Design could transform UK economy regardless of Brexit outcome - Sarah Weir

When the UK was facing extremely uncertain times towards the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s government founded the Council of Industrial Design.

His plan was simple: invest in the design sector to increase our chances of winning lucrative industrial contracts in post-war Britain, and it paid off. After a change of governing party, Attlee’s government continued to develop the Council, realising the value of design in benefitting the economy.

Today, as businesses face a different kind of crippling uncertainty, we once again need to be investing in design to ensure we’re in the best position possible, whatever the final outcome of Brexit ends up being. This is particularly crucial with the prospect of entering new markets and forging new trade deals. The priority needs to be on ensuring the world sees the UK as leaders in the design of services, systems, processes and products. At the moment, this isn’t the case, despite the fact that our design economy remains buoyant and continues to grow.

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In 2016, the design sector generated £85.2bn in gross value added to the UK, an increase of 52 per cent since 2009, and in Yorkshire and Humberside, turnover from the design economy was £1.68bn in 2015, an increase of 104 per cent from 2011. But despite the promising statistics, business and government leaders today are lacking an understanding of how the design sector can be harnessed to drive tangible economic growth at scale.

One of the key barriers is that good design is often invisible. It extends right the way across the economy, horizontally rather than vertically, making its effects and impact very difficult for decision-makers to see. Another crucial barrier we have to overcome is the widespread misconception that design is just a way to make something look nicer, rather than a discipline that can actually help businesses work better, be more productive, and employ more people.

A recent McKinsey study has shown that businesses which embrace design generate 32 per cent more revenue and 56 per cent more shareholder returns than their rivals over a five-year period. Digital challenger bank Monzo have proved this point. They started in 2017 with a team of ten people, one of whom was a designer. Their strategy has been to ask consumers what they most want from a bank and design their services and products to match. They’re now the fastest growing digital bank and are close to closing a new £100 million funding round.

The rising number of Chief Design Officers being appointed also evidences this point. These shrewd creative minds are not being employed to make businesses look prettier, they’re there to drive real business growth and transformation. It’s not only the big players where we see the role of good design pay off commercially – the approach runs right the way across the economy and across all sectors.

Yorkshire-based firm Naylor Industries started life in 1890 as a manufacturer of clay sewer pipes. By the mid-1990s, the business was facing extinction due to a construction industry recession and the erosion of the clay pipe market by plastic materials. With some support from the Design Council, they managed to turn their business around by engaging designers to overhaul the logo and marketing and develop new products. The result was the creation of Yorkshire Flowerpots, which now has profits exceeding £3m, exports to over 60 countries, and is the largest manufacturer of clay pots in the UK by far. It was smart design that unlocked the potential of this business and allowed it to diversify.

If the commercial impact design can have on businesses both big and small is this clear, then why aren’t we giving design a bigger focus as we work out how best to bolster our economy in this period of uncertainty?

At the moment, design comes under BEIS, the government’s business, energy and industrial strategy department, but in reality, we know that design feeds into just about every government department. We need to be doing more to maximise the potential of design to boost all aspects of society.

Appointing a Design Minister would be a good start; someone who can take responsibility for spearheading British design excellence both at home and overseas. But ultimately, we need to be investing more in designing new products, services and systems and improving the ones we currently have.

Otherwise, the outlook is gloomy whatever happens in the end with Brexit. Instead, I urge business leaders and politicians to take a leaf out of Churchill and Attlee’s books and to realise the potential of design to boost the economy in these deeply challenging times. After all, whatever the problem, design has a solution.

Sarah Weir OBE is chief executive officer of the Design Council.