Ian Rowland-Hill’s departure from the Design Business Association, after a decade at the helm, will inevitably reopen the debate as to what design’s official bodies stand for and how they interrelate.
The trawl by DBA chairman Paul Priestman and his fellow board members to fill the vacant post meanwhile raises the question of what role the chief executive should play in a professional or trade body that is ‘governed’ by an elected head and committee drawn from the industry it serves – in the DBA’s case, by a chairman and board of directors.
Under Rowland-Hill’s guidance, the DBA has become synonymous within the industry with design effectiveness. Though the association’s effectiveness awards scheme – now the International Design Effectiveness Awards – was launched some 13 years ago by its founder executive head Vicky Sargent and the then chairman Jan Hall, Rowland-Hill has broadcast the merits of measuring effectiveness far and wide.
He also actively supported closer collaboration between design bodies at the time of the Halifax Initiative, brainchild of the then DBA chairman Jonathan Sands, among others. Halifax in turn led to the formation of Design Unity with the DBA as a member.
More recently, at Priestman’s behest, the DBA has sought to broaden its membership to include younger designers on the one hand and in-house design teams on the other. It is the completion of the ‘steering’ of the in-house venture that is cited in a DBA statement as having prompted Rowland-Hill’s decision to leave.
But while these are all highly laudable things, there is much still to do, particularly at a time when consultancy bosses strapped for cash will be looking to justify the cost of DBA membership. The business needs of consultancies have changed radically over recent years and there is greater sophistication and a sense of self-sufficiency among the more motivated industry players. Meanwhile, the profile of the DBA, in common with some other design bodies, has lowered.
The association now needs to devise ways of boosting membership in terms both of numbers and spread of influence, for without a thriving membership a trade body cannot exist. But, as importantly, it also needs to create a strong public voice for design businesses, balancing that British Design & Art Direction has successfully developed for creativity.
For all the things he has achieved, Rowland-Hill’s departure creates new opportunities for the DBA. If it can attract a chief executive as enterprising as David Kester has proved to be at D&AD it might start to fulfil its promise to be a publicly recognised force in design.