Learn to move on – Jim Dawton

We asked senior industry figures from the consultancy world – and one former client – for their take on what designers need to do to prepare for the difficult years ahead. They all put professional development at the heart of their prognoses

When, in June 2007, the Department of Trade & Industry was disbanded following the announcement of the creation of the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform and the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, I felt a sense of unease. My fears were confirmed a year later, when, in the House of Commons, Lord Darzi, presenting his NHS Next Stage Review, announced the establishment of Health Innovation and Education Clusters. If would appear that in the mind of the Government, innovation comes from universities – putting business and enterprise on one side of the fence, and innovation and universities on the other.

There is much debate about the meaning of the word ‘innovation’. It is both overused and misused. I tend to favour the old DTI definition of innovation as being the successful commercialisation of a new idea, which – as Brian Cumming of Ford points out in the publication Process Innovation Management – separates idea-generation from innovation, although the former is an important precursor of the latter.

If this is the general understanding of the meaning of innovation from a business perspective, then the Government is slightly at odds with the real world out there, in which the product design industry operates.

Regrettably, this is not the only place where Government policy has not sat well with our industry. The desire to get 50 per cent of young people into university has increased the number of design courses and graduates, but at the cost of core skills. Moreover, changing the way universities are funded has not just resulted in this rise in numbers, but also in the establishment of consultancy services from within academic institutions – an issue currently being hotly debated within the industry.

Unfortunately, it is not just these services that are challenging the stability of the product design sector. The dramatic increase in graduates emerging each year is having an equally negative effect. Quantity rarely gives rise to quality, and, inevitably, few end up in the product design industry.

Alas, however, the lure of fame and riches, combined with the easy access to hardware and software, mean that many set up in business from their bedrooms – add a couple of concepts to your final-year projects, plonk them on a website and, hey presto, you can call yourself a consultancy.

Then there is the growing trend for in-house studios, be they at the heart of an organisation such as Philips or Apple, or one step removed, as in the numerous London-based elite teams for the likes of Nissan, Samsung, Nokia and LG. And, finally, we have to contend with the global approach to manufacturing and the emergence of new powerhouses in research and development and design services. I recently discussed a project for a British manufacturing company that had moved its own production to South America, but was planning on developing a new product for manufacture in China using Indian R&D. All that remained for it and a UK consultancy to do was to champion the user.

But now is not the time for crying in your beer, something I fear we might have done for too long. We must move on into an exciting new world. Colum Lowe, managing director of interior design consultancy Caulder Moore, once likened the design industry to an adolescent child, whingeing that things just weren’t fair. Well, they aren’t, and the sooner we realise that the better. Of all our shortcomings, this is the most devastating. When we want things to remain as they are, maintaining the equilibrium of the industry as a whole, we are dead. Design is about change, and we must be prepared to practise what we preach.

And, wow, are things changing. While I wouldn’t wish the hardship of losing your job on anyone, I embrace what is going on in the world at the moment. Values are changing. Not just the cost of a house or the price of fuel, but real values, the values we place on things. In an article in the Financial Times in December 2008, Tim Harford points out that the typical British man earns roughly twice what his father earned at the same age, and yet he questions why we haven’t all decided to work less, spend less and consume less. Or maybe we have, but we just don’t realise it. According to economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, leisure time for women has increased by at least four hours a week since 1965, with men doing even better. As Harford points out, the ‘work less, spend less’ movement is winning, it is just a shame they haven’t noticed. But even that, I believe, is changing.

To coin a phrase, if you can’t work more, work smart. And ‘smart working’ could be a term to describe a new and emerging phenomenon within the design industry as a whole. In the early 1990s I joined the profession at a time of recession. After the boom of the 1980s, designers were shocked to be losing their jobs, as bloated consultancies were forced to cut back.

The result? Senior designers moved around the corner and set up clones of the companies they had left. There was no other model. This time around things are different; with a more relaxed approach to business etiquette, and mind-blowing advances in communications technology, a new model has arrived. There is no longer the need to rent an expensive West End studio. Senior practitioners are remaining independent, developing networks around them to form elite teams operating at strategic, boardroom level, while outsourcing the nuts and bolts design delivery to the guy in the bedroom, the subsidised university consultancy and the offshore giants.

Physical product design delivery is still very much in demand by a world economy, it is just that the UK consultancy industry is losing the skills to deliver it, and is pricing itself out of the market. The upshot? The cosy, cottage industry of product design practice is finally maturing into an elite world of business consultancy. Things couldn’t be more exciting

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