If we’re going to properly answer questions about the value of design, we need to explore the challenge. And you can help.

Siân Whyte
Jul 25, 2019 · 6 min read

We’re shaping up a new research and evaluation programme to investigate the state of design in the UK over the coming years.

This will build on our past research, Design Economy 2015 and 2018, which focused on the economic value of design.

Over the next few months, we’ll be reaching out to designers, design users and non-users to consult on what they think are the big questions that need to be answered about design’s role and impact, and what evidence is required to help people better use design to tackle their biggest challenges.

This is your chance to have your say on our research priorities.

The evidence challenge

One of the most common queries we get at Design Council is about the impact of design. A recent example from a designer illustrates a common conundrum:

I’m giving a presentation for my organisation to try to convince some of our senior leaders to invest more time and money into our design process — what evidence can help explain the benefit of using design?

Contributing to the evidence-base on design and ensuring that insight is acted on is central to what we do. Through our ground-breaking research, we explore design’s role in economic development, tackling societal challenges and delivering inclusive places, to help us better understand and use design across the UK.

Our evidence shows that designers operate across the whole economy, shaping the built environment, the digital world and the products and services we use. The design economy generated £85.2bn in gross value added (GVA) to the UK in 2016: designers working in non-design industries such as aerospace, automotive and banking generated 68% of this value.

Our 2015 Design Economy research calculated the economic value of design to the UK for the first time. Our 2018 update sought to understand the wider impact that design businesses and design professionals are having on UK growth and innovation; whilst understanding more about the people that make up key sectors in design. We’ve also explored the nature and value of design skills; what difference design makes to business, and what enables healthy placemaking. These recent examples are proceeded by a significant back catalogue of stats, stories and insight.

And yet still the evidence question keeps being asked. Early conversations with our colleagues working on a UK Design Action Plan noted that evidence and its promotion remains one of the biggest barriers to design being more readily adopted (as well as being a potential significant enabler). The same is true internationally: the development of design metrics and case studies were seen as a priority area for the international design community by the Design Declaration Summit and The Bureau of European Design Associations.

So what can we do? We intend to produce a new Design Economy by the end of 2021. We want to build on our strong foundations from our previous research, but here’s five ways we’ll be shifting our approach to its development and dissemination.

1. We need to take a step back and properly explore the challenge

We want our research to help make the case for design, but also challenge us to think about what works in design and how it can help tackle the biggest challenges of our time.

We could easily fall into the trap of setting ourselves the brief to develop the next Design Economy without properly exploring whether our research questions are fit for purpose.

Instead, what are we going to need to know in 2021 about the state of design in the UK? What evidence convinces stakeholders in the public and private practice to invest in design? How does this evidence need to be used to change people’s perspective and prompt action?

Good research isn’t produced to sit on a shelf. And sometimes evidence isn’t the best way of addressing the challenge. Taking the time to challenge our assumptions about what people need from our research is critical to achieving our overall aims.

2. We’ll apply a design process to our research programme

Exploring the challenge — before defining the problem and developing appropriate solutions — is central to the design process.

We often use design approaches in how develop our design programmes and implement our strategy at Design Council — more on this in the coming months. Our research programmes should be no different.

Over the coming months, we’ll gather insight into the problem (‘Discover’) before deciding the research areas to focus on (‘Define’). We’ll be using tools and methods from our Framework for Innovation, our proven methodology that has the Double Diamond at its core, developed through 20 years’ experience of delivering national design programmes.

We’re therefore taking our own medicine, or practicing what we preach, if you like.

3. We want to hear from you — designers, design users and non-users alike

We’ve been involving staff across Design Council in what our next Design Economy might cover, reflecting on themes that resonate with us. Our initial thinking has been around how we can build on our existing methodology and explore, for example, how might we:

· Given the changing nature of work, continue to expand our definition of the Design Economy to cover new design roles that aren’t yet tracked through publicly available data?

· Understand who works in design to a greater granularity and broader definition of diversity, and what it means to truly be inclusive?

· Start to consider social, environmental and cultural value too? We’ve focused on tracking business use of design, but what about the public sector?

· Track national or international factors that affect design use and design industries over time, or the impact of current issues (such as issues with the design skills pipeline)?

But we’re not the only users of design evidence and we don’t have all the answers. Equally, we’re not always the end users of our research products and those directly making the case.

We’ll therefore be reaching out to designers and design users across public and private practice to consult on their priorities and understand their experience. We also want to speak to non-users to understand their needs and what evidence would convince them.

This is your chance to have your say about what research would make a difference to you.

4. We’ll need to prioritise, innovate and collaborate to achieve the greatest impact

Our new research programme won’t be able be able to answer all the questions that emerge — we’ll need to prioritise the most pressing ones that can be answered. We hope that key themes surface from our insight gathering, and we’ll look for opportunities to involve a range of stakeholders in deciding our final research questions.

It’s highly likely that through this process we’ll uncover problems with poor quality or missing data. We’ll likely have to develop new methods to fill key evidence gaps. We’ll approach these challenges wherever possible collaboratively. How can we learn from best practice in other fields? Who might we partner with to collectively develop fresh evidence that has a greater impact than work delivered in isolation? If you think that’s with you, get in touch.

5. We’ll work in the open and share what we learn as we go

Rather than only producing a final report a few years from now, we’ll be making available when we learn throughout our discovery phase, as well as prototyping new methodologies and sharing research chapters as they develop. We’re also be open about the process we’re going through and our decision-making, sharing what works and what doesn’t. We hope our work will help others looking to share learning on the value of design.

We’re really proud of our Design Economy research. Our next steps are about how do we keep evolving our methodology to reflect what evidence is needed to support the delivery of great design, now and in the future.

More to follow in the coming weeks about our approach and how to get involved, but in the meantime:

1. You can sign-up here to be the first to hear how to get involved and next steps. We’re also be sharing regular updates and perspectives via our newsletter and online.

2. You can contribute and follow the conversation online using our hashtag: #OurDesignEconomy

3. Get in touch with any questions and comments: research@designcouncil.org.uk

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