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Natasha Chetiyawardana and John Mathers on how design industry has coped this past year

John Mathers, chair of the British Design Fund, and Natasha Chetiyawardana, creative partner and founder at Bow & Arrow, are the co-chairs of The Drum Awards for Design. Here they discuss diversifying the judging panel, changes to this year’s categories, and the important balance of tech and culture.

John Mathers: How do you think the design industry has coped with this last year? What trends are we going to see that provide solutions to some of the challenges we’ve faced?

Natasha Chetiyawardana: It’s a tale of two opposing halves. We’ve seen individuals that are really suffering. A huge proportion of our industry is freelance, which has meant many have fallen through the cracks for financial support. Conversely, some are busier than ever before. I challenge you to find a designer-developer at the moment – it’s almost impossible.

JM: If we’re struggling to find designer-developers, who’s snaffling them up? Where are they going?

NC: We’re seeing designers go beyond the industry. In the last five years, I’ve seen a trend of in-house agencies snapping up designer-developers anyway. But with the move towards digital, everybody needs them. They’re in demand across the board.

We’ve also seen mass adoption of collaborative tools. The days of the static computer, the static server and the static file – they’re over. I’ve seen the reappropriation of tools like Figma, being used not just for their original purpose but for collaborative working in general. I’ve seen it in remote design classes!

Many big organizations have needed to get designers on board to get their digital offerings up to par. The next trend will be differentiation – not just getting your e-commerce up to decent parity, but innovating and creating cutting-edge digital tools and services, more than just a website.

JM: I know that Bow & Arrow is part of a bigger management consultancy makeup. Are you finding that management consultancies are working in different ways, or does the design element set patterns for the way you work with clients?

NC: I think it’s quite symbiotic. One of the reasons we joined up in the first place was that we needed access to technology, because if you don’t have that you can only go so far. I think creative agencies and consultancies work at an interesting pace. As an industry, we are slightly less risk-averse, so we work in a very entrepreneurial, quick manner.

JM: I have seen agencies adapt differently to working remotely. Some have embraced it and some have really struggled.

NC: I believe culture is now more important than ever. I’d argue it’s the key to winning new business, going from surviving to really thriving. Brian Chesky of Airbnb said, ”If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.” We’re all using the same tools, so ostensibly we’re all on a level playing field. But it takes cultural effort, and desire and dedication, and – dare I say – passion and love to make it work. Those remote cultural bonds that help glue a team together emotionally will bring success in the future, and the ones that are failing in their culture will fail with their creative product, too.

JM: Do you think this is just a continuation of what was already happening, or do you think it’s something new? If leaders get things wrong now or show a bad example, they will be found out.

NC: You could get away with papering over the cracks before, but now everyone is exposed and you need to genuinely be good, not just say that you are. It’s not easy. I think it’s a challenge for everybody. But I hope that leaders are seeing how important it is.

JM: As we hopefully come out of lockdown and things return to a degree of normality, what do you think the adjusting challenges will be? It’s going to be fascinating.

NC: For organizations, I think the problem will be not moving fast enough: slow decision making or the C-suite being disconnected from their workforce or their customers. People need to invest in growth, looking past business-as-usual and looking to the new. Creativity and innovation are a huge part of that. For brands, it’s a similar danger. A lack of connection, a lack of meaning in customers’ eyes, across the whole brand experience. People are increasingly seeking action and proactivity and meaning – they want to see brands do more than talk. That means purpose, doing good, and measurably helping people on the planet beyond just making profit.

JM: Coming to the awards, I want to talk about the mix of judges this year. When I was chief executive of the Design Council, we created the Design Economy Report. The lack of diversity we saw in the design industry was pretty frightening: the poor representation of women and the BAME community. It may still be an issue, but what we’re trying to do is address that with the criteria for choosing the judges.

NC: For us, it wasn’t a choice – it was mandatory. According to that report, the number of BAME senior figures in the industry was shockingly low. And in terms of gender, 78% of our workforce is male while 63% of design students are female and only 17% of design leaders are female. So there’s something going wrong there.

Also, as we become global, we had to make changes not just to reflect the sector, but what it should be in the future. Diversifying organizations is the right thing to do. Business diversity will reflect the customer better and create more creative solutions and products. Equally, a more diverse jury will create more debate, different opinions and more interesting outcomes. We need to represent people, not just the establishment.

JM: This year we’ve got a very different mix and makeup of judges. It’s seven male and 13 female, we've got a mix of races and ethnicities. Last year, we were 100% UK-based, this year it’s about 65% – we’ve got judges from the US and Asia Pacific. How do you think this will affect the dynamics when we get together?

NC: We’ve also got diversity in terms of these judges’ specialities – there are people with backgrounds in motion, placemaking and illustration, entrepreneurs and people in big network agencies. The opinions potentially won’t be as unified as they have been in the past, but that’s no bad thing. Diversity is about provoking new thought, new ways to look at things. I’m looking forward to some interesting cultural debates and understanding what is important in other markets.

JM: My big thing in the last few years has been healthy ageing by design, how we can use design to address the opportunities and challenges of an older population. That’s a big issue that we’re going to face in society, but it hasn’t particularly engaged the design community in the past. Let’s talk about the changes in the awards and categories this year.

NC: The industry is not standing still, so neither can we. The more traditional categories, they still exist, but we’ve put them in buckets: Communicate, Experience, Craft, Move. They feel more active. Design is becoming less about the medium and more about the value we create for clients. But we didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater – those categories are still relevant and important to the industry, but we wanted to reimagine some of the other things.

As for the new additions, I’m passionate about the Conscious Design bucket that we’ve created. It’s an acknowledgment that when design is at its best, it can change ideas and even circumstances. Categories within Conscious Design include Public Health by Design – that’s obviously relevant right now. Design for Good – that used to feel like a bit of a lone wolf. Effective Ageing by Design – I’ll be interested to see what happens there, across work from Europe, Asia, America and the UK. And Resourceful Design – a recognition and celebration of design not just as the outcome, but looking at saving materials, being low or no waste, or low impact. It will be interesting to see what stories unfold, and the innovative ways designers have created solutions that are better for the environment. Designers can apply their thinking and creativity to so many problems beyond just that format.

JM: I’m reminded of Glenn Tutssel, whose mantra was, ”great ideas, beautifully crafted, and with real impact”. The fundamentals of creativity have not changed, but the context in which we see it is starting to change. That’s being reflected in the categories and the judges this year. Anything final to add for the readers of The Drum?

NC: We’ve tried some new things, broadened the scope in terms of jury and the categories. I’d love to have new ideas come to us as well. We don’t assume that we know everything about the industry. So any feedback that we can get would be very welcome.

JM: I’m looking forward to seeing this year’s entries. Given the different sorts of judges that we have, we really are looking for a diversity of ideas. Leftfield as well as down the middle. Don’t be afraid, bring it on.

The Drum Awards for Design is open for entries now. Make sure to enter before 4 March.

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