The Design Council concurs with product designers that universities that offer commercial product design services must clearly define their offer if the reputation of design is not to suffer.
In a letter published today in Design Week, product designers signal their growing impatience with higher education providers running consultancies.
Signed by 19 designers from across the UK, the letter argues that some academic institutions are undercutting design professionals on price, as well as misappropriating public funds intended for research.
Pearson Matthews founder and letter signatory Mike Pearson complains that universities using their facilities for commercial use are ‘abusing the goodwill of the taxpayer’ and leveraging an unfair advantage over consultancies that pay higher overheads.
Pearson claims that clients began to report bad experiences with university design consultancies about three years ago. ‘Those burnt by poorly delivered product design are beginning to complain that design doesn’t work, which is the wrong conclusion to draw,’ says Pearson.
The Design Council’s head of skills Lesley Morris believes that higher education centres should present their commercial design services more clearly to clients. ‘We need some guidelines shared between design’s professional bodies and univer sities, in which definitions or even guidelines are drawn up,’ she says. Nevertheless, Morris approves of the ‘huge and much-needed live project experience’ that university consultancies can offer students.
Robert Young is associate dean of research and consultancy director of the Centre for Design Research at Northum bria University, the university’s in-house consultancy. He cond emns universities taking on ‘jobbing design work’ as a ‘road to nowhere’. But he argues that, ‘We can’t develop knowledge relevant if we look at it from a purely theoretical perspective.’
Young explains that the centre has unknowingly handled commercial projects that involved pitches against design consultancies. ‘In these cases, we tend to win the job because it is very research intensive and interdisciplinary. The centre was not set up to pull in money, but to develop new knowledge.’
Pearson Matthews head of design Joseph O’Connor believes that lack of investment in design education is prompting universities to generate their own revenue streams.
‘Universities are being permitted to generate revenue streams through in-house design activities which, when poorly delivered, seriously damage the reputation of the design industry – an open debate is needed,’ he says.
University and college design schools stand accused of:
• Providing free or low-cost product design services
• Using public research funds to support their commercial product design ventures
• Over-selling their services
• Delivering poor design work to clients
• Damaging the reputation of product design with buyers
• Taking work away from incumbent design groups