Design alone can’t save UK plc

Making products attractive and user-friendly is a smart idea, but it is no substitute for R&D and investment.

James Woudhuysen

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In Jamnagar, on the northwest coast of India, Reliance Petroleum runs the largest oil refinery in the world, processing 1.24million barrels of crude per day. The Refinery Control Building, with curvy consoles and giant screens designed by Barco, looks like a blue-green masterpiece of interface, lighting and interior design. Perhaps it will typify many future HQs, in industries far removed from oil.

Surely Jamnagar suggests that design plays a central role in economic growth?

Not quite. As design has moved from the margins to the mainstream of business practice, so the claims made for it have grown. But in recent public debates, I’ve found myself having to argue against the view that design is central to the revival of British manufacturing and services. A lifelong enthusiast for design, I believe that its current pretensions don’t do it any favours – and that they mark a narrow, if not ambivalent conception of growth.

Design as an agent in rebalancing

A signature of the Blair years was his celebration of ‘creative industries’. In 1998, New Labour eulogised the economic contribution to UK plc made by a catholic clutch of sectors – including design, architecture, IT software and, er, antiques. New Labour’s paean wasn’t just nationalistic; it contained the unstated implication that scientists and engineers are somehow not creative. Wind forward 15 years, however, and the boosterism surrounding design is even worse.

Design’s current bout of narcissism is partly inspired by the success of Apple and of its recently knighted chief designer, Jonathan Ive, who is English. Few bother to question Apple’s technological reliance on Samsung chips, its refusal to invest its cash hoard of $100 billion on innovation, or the fact that many of the workers in the company’s US stores earn only $25,000 (£16,000) per year. Far from it – both inside and outside design, no speech is now complete without a genuflection at the altar of Apple’s design.

A bigger factor in Britain, though, is what the Design Council – a quango – calls ‘Visions for a rebalanced economy’. A year after the financial crash of 2008, Labour’s then secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, Peter Mandelson, famously told a Labour Party conference that the UK needed ‘less financial engineering and a lot more real engineering’. Fast forward to today and the current Lib-Con coalition government has a stated goal of rebalancing the economy, away from the City and toward manufacturing. On this mission, product design – the métier of Jonathan Ive – now has a privileged status.

Here design can indeed make a contribution to British economic growth – but by no stretch of the imagination does it play a leading role. Certainly, the exploitation of designers at Jaguar Land Rover Engineering Centre at Whitley, near Coventry, has been a factor in JLR making, in 2011-12, a stonking profit of £1.5 billion (up from £1.12 billion in 2010-11). But it is significant that JLR describes Whitley as ‘a fully integrated Design, Research and Development centre for all current and future Jaguar products’. Rich Chinese today flock to buy Jags not just for their luxurious décor, but also for vehicle performance based on research and development (R&D). Car design and the design of Jaguar showrooms play their part, but salespeople and after-sales service are just some of the many activities that jostle with design in turning in a profit.

John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, says that ‘As a differentiator for UK manufacturing and service in global markets… the £20 billion a year we spend on design in this country is a key market advantage’. Cridland’s figures are dubious (1); but at the margins, as a differentiator – ‘the difference between customer satisfaction and customer delight’, according to Cridland – design can be a profitable exercise.

Why can’t boosters of design be satisfied just with that? The answer lies in what Mandelson forgot in his aphorism about rebalancing. Both New Labour and the Lib-Con coalition want not just more plain engineering, but more social engineering, too. As a result, ministers love to talk up service design, especially the design of public services. In these sectors, designers are exploited in ways that try to legitimate government, cut costs and put some clothes on David Cameron’s notoriously vague ‘Big Society’.

We should remember that ‘rebalancing’ in Britain is no technical matter. Rebalancing is about making factories, and Britain’s north, more profitable: for example, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne has been explicit that if, in July, the Pay Review Board favours lowering public-sector wages up north, that will be ‘a significant step towards creating a more balanced economy’. So when the state puts design on a pedestal, this is no neutral, managerial flourish. The UK government hopes that, with hip haircuts and Post-It note brainstorms, designers can give its plans credibility. To get people to ‘make informed choices’ around carbon footprints, saving water and community participation, the state flatters design.

The error of design determinism

Exaggerating design’s scope for impact is now a global pastime. For example, the New York City design firm Reboot seriously proposes that human rights can be designed, because ‘at our local health clinic, at our unemployment office or at our child’s school… [there] are the moments when human rights are realised in practical ways’. This underlines how the boosting of design’s economic contribution is part of a wider doctrine of what Virginia Tech professor Paul Knox rightly terms ‘hubristic design determinism’ (2). Whereas Karl Marx argued that social being determines consciousness, design boosters contend that design plays a determining role in both economic growth and everyday behaviour. Arguably, they take a leaf from architecture here (3); but whatever the case, even leading economic commentators are now so bereft of a genuine strategy for growth that they find themselves pronouncing that ‘Design adds value to the product – in fact design adds most of the value to the product’ (4).

This conception of design is completely over the top. If they want to be ambitious, and they should, designers should recognise that real economic growth will come from the development of whole new industrial and service sectors, capable of creating hundreds of thousands of properly paid jobs. Design cannot create those industries – they will come out of the much more elemental processes of R&D, the kind of R&D that led to the nuclear, plastics and pharmaceuticals sectors. And whether this R&D happens is, again, not a technical issue, but to do with the priorities and vision of society. Right now, the West prefers to talk up the merits of relatively cheap design than to do the dearer, riskier business of R&D.

No matter how much they are flattered by the state, designers cannot deliver the truly expansive kind of growth that is needed in the West. To pretend otherwise is to court disappointment and then ridicule. In the same way, design cannot cure dementia and design can only treat the symptoms of crime, not Tony Blair’s famous causes of crime. The public knows this and will not be convinced by special pleading for design.

Underneath the hyperbole about what design can do for the British economy lies, anyway, great nervousness about growth itself. Reflecting today’s cultural pessimism, most designers are obsessed with climate change, resource depletion and waste – despite little in-depth study of any of these things.

Whatever the difference control-room design has made to oil refining in India, most designers would never take on such a job in the first place. That can only make overblown claims about design leading to economic growth look even sillier.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and recently spoke at the symposium on the Big Potatoes Manifesto for Design.

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