13 November 2006
David Robertson
David Robertson

If you had to put a dream team together to run the country who would be in it? Not the individuals, but the skill sets. For me there should be a manager, an accountant, an economist, a lawyer, a medical scientist, a physical scientist, a natural scientist, a psychologist, a sociologist and a marketing professional. A rounded team who understand the current needs of the nation as a business, the country as a sustainable environment and the human needs of the population. But in addition there should be an historian and a designer. Someone to explain the past and the path we are travelling and someone to imagine the future and plan how to get there.

The notion of designers being a critical skill for organisational success is one that finds favour with design graduates. They've come through an educational stream that nurtures their egos as originators and innovators. But this fancy is one that designers need to hold in check if they are to achieve a respected place in the commercial and political world.

The notional dream team outlined above demonstrates the complexity of information required to run the country. It clearly leaves out all sorts of skills that other professionals would consider essential: for example, engineering and education. The proposed team also demonstrates the notion of design applied to national organisation, the idea that a planned process is likely to achieve a superior outcome than a random process.

This after all is what design is all about and is often at the core of the design profession's frustration. There is nothing mysterious about design. It's not difficult to explain. Designing a thing is better than hoping that it'll happen by accident. Designing a product or process is more sensible than using trial and error. Designers are the people who provide these services. There are designers who cater to almost every type of business need, be it manufactured product, the development of services or the development of the built environment.

It would be hard to find someone who disagreed with the assertion that a designed outcome is more likely to succeed than a random outcome. Yet to a design aware person much of what passes for planning in government and business seems far from designed. In the real world the problem is the complexity of information that has to be considered and the societal inertia that has to be accommodated or overcome for an alternate method to supplant an established one. But the application of contemporary thinking skills such as design can improve the success rate.

So why then is design not more highly regarded in Australia? The design professions in Australia have enjoyed significant growth in the last fifty years and have benefited from a range of societal and promotional events. It's now time for Australian design professionals to formulate their strategy for sector success in the 2000s. The professional body for designers, the Design Institute of Australia, is currently developing a strategy for the design sector. It is looking for input from any interested parties who wish to participate. A core consideration of this strategy is to question the sacred cows of the historic design wish list and to test their relevance to our current society.

The focus of the strategy will be the betterment of professional designers (within the context of the advancement of Australian society). While designers like to take a holistic approach to societal improvement through the application of design, the strategy needs to be realistic about the capability of the professional support mechanisms available and the interests of Australian industry and politics. What designers want is perhaps less important than what will generate an environment where design services are held in high regard in the commercial world and are positioned to deliver maximum advantage to our community.

The evidence from overseas countries that design is considered to be an important element of national competitive advantage appears overwhelming. Government funded design promotion bodies and design centres abound. There is hardly a major city in the world, it seems, that doesn't want to position itself as a centre of design excellence. Design is sexy, makes good photo opportunities, bridges both the commercial and cultural interests of society and is embedded in the hot new industries that make up first world economies.

Eight years ago the National Design Review Steering Committee of the Academy of Design put pen to paper in the National Design Review Report Competing by Design. Not surprisingly the first of its findings was "Design is essential to the process of innovation and a source of competitive advantage to industry". This was not a novel finding in 1995 and certainly not novel today. The importance of design to national competition is well documented by economic and industrial commentators.

This understanding is fundamental to moving the promotion of design debate forward in the design community. It is essential that the design community move on from notion that no one understands what they do and that the community needs to be educated about design to a position of understanding the gains that have been made in design awareness and targeting those specific actions that will have direct outcomes for the profession.

The cry that no one is doing anything about the promotion of design is heard in every developed country. Cynically one might say, from those who are doing little about it themselves. It is clearly untrue from any reference to history, to the current volume of design related media or to the popularity of design courses in tertiary education. The same trend of discontent can be seen in many countries (and in almost any area of human endeavour for that matter). Special interest groups in any community are always looking to the next horizon to forward their cause. But in all these countries you will find a small core of professionals actively supporting an organised professional association and working for the improvement of the design sector.

The role of a professional body is essential to the success of any profession. It provides a connection point with the design industry for graduates, a networking mechanism for the profession on a state and national level, an organisational mechanism for design industry improvement and, most importantly, a training environment for future design sector champions. A professional body also acts as the corporate memory of the sector to ensure that the debate is moving forward, not continuously redoing the same things. The Design Institute of Australia (founded in 1947) is the oldest continuously operating design support mechanism in Australia. Its strength is the grass roots support of design professionals and it's ability to nurture champions dedicated to the profession.

The employment environment that a graduate designer faces today seems hostile and uncaring of the value of design. But it is a vastly changed environment from that faced by design graduates twenty years ago. To a fresh graduate it seems that nothing has been done to prepare industry for their graduation. Jobs that directly use their skills are hard to find. Employers seem indifferent to their assertions that their benefits will outweigh their expense of employment. But this is not because nothing has been done or achieved in the last twenty years. It s because the supply of designers has increased at a rate that negates all the promotional efforts and outstrips industry s growth and change as it adapts to new technology and societal realities. Far from this being a threat to design this flood of graduates it is an opportunity for the future. A future in which there is awareness that design is an essential component of industry because of the many design-trained individuals at all levels in society.

The integration of designers into key management positions is now assured. Comparison of the numbers of industrial designers working in industry twenty years ago with the number employed today guarantees it. The number of design led product development teams in national manufacturing organisations is growing daily. The progressive improvement of the education, employment experience and reputation of designers is ensuring that designers are taking their place in the organisation of Australia.

There is an enormous awareness of design in the Australian community. The April 2001 Survey of Work in Selected Cultural & Leisure Activities by the Australian Bureau of Statistics identified 349,800 people who indicated that they had some involvement (paid or unpaid) with design. Add to this the new media area of Interactive Content Creation that has absorbed so many graduates of design courses and you have 583,600 in a country of 19.277 million people. The message here is two-fold. Not only are the numbers significant but the inclusion of design as a sector of interest to be measured and considered is well embedded in the community.

What then should Australia do about design? Much has been tried in the past. At a time when the growth of manufacturing was seen to be important in the developed countries, in the mid 1900s, and with lobbying from the design profession, the Australian Government formed a design council like so many other countries at the time. Unlike organisations in other countries the Australian Design Council fell on hard times with the progressive withdrawal of government money and was ultimately closed down at the end of the eighties. But in its thirty years of operation it created significant awareness of design in the manufacturing community.

Should we push to do this again? Or is some other mechanism more appropriate to the national and international competitive scene in the 2000s?

The promotion of professional design is about two things: the importance of using a structured process to achieve the best outcome for a project and the importance of using a professional (competent, trained, specialised) person to achieve an optimum outcome for a project. In particular for design this focuses on the existence of specialised providers who are likely to provide a balanced mix of technical and human values to projects. Architects are the historic illustration of this in play. Industrial designers now have one hundred years of demonstrating this.

The value of design to the community occurs on two levels. At the industry level, the existence of trained specialists for the direct improvement of commercial outcomes and at the societal level, the existence of an intellectual process for the improvement of outcomes in all sectors of society. This aspect of improving the thinking tools of our society is one that is strongly promoted by theorists such as Edward deBono.

Design has a very long history of promotion in Australia. Key players in this promotion have been the professional bodies and associations including the Design Institute of Australia, Society of Interior Designers of Australia, Australian Textile Designers Association and the Australian Graphic Design Association. Government related bodies including the Industrial Design Council of Australia (later the Australian Design Council), National Industry Extension Scheme (NIES) and the Academy of Design. Companies such as Standards Australia, through its maintenance and growth of the Design Council s Australian Design Awards, have also supported promotion. And last but definitely not least the many universities and education providers who have developed numerous design courses.

Government efforts such as the Design Council and the Design Academy have a significant value of signalling the importance placed on design to the broader community. However the down side of focusing on government funded mechanisms such as these must also be taken into account. In particular their historically demonstrated ephemeral nature with the changing whims and fortunes of government and the vacuum of activity that follows their demise. Without bi-party support for the value of design in the national competitive equation this will remain a problem.

In designing the future of design in Australia we must understand the past, understand the values and roles of the many current stakeholders in the design sector and understand the complexities of running the business that is Australia.

About this article
This feature is reprinted with the permission of the Design Institute of Asutralia.