Whatever else it may have thrown up, the debacle over Foreign Secretary William Hague and his special advisor Christopher Myers has highlighted a significant difference between external consultants and full-time staff – in this case, civil servants.
There may be only a tenuous link between the wranglings of top politicians and the world of design, but there is a parallel between the complementary roles played by design consultancies and in-house creative teams.
As Gordon Brown’s one-time advisor Michael Jacobs explained on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, special advisors are partisan, working directly in the interests of the party – and person – who employs them. Civil servants, meanwhile, have to be apolitical – they offer great technical support to ministers and others, but can be a little conventional in their thinking and can benefit from the stimulus a free-thinking outsider can bring.
Ideally, this is what happens in design. Product design consultancies in particular have traditionally added a spark to a client company, working alongside its technical teams to achieve the best in terms of customer appeal and great function, but it goes beyond product to take in branding and communications too.
The best clients appreciate the value of external consultants – and in bringing in the right one for the job. Exemplary rosters created by Land Securities in the past and now by the British Heart Foundation bear this out, as does the enlightened approach taken by the likes of Virgin Atlantic’s design head Joe Ferry in mixing the right consultancy with the inhouse team to great effect. The results of such partnerships shine out in award schemes, but they can also give the client a competitive edge.
I am talking here though of clients who understand design – and, as with Ferry and head of branding Nina Jenkins at Virgin Atlantic or Jane Scherbaum at the Victoria & Albert Museum, employ designers to manage the commissioning process and often also run an inhouse team. Would that more clients were like that.
But do designers really help themselves in gaining an untried client’s confidence? Possibly not, given that many cannot even describe what they do to an uninitiated audience.
Last week Design Week launched a campaign to define what we mean by design, inviting the great and the good to tell us what it means to them (DW 2 September). The reasoning is that if we can reach consensus as a creative community, we might be better equipped to explain ourselves to others, so why not join in by submitting your definition here.
So what is it that you do exactly?