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The business of design

By The Drum | Administrator

July 29, 2004 | 8 min read

Having known David Kester for all of about 120 seconds it’s difficult to tell if he’s angry or not. He’s not shouting, he’s not clenching his fists, and he’s certainly not turned green and deposited tattered clothes all over the room, but he’s definitely - I don’t know - ‘miffed’ might be the right word.

\"We plough back far less of our sales revenue into design than our counterparts do overseas,\" he explains in measured tones that belie the strength of his conviction. \"In Britain we only invest about 2 per cent of that revenue into research and development; in the US that figure is 5.1 per cent and throughout the rest of Europe it averages out at 3.6 per cent. It’s a sad fact that only a quarter of UK companies have launched a new product or service in the last decade. Basically we’re not very good at investing for future growth, instead we tend to focus on short-term, quick fix solutions.\"

No, he’s not a happy camper. Leeds Media, on the other hand, are fairly euphoric under their canvas.

The organisation has nabbed Kester, the chief executive of the Design Council (for those not in the know it\'s a body that promotes design at every level of UK life; through businesses, the public sector, and the creative industry itself) to fill the role of keynote speaker at their annual lunch event at Elland Road. In doing so they’ve managed to attract a crowd in excess of 300, a figure that, according to one sardonic wag, Leeds United will find hard to top next season. Ouch.

Kester will soon be taking the stage to discuss how good design makes good business sense. In the meantime he’s limbering up for the main event by throwing a few verbal punches Adline’s way.

\"We conduct annual surveys and they produce some very clear results regarding the relationship between business and design,\" explains Kester, as Billy Bremner eavesdrops from the wall above him. \"They demonstrate that high growth companies place a very high value on design, whereas the exact opposite is true for static, low growth firms. The disappointing news is that the number of high growth companies in the UK is very small – so, all the lessons are there to be learnt. Invest in design and grow.\"

It’s obvious in his role, and with his past experience (he spent nine years as D&AD’s chief exec), that Kester will be a keen advocate of injecting creative thinking into the work place. It’s a shame, however, that at present not many businesses seem to embrace that same philosophy.

\"I think in a lot of cases people just don’t understand the importance of good design as a core business discipline,\" he laments. \"Only 8 per cent of British businesses have a properly designed design process – by that I mean a way of managing design within their business. So really what companies need to do is to understand its value and incorporate it into their strategy and business process.

\"One way we’re trying to communicate this is through the implementation of very practical projects with manufacturing companies and firms in the technology sector. In one initiative we’re taking groups of designers into businesses at board level and using their expertise to identify design opportunities that will enhance business performance. We develop these ‘products’ and with the help of third party partners (such as the Manufacturing Advisory Service) we can roll them out nationally and start changing perceptions.\"

Communicating the benefits of design on such a grand scale is a monumental task, but, like the aforementioned Mr Bremner, they’ve got their eye on the ball and they’re not afraid of a challenge (or, hopefully, some hackneyed football analogies). However, there’s one supposed star player that doesn’t seem to be giving his all for the team:

\"There’s a lot of good words regarding design coming from the Government, but then again,\" he notes with a resigned smile, \"there always has been. When you look around the world you’ll see that other politicians are mirroring those words, the difference is they’re being followed through with very significant investment.

\"In China there’s been the largest single investment in design education in any country, anywhere. In Germany they’re building a design business school, in Korea they’re investing multi-millions in promoting design to the business community and in Australia there’s now a Prime Minister’s award for design. Bearing such examples in mind I think we could be doing a lot more than we currently are.\"

Kester sees design not as a panacea for the UK’s business and social ails, rather as a fertiliser for cultural and economic growth. A powerful vitamin rather than a miracle cure. However, if it’s going to take effect it needs to be administered at an early age.

\"The issue of design needs to be addressed in schools as well. There are a lot of good design teachers out there, but the problem is that there’s a very narrow focus – it’s all pigeonholed within design and technology teaching. There is an argument for taking away that narrow focus and building design into other subjects, such as economics for example, to demonstrate the effect that design has on business.\"

His eyes brighten as he remembers the Council are addressing this issue as we speak: \"We’re currently pairing up design students with business students and sending them into companies to gain an understanding of how they can work together in a real business environment. Projects like this help to bridge the knowledge gap and lay foundations for the next generation to work together far more closely.\"

At the moment the cynics among you, if you haven’t already turned the page, will probably be thinking that a great deal of this is ‘fluff’. That good design and successful business don’t go hand in hand and Kester and co are fighting a losing, and ultimately rather pointless, battle. If that sums you up then Mr K has one word for you. A word that’s unfathomably popular in the Martin/Paltrow household.

\"Apple,\" he exclaims. Before I can say that I don’t want to spoil my lunch he elucidates; \"it may be a rather clichéd example by now, but Apple is an example of a how a design led business can reap great financial rewards.\"

\"It’s re-entered the news recently with the launch of the Apple on-line store (I-Tunes) to support the I-Pod. What that represents is design led innovation. We\'re seeing the future of business where firms are merging product and services, hardware and software.\"

Getting as animated as designers habitually do when the word Apple is cooked up in conversation, he continues; \"It\'s all about personalization and customisation of the end product around the individual, and I think it shows the way forward for design. Apple delivers the whole service and they do so with considerable success. I read that within the first week of the site\'s launch they outsold the entire CD single chart. That is a perfect illustration of the power of design led innovation in the marketplace.\"

Shifting from the global stage to the regional sideshow, it\'s refreshing to see that the Design Council, although predictably London based, are not overtly London-centric. Their business initiatives, such as the aforementioned \'immersion\' projects (where designers enter businesses at board level) have been tested throughout the UK - with Yorkshire bed manufacturer JB being one of the first firms to benefit. They also work closely with regional development agencies (Kester hints at a new initiative in the pipeline with Yorkshire Forward) and appear to have a robustly rosy view of the design industry outside the capital. Kester himself describes the scene as \"thriving\", eulogising about the proliferation of \"young, hungry and talented\" consultancies beyond the M25. He\'s a smoothie, that\'s for sure.

Having overrun the allocated interview time by about ten minutes it\'s the turn of the Leeds Media staff to get agitated as a rather more serene David Kester stands up to excuse himself, head for the door and, eventually, the main stage. Where, incidentally, he managed an impressive display that left the crowd well satisfied. Something that you won\'t have heard about a performance at Elland Road for a while... sorry, couldn’t resist.


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