Design Council director of business Harry Rich is right in pointing out that leadership – or the lack of it – is not a new issue in design. But I’m sure Rich will agree that never has it been so crucial.
Rich addresses leadership largely from a functional point of view. For organisations such as the Design Council and, through it, various Government agencies, to liaise more effectively with the design community it needs a clear point of contact. Clients need it too.
As Rich suggests, from a business perspective you’d expect that role to be filled by a trade association, and the Design Business Association is the most obvious candidate. The opportunity is there for the association to take a much more proactive stance as it continues the trawl to find a new chief executive. Chairman Paul Priestman and the DBA board would do well to seek out strong leadership qualities and an outward-looking character when making that appointment.
But it is not only to Government and its ilk that design activists need to show leadership, nor is it just about a point of contact. They need to raise design’s profile across the board, from clients to the general public – and to boost morale within the design community itself – in the way John and Frances Sorrell’s initiative to stage an annual London Design Festival seeks to do.
Design needs heroes, role models for practitioners who can also stimulate and inform public interest in creativity – not necessarily celebrities, but talented people who through dedication and with a modicum of modesty ply their trade to the greater good of society or even just the end-user.
This is where the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year contest comes in, a generous high-profile scheme that promises to raise design-consciousness, not least within design.
The new scheme is not the only one of its kind, but it could make a difference. The fact that it is open to teams as well as individuals could be one of its great strengths, laying it open to in-house creatives and consultancy folk. That it is about contribution to design over the previous 12 months opens it out to old and young alike, not just to designers whose remarkable work over decades automatically puts them in the frame for honours. And that the Design Museum has its own facilities to showcase the winner – and its director, journalist Alice Rawsthorn, knows how to put across a story – gives it an advantage over many awards organisers.
Design is full of leaders, but desperately needs leadership. Let’s hope the DBA’s recruitment bid and initiatives such as the Sorrell’s festival plan and the Design Museum scheme start to fill the gap.