Design and Digital… The Twain Must Meet

by Jim Dawton, ‎Director at Great Fridays, now an EPAM company

Whether you work in the design industry or not, it is one of the proudest things as a British person to be able to say ‘we lead the world in design’.

This quality comes from a certain sensibility that comes from our love and flair for the cutting edge, and being an island that has our own character, slightly crazy, an interesting sense of humour and certainly a notion that we know what we like.

Innovation, on the other hand, is an area where we regrettably do not lead the world. Granted, we’re not exactly an also-ran, not least in the area of science and technology invention – Graphene is the most recent case in point, but it is the US, and Silicon Valley in particular, where tech talent has clustered and flourished.

The particular reasons why Silicon Valley is at the apex of the global tech pyramid are myriad. Add together the Californian Gold Rush, World Wars, the industrial-military machine, the race for space, #AppleGoogle, social networks and now mobile/cloud and you’ll be close.

This unique evolution, funded by successful exit-entrepreneurs recycling money back into that economy means Silicon Valley will probably never be toppled, but UK initiatives that realistically support our evolving tech and digital expertise are to be welcomed, and are beginning to take effect.

The recent release of the Design Commission’s Designing the Digital Economy report is an intelligent, thorough and proactive consideration of the importance of design within the digital economy, even if everything is in essence digital nowadays.

As with many commentaries on design, there always tends to be an agenda to ‘big up’ design. I have no problem with that, but a digital project will not make it into the ‘real world’ without good quality design being used early and throughout the development process.

It’s great the report recognises that ‘future applications of digital technology must be inseparable from user experience’ and it touches on the ‘internet of things’ and the physical nature of ‘making’.

‘Intelligent environments’ and the ‘internet of things’ if DESIGNED PROPERLY will lead to a more efficient, sustainable and enjoyable life.

It could have benefited, however, from a broader comment on how user experiences are increasing complex multi-channel/touch point affairs (ironically the convergence enabled by digital technology is rapidly creating divergent user experiences) and how design can affect each channel, and the integration across them.

I also noted that ‘intelligent environments’ and the ‘internet of things’ if DESIGNED PROPERLY will lead to a more efficient, sustainable and enjoyable life. It’s also fantastic to know that the reports see the Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) as key stakeholders. The fact that the TSB has had a ‘Lead Specialist – Design’ for the last three years (me!) indicates that it is already going the right way.

The 17 recommendations that are intended to address/support the broad issue of ‘how design can be better exploited in digital revolution’ are also refreshing, especially a Head of Design in each Government department. It would be even more optimistic if these Heads receive real design authority.

However, the use of ‘Chief User Officer’ within the report is a little off-putting; let’s have Chief Design Officer instead. The Design Commission are discussing the effective use of design, let’s not be embarrassed by the word design. I was recently told by a major management consulting firm that for design to be embedded as a strategic partner in management consulting, it would have to drop the word design and instead use innovation – that is insane!

The industry focus seems to be more on the micro and small end of SME, right down to entrepreneurial designer/makers.

For me, the elephant in the room in this report is that ‘big’ industry is hardly mentioned here; the industry focus seems to be more on the micro and small end of SME, right down (if I can put it that way) to entrepreneurial designer/makers.

While there is much to admire and respect in this report, if design is really going to affect the UK’s digital economy, we need to do everything previously cited, but also we need to think bigger. It’s companies such as Amazon, Experian and PayPal who really have an impact at a national and global level.

We are world-leaders in design because we believe in it and that is ever more important in a digital world. Let’s hope the recommendations are acted upon and these words become reality. The elephant in the room is one thing; a dying white elephant is another thing entirely.