When I headed the studio at Nissan Design Europe, there were always problems to solve – the good kind, mostly, the ones that, when you cracked them, led to you designing a car that anticipated the market, exceeded sales targets and came in, near enough, on budget. But to tackle these problems we needed a certain kind of designer, and, despite the fact that more people than ever were (and are) graduating from design courses in the UK, and no shortage of them wanted to work for us, they weren’t easy to find. Sometimes, this became a problem in itself – the bad kind, obviously.
So, what kind of designers did we need? Clearly, they had to be good at the craft of design, strong specialists capable of producing high-standard work on their own. But they also needed an instinctive grasp of the business they were working in and good judgement about how to apply their skills for the overall good of the project. They also had to be open-minded and capable of working in teams, not just with designers but with other specialists, because most projects quickly took on a complexity that meant relying on experts like ethnographers and ergonomists. Finally, it helped if our designers were the type who were never satisfied with their own work, and who knew when to listen to new arguments and ideas and, of equal importance, when to stand up for what they really believed in.
I always had the feeling I wasn’t alone in finding it hard to recruit designers with the right skills, and that’s been confirmed since I came to the Design Council and got acquainted with several years’ worth of research and analysis of UK design skills, carried out for the industry-wide UK Design Skills Alliance. Its conclusions chime unmistakeably with my earlier experience.
For instance, the research shows designers often lack basic business knowledge, not just the skills to run a consultancy but awareness of clients’ businesses – their issues, their markets, even the language they use. No surprise, then, that designers themselves realise they often have trouble getting the value of design across to clients.
Most dramatically of all, there’s evidence that once designers start their careers, they all but stop training. Almost unbelievably, only artists do less on-the-job training, so it’s no accident that many designers’ careers plateau in their mid-30s. Clearly, the profile of continuous professional development is far too low, a problem being addressed by the Design Council’s Good Design Practice campaign. A central knowledge bank about training and courses will be an important first step, but we also need designers to take a more active role in their own development and become demanding consumers of training.
Meanwhile, consultancy bosses and in-house managers need to set a positive, encouraging tone. Training doesn’t have to mean courses. Nor must it be costly and time-consuming. At Nissan, we mixed formal training with far less structured activity. An exhibition, a degree show or a creative session with someone from another discipline – training with a small ‘t’, if you like – can be just as worthwhile and stimulating as a two-day course. It’s finding the right balance that matters. Most design businesses are small and spare time is scarce, but the benefits of developing new skills should be obvious to anyone as a worthwhile investment in the success of the business.
Because a lot of the industry’s skills gaps won’t simply be filled by formal training, I do believe we need to get better at sharing knowledge, and get used to giving something back for the greater good. The DSA has piloted a mentoring scheme pairing young designers with experienced figures to mutual benefit, and they’re just about to publish a guide to mentoring.
There’s plenty of potential, too, for online information that designers don’t have to leave their studios to use. Aside from being easy to access, it’s easily updated – a real plus in design, where knowledge on key issues moves fast. Sustainable design is a prime example. More and more designers know there’s an urgent need for it, but they don’t always have the knowledge to practise it, let alone convince clients they need it. Our most recent research tells us they’d welcome an online resource, and one is now being developed.
Of course, resources, databases and campaigns cost money. The Government can help with funding, naturally, but mostly it’s down to us in the design community, from new starters to seen-it-all veterans, to create a culture that looks for, and creates, ways to keep learning.
So, why not find something interesting that’s happening in the next month and pencil it in your diary. It’s a start.