Can design solve the UK’s productivity puzzle?  

Posted on 30 Jul 2018 by Jonny Williamson

In its latest report, the UK Design Council found that around 40% of UK companies are missing out on the opportunity to make their business more productive through design.

SPAPLIANCE, the beauty ORB – image courtesy of Smallfry.

Discourse surrounding the UK’s stagnant productivity level typically focuses on the nation’s low rate of capital investment in technology and automation.

However, there may be another reason why the UK lags behind its global peers.

An Innovate UK survey revealed that engagement with design increases the chance that firms will undertake both product/service and process innovation.

That’s a key finding according to Steve May-Russell, national chairman at British Industrial Design Association (BIDA), who argues that design could boost our long-term manufacturing growth.

Small businesses comprise the bulk of our commercial landscape, but May-Russell explained to The Manufacturer that the cautious nature of SMEs often meant they struggled to focus their business more towards improving product’s design, missing out on the potential rewards such a strategy can bring.

He noted: “Although there is a lot of support from organisations available, in fact, they seem to be failing to explain the benefits of a successful design strategy conclusively.”

No design strategy

May-Russell added that focusing on design could only be a financial risk when businesses miss out on presenting a systematic approach.

In an unstable economic system – such as that of an SME, a manager will typically prefer to invest in a well-known, reliable and predictable asset which could generate quick revenues than in design, he continued.

“When you’re a manager of your own business, your main priority is putting food in the fridge. Your second priority is to make sure that you can pay your mortgage and salaries for your staff.

“Any wrong decision an owner of an SME makes has a massive impact on them personally, their family and everybody else’s family in the company.”

Confidence in design pays off

However, May-Russell said that it pays dividends for companies to overcome the inherent hesitancy surrounding design-led approaches to their business and become more confident in investing in design.

“Unless people gain a greater understanding of what exactly design can do, they will not invest in it. Most of businesses see design as a cost, they think design is superfluous.”

VAX carpet cleaner – image courtesy of Smallfry.

One of the issues could be that industrial designers “simply can’t explain why a focus on product design strategies will yield a significant return,” he added.

May-Russell believes industrial designers need to be much more business-savvy and focused on the commercial opportunities the products they create can generate, “I always said, ‘industrial design’ has the clue in the title.”

Can Double Diamond de-risk your business?

Designers across disciplines share similar approaches to the creative process, something which is mapped out in the British Design Council’s intellectual dynamic ‘Double Diamond’ model.

The Double Diamond is a simple visual map of the design process, divided into four distinct phases – Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver.

In all creative processes, possible ideas are created (‘divergent thinking’) before being refined and narrowed down to the best idea (‘convergent thinking’).

The Double Diamond indicates that this happens twice – once to confirm the problem definition and once to create the solution.

One of the greatest mistakes is to omit the left-hand diamond and end-up solving the wrong problem.

May-Russell said that businesses neglecting the Double Diamond model risk tapping into preprogrammed business failures: “Most businesses in the UK start immediately with developing and delivering the product and miss out the essential thinking process consisting of diverging and converging.

Double Diamond design process model - image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ Olga Carreras Montoto.
Double Diamond design process model – image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ Olga Carreras Montoto.

“This is because decisions are too often made in the boardrooms on the management floor, but these decisions don’t represent the audience they seek to serve. They neither discover the current economic situation they are in, nor define the first expression of their plans to occupy a future position.”

Possible solutions

One way to solve this problem, according to May-Russell, is to place greater emphasis on collaboration between industrial designers and manufacturers.

The Design Economy 2018 report recommends incentivising the financial considerations of investing in design – an approach it says would address one of the principal barriers to entry (particularly for SMEs).

The answer could also lie in simply understanding the business need first and correlating that to what challenges and opportunities the company is facing.

Unfortunately, far too many research initiatives and incentives concentrate rather on technology than on design. Therefore, UK Research and Innovation have been brought together.

May-Russell explained: “We have a set of human-centred design tools, which help businesses to better understand the people they seek to serve. Basically, these tools help people to get a more empathetic understanding of what design can change and deliver.

“Too many people assume they know what is best, and they don’t. Human beings are notoriously unpredictable. They are emotionally driven, and far too many boardroom decisions are based on logic, facts, spreadsheets and analysis of data.

“Many businesses don’t know what the future landscape will look like for them, and therefore they take decisions based on what they have done in the past. The achievements that got them where they are now, won’t get them where they need to be in the future.”

SPINSCRUB rotary agitation brushes in both the primary washer and auxiliary attachment – image courtesy of Smallfry.

Design as a strategy

May-Russell said: “When I was a boy, the main brands of automotive manufacturers were in Coventry, but they have all largely disappeared, except for Jaguar Land Rover (JLR).

JLR’s turning point as a business, May-Russell noted, was when engineers stopped being in control of dictating the functional performance of the vehicles.

From this point, he continued, JLR involved designing desirability in the manufacturing process, and as a result, their products were more closely aligned with what the market actually wanted/needed. “If you give people what they want, they buy it.”

May-Russell offered another example of a successful collaboration between design and manufacturing – global technology behemoth, Apple.

The almost trillion-dollar company currently employs more than 120,000 people worldwide, yet its industrial design team comprises just 12 people– led by British designer, Jonathan Ive.

“That is very indicative of the impact that a small design department can have on the overall performance of a business,” he concluded.