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Design and Design Values - Research Report

This guest post is submitted by Lucy Wills, a strategic design consultant.


How can we ensure the future of the design industry, if we don’t understand the full range of critical factors that underpin its current success?

To try to get as accurate and inclusive a picture as possible, the Design Values project is looking at how UK design industry can reach its full potential though mapping the expectations, values and skills of the designer.  

The report explores the project findings, and highlights the tension between design and values, and raises many questions around what design needs to remain effective in the future.

The digital industry is now roughly 30 years old, and ‘new media’ is now part of a huge commercial design landscape. Alarmingly, many design disciplines are being further pushed into playing roles that are subservient to market forces. On the other hand, it can be argued, design is becoming more deeply embedded in our enterprises and public infrastructures through strategic and service design.

Huge systemic shifts mean that design, along with other creative industries is in flux. New technologies are opening up new ways of working that are democratising design, yet the industry overall seems to be ill prepared for the changes that mass automation will bring.

On the surface the creative industries appear healthy, producing £71.7BN GVN in 2015, an abundance of innovative work and utilising a wide range of talent to do so. 

Yet this very success is leading us to oversell certain aspects of design, such as the skills and quantifiable outputs of designers, yet also to chronically undervalue and sacrifice important intangibles such as the ability of individual designers to communicate well, build the trust that creative work requires, and to be effective in the future.

The Design Values project has made it clear that a good part of the value that design creates is intangible and long term, and placing too much of a focus on immediate industry needs is highly counter-productive.

There is huge pressure on graduates to be industry ready – to know the right software, the right processes and courses have no choice but to cram this into students.  This leads to homogenisation of output and leaves too little time for investigation, and interdisciplinary work, or preparing designers for long term careers and self-led development. How can we continue to better support innovation and solve ‘hard’ problems in the future if design is at risk in this way?

The expectations given to students by design  schools of their future options, career path, progression and earnings are unreasonable and in most cases unachievable. 

Forcing talent to be industry ready on graduation not only stifles innovation but also prevents almost all students from having anything to offer after those first few years. It's easy to think that we are doing OK as an industry, but we are no longer educating for a career, just a current time limited role.

Designers are also expected to be hyper-specialised at a much earlier career stage with very particular skills sets and specific sector experience, and this is sadly also filtering through from university right back into secondary schools

The ability of the designer to drive work past a predefined, aesthetically pleasing outcome and into something truly original and innovative needs to be recognised and supported. We are losing something important if we focus on design-as process, seek a pre-defined solution or result, or see design’s role solely in terms of “look and feel”.

The world has too many problems that are not being addressed, and many of products that claim to help, are creating as many issues as they solve. Often designers want to be more innovative, socially and resource responsible in the way they work, but are driven back by ‘commercial pressures’. 

Designers are very passionate about what they do, and are easily encouraged to think of design as a mission, a vocation. Many designers are ‘ragged fingered philanthropists’ not only hardworking, but individually motivated to deliver in ways that would be unthinkable in other sectors. In order to deliver the quality, work that industry demands, they must invest personal time, money and must undertake continuous self education.  

Like many other workforces, designers risk burn out and poor performance due to stress and overload – but problematically this is seen as inevitable in the creative industries

Funding for designers to develop their own projects is still very thin on the ground to, forcing designers to innovate while working full time, and to carry the burden of financial risk. It could be argued that this ensures higher quality projects, but in practice it leads to too much duplication of effort, and much failure beyond the first round of activity. It also prevents designers from taking the kinds of creative risk that provide genuine value and progress.

There are grants, investment programmes and awards that designers can apply for, however in the main these re both highly competitive, carry huge administrative overheads, and often the criteria are too prescriptive.

Society in general expects huge results from designers, and yet they are un-recognised and unsupported at a fundamental level, especially after they are no longer eligible for ‘recent graduate’ programmes. We need more programmes for mid level designers, or those returning from career gaps, and for those on low incomes – yet we are losing many grants and bursaries.  The cost of design education and entering the industry is now beyond many, and as a result we're losing decades of social progress and crucially, industry vitality.  

By not standing up to this, we are betraying young people and our culture - now and for generations to come.

We need more designers from diverse backgrounds, to both better reflect society, and to ensure a wider range of approaches and ideas. Though minorities are relatively well represented, only 2 in 10 designers are women, most of the workforce are under 35, and the economic barriers to design as a long term career are growing. All of these form a serious challenge in ensuring diversity of background, of ways of thinking, of taking in and communicating information and concepts and of intergenerational transfer of knowledge and experience.

Imagine if designers were as familiar with engineering principles, psychology or ergonomics as social metrics or ‘frontend’ UX? Imagine if these designers had the funding and support and training to work with industry at a deeper and more effective level? 

We must also note carefully the difficulties and bottlenecks that occurred on the route to market for design led products such as the mouldable adhesive polymer Sugru - Nesta funding was critical at a fairly early stage

The recent budget had good news for the creative industries with cuts in corporation tax, reductions in business rates and changes to the rates threshold, and the scrapping of Class 2 National Insurance Contributions from 2108 will all reduce overheads for the small businesses and self-employed people that make up the majority of the 72,00 or so UK design led businesses.

Measures such as the extension of Entrepreneurs’ Relief for investors in unlisted companies, are attempts to signify that the UK government understands the new entrepreneurial landscape. Start-ups are a hugely expensive way to drive innovation though, carrying huge funding and marketing overheads to meet investor and industry expectations yet often failing after a year or so, and delivering very little of lasting value.  Design could play a huge role in increasing the effectiveness of this sector.

‘I have worked on many projects that have needed £2m in funding and taken a year to develop, but the actual product could have been built in house in three weeks and for £20K’ - anonymous digital designer 

Start-up culture is no replacement for government backed investment in design and research and development, without which real need-based innovation cannot occur. We are way behind other nations on R&D investment, arguably putting us at risk of damaging the UK’s historic and current reputation for product and service development.  

The KTN and Innovate UK have done much to make innovation funding more accessible for enterprise, and to encourage investment in design at all projects stages, but this is a mere fraction of what’s needed. 

We are beginning to see significant social investment in design by forward thinking local authorities, who are both setting the standard for user-led and resource aware design and opening sharing their results and methodologies. Full credit must be given here to the UK government’s drive to openly develop and promote best practice in user-centred service, digital and design.

On the other hand, as cuts in welfare and health services may well prevent these projects from reaching their full potential – and from benefitting the very people they are set up to reach. 

Public projects are doing much to drive the adoption of service design by private enterprise, but outside of a few key examples such as the ODI backed Open Banking Working Group there is very little evidence of enterprise use, and overy little is yet known of the overall effectiveness or quality of the products and services devised, and of how deeply these particular approaches are being integrated into core business.  

One of the biggest barriers to the large scale update of design is perception. Design is still being seen as a service that costs, rather than part of doing business effectively.



The design industry is bending over backwards to meet the social and economic needs of our society.  Designers must better communicate the value of this, to ensure the understanding, support and investment it needs in order to do so. 

A new and more inclusive language is needed around what design is and “does” in order to ensure that educators, clients and government alike understand its true value – and how to create the best environment for design to deliver.

A clearer and more strident narrative will aid a wider understanding of why the ongoing and consistent investment in design education (at all levels), support programmes and industry initiatives is so important.

We must make sure that design is not, as one participant said, “sleepwalking into stupidity” – by both failing to articulate it’s value,  and so allowing design to lapse into a more limited role in society.

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