Technology that is helping to make things better by design

Sarah Dear has seen a lot changes in the design industry during her career but the lack of talent now coming through is something she is determined to address. She spoke to Ismail Mulla.

Sarah Dear:  We need to make children aware of the opportunities in the creative industries.
Sarah Dear: We need to make children aware of the opportunities in the creative industries.

The creative industries have seen great changes over the years since Sarah Dear started her career in the design sector.

Technology has taken a huge leap forward, as have subsequently expectations of clients and consumers, since she first joined Leeds-based design agency Elmwood in 1992.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Ms Dear is now the managing partner of Elmwood UK and is looking to put the agency at the forefront of future developments.

Sarah Dear.

“I started off as a production assistant managing print and going to pre-artwork meetings and then I moved into client service,” Ms Dear recalls her early days in the business.

While things may have changed – the firm buys very little print now – the basic principles still remain the same.

“Whatever we do still needs to be produced in the most beautiful way it can, whether it’s through print or through digital,” she says.

Technology has played a positive role for design, creating multiple touchpoints, but there was a period where the industry lost touch with its craft.

Sarah Dear.

Ms Dear said: “I remember the designers used to do all their work by hand. They would draw everything out and you didn’t actually get to see what you’d produced until it was finally printed as a brochure or in store.

“I think the design industry went through a phase where it embraced technology to the point where it forgot about some of its craft but I think that is now coming back.

“We don’t go straight to a Mac. We will think about the idea. We will do pencil drawings. The way we’re working we are often presenting rough drawn concepts to our clients before we go and bring it to life on a Mac.

“Creativity is in the designer’s mind and it shouldn’t be restricted by what a computer can do. That’s really coming back round again.”

Sarah Dear.

Technology though is still continuing to shake things up for design firms. Elmwood’s recent acquisition of Framework Creative, an augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) business based in London, is a testament to that fact.

“We’re doing a lot of that with our clients,” Ms Dear says. “We’re using a lot in our projects to extend the customer experience.”

The managing partner of Elmwood UK shares the same view as the company’s chairman, Jonathan Sands, when it comes to art and design on the school curriculum.

As more and more schools are under pressure to deliver STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) based subjects, art and design is falling away.

Sarah Dear.

In fact even in the early 90s, when Ms Dear was getting her start, there was a lack of awareness of the opportunities offered by the creative industries.

“One of the reasons that I didn’t even know this industry existed was because nobody spoke to me about the creative industries when I was at school,” she says.

Ms Dear, who studied French at the University of Birmingham, only fell into the industry after finding that there was not much demand for French in business. “Fortunately, I found it by accident,” she added.

Ms Dear is also on the UK council of the Creative Industries Federation and the lack of talent coming through is a subject that they have been talking about a lot.

She said: “The focus in schools is on STEM. A lot of schools have dropped art and design technology. The entries for GCSEs in those subjects has plummeted over the past few years.

“Yet we know we’re moving into a world where actually knowing facts is not going to be enough.

“What’s going to be valuable is how we use the information that we have creatively to solve problems. We need to do a lot more on that.

“We need to invest a lot more. We need to make children aware of the opportunities in the creative industries of which there is just not enough discussions about. We need to bring that passion for creativity.”

The industry is pushing back and has coined the phrase STEAM, which incorporates art and design alongside the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and maths.

“A piece of technology is fantastic but unless it connects with people and improves their lives and is compelling and meaningful to them, it remains just a piece of technology,” Ms Dear says.

Elmwood, which has 120 employees worldwide with 80 of them based in the UK, is launching a 12-week accelerator programme in June at its Leeds headquarters.

The programme, called LaunchPod, will be overseen by Ms Dear.

Ms Dear said: “I’ve spoken to you about the way the world is changing and how technology is disrupting business and life generally.

“So rather than us and our clients sitting there waiting for the future to happen, we decided that we would become part of making it happen.”

Elmwood will recruit different businesses under the STEAM banner and help them identify their target audience, how they can grow the business and how ideas connect with customers.

Firms have until May 14 to apply to be a part of the accelerator programme.

Ms Dear said: “They will hopefully leave with a much clearer idea about what their business is and how they can make it really successful.”

Elmwood was acquired in a management buyout by current chairman Jonathan Sands in 1989. Ms Dear has spent the majority of her adult life working alongside Mr Sands.

“Well, we’ve worked together for over 25 years. We have a great relationship, it’s a very close relationship. Obviously, we don’t always agree on things,” Ms Dear says, before bursting into laughter.

She adds: “Honesty and healthy debate is really important in any business. I’ve got the utmost respect for Jonathan, he’s one of the key reasons that I’ve been in this company for so long. He’s a great guy.”

Ms Dear is urging businesses not to overlook creativity and design at a boardroom level.

“Businesses exist to solve problems,” she says. “Creativity and design is all about solving problems.”

Sarah Dear may have fallen into design but it’s clear that she is passionate about the work that Elmwood and indeed the wider industry does.

Curriculum vitae

Title: Managing partner of Elmwood UK and managing director of Elmwood LaunchPod

Date of birth: December 20, 1968

Lives: Cookridge, Leeds

Favourite holiday destination: Mallorca

Last book read: Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel’s Game

Favourite film: Some Like It Hot

Favourite song: Sun King, The Cult

Car driven: Ancient Black Audi A3

Most proud of: My children

Education: University of Birmingham, BA Hons in French, Leeds University Post Grad Marketing Diploma.