Designer for a day – reflections on the Design Summit

Yesterday I went to the Design Council’s Design Summit, an annual gathering of designers, business leaders, policy makers and a sprinkling of people with an interest in design from education and regeneration. I hadn’t been before, so I didn’t know what to expect, but the first thing I noticed was how few people from the not for profit sector were there – I counted around 6 (there may have been more) including me. Whilst I’m perfectly happy going to events where I know very few people (more friends I haven’t made yet) it’s quite rare for me to know so few people.


The content of the day was fascinating and included a range of presentations from a varied range of manufacturers, inventors, urban designers, architects and Vince Cable. The Financial Times columnist, Professor John Kay, gave an excellent presentation on the value of design (somehow managing to suggest that a £30 suit from Asda was useful attire for a gangland funeral….don’t ask!). Using the example of the iPhone (designed by a Brit – which he surprisingly failed to mention), he broke down where the money goes when someone buys one. Although the back of an iPhone says ‘designed by Apple in California and assembled in China’, only around $20 goes to China whilst about $200 goes to Apple. What adds the value is the design. Similarly with an aeroplane jet engine (which will set you back about £5m in case you were wondering), you are not paying for the materials – the steel and other component parts make up just a tiny fraction of the price. The vast majority of the value comes from the design – and the research and technical development that underpins this.


What Prof. Kay didn’t do, and I tried unsuccessfully to press him on in the Q&A that followed, was what the role of design was in creating places we want to live in. His response suggested that placemaking was essentially about services (rather than goods) but that there was really very little difference between manufacturing and services. This rather missed the point for me, but thankfully the theme was picked up in more detail in a session about design in development; ‘how to turn local assets into national treasures’.  We heard about major developments in Manchester, Kings Cross, Derry/Londonderry (or ‘LegenDerry’ as the young people there have rebranded it J) and Cardiff Bay.


I was pleased to see the debate take on the crucial role of design in creating sustainable, attractive, thriving communities…but did feel there was probably a little too much focus on the buildings (which were very nice) rather than the people. It’s highly likely that this was mainly due to time constraints and nature of the audience. But this rather emphasises the point that at present, there’s too little acknowledgement of the importance of design in supporting community building. In my view the community comes first, and the design of buildings and the planning system ought to be aligned to local people’s needs and ambitions.


We’ve seen buildings come before people in too many regeneration programmes and the lessons are ignored at our peril. Poor design has blighted countless deprived neighbourhoods. Why? Because people’s knowledge and ambition of good design is often limited – if you don’t know how much better things could be, how would you know it was rubbish? So I think the role of education is key – ensuring our young people leave school with a strong understanding of good design and well honed creative thinking skills.


One successful entrepreneur, who went to Eton and Oxford, said the experience had taught him to think laterally. Fine for those who can…but what about the kids who leave school without these all important skills? We need to address the lack of design knowledge to drive up standards and expectations among the general public. If we don’t do that we will continue to get served up poor quality design and be left to deal with the effects of it that blight our communities.


Design is clearly about making things and manufacturing, but it also relates to the public realm, urban design and the design of systems and processes. Perhaps (as someone who does a lot of work developing approaches and processes) I’m just trying to find a way to get myself into the ‘cool design club’…but I personally believe that poorly designed systems are at least as important to society as well designed products.


The Design Summit gave me a window on the design community and, whilst it was fascinating, largely relevant and inspiring, it also highlighted how disconnected it is from the world I tend to operate in. I may just have been an aspiring designer for a day but we all need to become aspiring designers if we are going to raise standards and expectations in the future.


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