots are successful, a wider number of companies will be selected for a fuller programme next year. The GDA is confident enough to put its own funds into the pilot. The equivalent technology initiative boats a 97 per cent rate of funded posts turning into permanent non-assisted jobs.
McGarry says: “We would support companies to take on technologists, now we are doing exactly the same with design. It could be a design company wanting to get into a new form of design, allowing it to be more adventurous. We can assist them financially to take on a new designer.”
The GDA’s evaluation of the technology project found it to be “extremely cost-effective, with a net cost of 3000 per job”, says McGarry.
Searle adds: “The number of companies which have expressed an interest in taking on a designer shows the huge potential impact.”
Another clue as to how much design is on the GDA’s collective lips comes in the form of the annual Glasgow Metropolitan Address, in which Glasgow’s business movers and shakers sit rapt as a notable lectures them on an aspect of the city’s economy. It is no surprise then to learn that the next lecture, on 30 January 1997, will be on design. Delivering the goods, so to speak, will be the 1999 festival director Deyan Sudjic and “a well-known UK designer”.
Another area where technology and design come hand in hand is rapid prototyping. McGarry says: “We find it valuable to assist companies to develop prototypes. So far, it has been more to do with technology projects, but there is increasing demand for the aesthetics side as well.”
The GDA has been working with Scottish Design on establishing a design technology centre in Glasgow to provide resources such as rapid prototyping.
More initiatives are being worked up. Searle says: “We are looking at specific programmes to educate companies in the ways of product design. It’s such a complex activity. Companies that have not integrated design into the manufacturing process before find it daunting.”
Because Glasgow has Objective Two status, as defined by the European Union, it qualifies for substantial aid from the European Regional Development Fund, a six-figure sum of which is being channelled into this month’s Festival of Design.
McGarry says: “We have to drag companies along until they reach the stage of seeing the Dysons who have been successful through focusing on the quality of the design of their products. These are the people who companies will relate to.”
And Searle adds: “Also, we know from design promoters who have been successful in Barcelona and Milan that companies do need a lot of positive encouragement. The way must be smoothed to get them to consider design.”
If the permeation of design into the GDA’s various business development teams and programmes bears fruit, the impact could be phenomenal. If it doesn’t cause a wave of design consciousness to sweep the region’s businesses, the design industry will have to re-examine the very rationale behind its collective head-banging.