What UK plc needs is design visionaries in the boardroom

Lynda Relph-Knight

A key message from last week’s Institute of Directors annual convention is that UK boardrooms would gain from having more people of real vision in positions of power.

Lacklustre presentations by British Airways chief executive Willy Walsh and T-Mobile International chief executive officer Hamid Akhavan prompted thoughts among delegates that entrepreneurial qualities could be in short supply in their companies. For while Walsh, an aviation stalwart of some stature, harped on about the fiasco of Terminal 5’s opening, with no inspiring insights of how managements might cope with such a crisis, Akhavan outlined digital technologies we already use, failing to excite with possibilities for the future.

By contrast, Kevin Roberts, worldwide chief executive officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, had the creative juices flowing with talk of love, passion and the ‘people power’ that now defines a brand’s success. Here were inspiring nuggets that delegates could take back to their businesses and act on. What’s more, it was highly entertaining – but then Roberts is an adman.

Design folk – and designers in particular – shy away from the notion of running corporate businesses. Partly it’s a perceived cultural difference between the consultancy and big business models, but it is largely a lack of confidence in what they can contribute at corporate board level. Yet the vision and humanity they can bring to the table can break conventional moulds, which is exactly what we need if UK plc is to meet the global challenges it faces.

This issue also arose at a Design Council debate last week about what we mean by design leadership and how we nurture it. One response was that design and business need to cross over more on college courses.

This might give emerging creatives more influence on business performance and break the deadlock of financial and legal minds having the controlling vote. It’s not just about getting design into businesses, it’s about fostering creativity all round.

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