Tuesday 14 May 2019 7:05 am

Churchill knew that design was crucial to Britain’s global future – and so should we

Follow Sarah Weir
In 1944, when the UK was facing extremely uncertain times, Winston Churchill’s government founded the Council of Industrial Design.

The plan was to invest heavily in design to ensure that we were making the best quality products that would allow us to win major industrial contracts in post-war Europe.

It worked. Even after an election the following year, Clement Attlee’s government continued to develop the Council, realising the value of design to the economy.

The widespread macroeconomic uncertainty facing Britain now is thankfully not the result of a war, but today’s businesses are experiencing similar upheaval and uncertainty about the future. We’ve reached another 1944 moment, and once again we need to start investing in design to ensure that we don’t lose out in post-Brexit Europe.

The design economy generated £85.2bn in gross value added to the UK in 2016, growing 52 per cent since 2009. A recent McKinsey study showed that businesses that embraced design generated 32 per cent more revenue and 56 per cent more shareholder returns than rivals over a five-year period.

Here in London, the design industry turned over £39.9bn in 2015, and employed 1.69m people.

Yet design is hugely underestimated in terms of its power to drive economic growth. With Britain focused on entering new markets and forging new trade deals, this is a worrying oversight.

We need to ensure that the world views the UK as a leader in the excellent design of services, systems, processes, and products. At the moment, despite our prowess, this just isn’t the case.

One of the key barriers is that good design is often invisible. It extends right the way across the economy, horizontally rather than vertically, making its impact very difficult for decision-makers to see.

For instance, a lot was made of the recent news that art and culture contribute more to the economy that agriculture.

But what people failed to consider is that good design – whether of a new museum building, online portal, video game, or piece of farming machinery – underpins the success and effectiveness of both of these industries, and just about every sector of the economy.

At the moment, design comes under the government’s business, enterprise and industrial strategy department. But in reality, design feeds into every government department: from transport, trade and defence, to education, health, and work and pensions.

Another crucial barrier we must overcome is the widespread misconception that design is just a way to make something look nicer, rather than a discipline that can help businesses work better, be more productive, and employ more people.

Yes, design can make an aesthetic impact. But at its core, it is about pursuing a better outcome than what’s currently available. It’s about finding new ways to do things more efficiently and more effectively, which can have huge pay-offs right across the economy.

Churchill realised this back in the 1940s, and so did Attlee. And today, though we’re now known simply as the Design Council, our founding principles remains the same.

Whatever may happen with Brexit, leaders in business and government must realise the potential of design to boost economic growth.


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