24 September 2008
Russell Kennedy
Russell Kennedy
Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University
Icograda President Elect 2007-2009

With increasing global recognition of the relationship between design and industry, and the shift towards the unification of design disciplines under one single term, Australia finds itself in need of a new approach. In this week's Feature article, Russell Kennedy looks at the current challenges and opportunities facing the profession.

The current political situation suggests that designers need to draw together with a united voice if they are to avoid missing a number of great opportunities.

In June 2008, the Rudd Labor Government announced its decision to invest seventeen million dollars over four years in a new Creative Industries Innovation Centre (CIIC). The centre will encompass a broad range of creative disciplines and will have a commercial focus, acting as a professional business advisory and business development service to small and medium enterprises across Australia. The CIIC will form part of the government's greater Enterprise Connect initiative.

The question is: will a strategy in which design is embedded within a creative industries model benefit the Australian design professions? In recent years, a growing number of countries have identified design as a key driver of innovation. They have recognised that it serves the needs of industry and business better by being funded independently from other areas of the creative arts and by being included under the banner of trade, commerce and manufacturing. Many in our profession would probably agree that design is the most appropriate discipline within the creative sector to support the Australian Government's innovation agenda and yet, historically, the design professions in Australia have been unable to claim such a clear position. Whether this current model will facilitate a strong relationship between design and industry remains to be seen.

In the mid 1990s, a number of countries around the world identified the potential for design to be a facilitator of innovation and also a method of improving the long-term competitiveness of industry. Australia was one of those countries. In 1995, Australia was poised to lead the world in government-initiated design promotion but, unfortunately, we did not take up the challenge. On the other hand, countries such as Korea and Denmark seized the moment and developed strategic initiatives to promote design as a crucial component of innovation, economic welfare and sustainable industry. Japan, Britain, Taiwan and New Zealand have also established national design policies in subsequent years. These governments all acknowledged design as an important economic and cultural driver, while identifying the role design can play in improving the human condition.

In 1995, a report on Australian design was commissioned by the Keating government. "Competing by Design: the National Design Review Report" acknowledged the need for Australia to give design a more strategic role as a matter of urgency, arguing that this would be fundamental to Australia meeting its national trade challenge. In the same year, Australian design squandered another opportunity when it failed to complete a merger between the national professional bodies. These organisations were the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA), the Australian Textile Design Association (ATDA) and the Society of Interior Designers of Australia (SIDA). AGDA members voted against the merger. In 1996, an interim report, the "Australian Design Professionals Project," concluded that a merger of AGDA, ATDA, DIA and SIDA into a national multidisciplinary council would improve the range and depth of services for members and increase their clout with non-design groups such as government and business organisations. Both AGDA and DIA have continued to represent their professions in Australia since the failed merger.

The creative industries concept, where all members of the creative sector are broadly represented under the one banner, seems to have been upheld, in part, in the United Kingdom. The concept of creative industries lies behind the initiative known as Creative London, which is committed to exploiting a diverse set of creative activities that trade on London's already well-established reputation as a creative capital. As Mike Berry suggests, "Very few regions have as much real and symbolic capital to work with as London." However, the United Kingdom was also one of the first countries to recognise the central role of design in economic development, and its Design Council, established by central government in 1944 in the wake of postwar economic recovery, has continued to play a key role in promoting the design–industry nexus. Run by a government-appointed independent board, it addresses many of the same issues that similar national design councils face across the globe.

The question is whether the Australian Creative Industries concept, without a clear national policy on design like that of the United Kingdom, can make the best use of its talents. Here, it may be important to acknowledge that New Zealand, the country that is probably the closest to Australia in cultural values, recognised that it was under-using its design capabilities and established a Design Taskforce in 2003 to develop a strategy to boost economic growth through the better use of design for its exported goods.

The Australian design sector has historically had difficulty in drawing together its various internal disciplines. Here, it may be useful to observe some international initiatives. In the global arena, design is now referred to holistically, with interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary practice growing. The move to unite the design disciplines under a single term has already occurred in some countries, with professional design organisations such as BEDA (the Bureau of European Design Associations), the Danish Designers and BNO (the Association of Dutch Designers).

Index: Design to Improve Life, the world's largest design awards program, considers design as multidisciplinary. The most significant demonstration of this shift is the recent formation of IDA (the International Design Alliance) between three peak professional bodies, ICSID (the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design), Icograda (the International Council of Graphic Design Associations) and IFI (the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers). All three organisations acknowledge the importance of a single and united voice for design, particularly when talking to government.

Globalism and the redefining of our traditional design areas are emerging as the major issues facing practitioners and educators of design. A shrinking world combined with the merging of creative disciplines encourage us to not only redefine our profession but also to internationalise our approach to its practice, education and government promotion.

Given the current situation in Australia, it may once again be time for the Australian design professions to consider the crucial importance of drawing together with a united voice. Without a national design policy, the government's CIIC initiative could well be wasted – unless the key design bodies can put forward a strategic plan that makes the best use of the design sector's existing talents and infrastructure. Consequently, we will need to take collective action in order to take advantage of the current situation and steer it in the direction that other countries have already recognised as the most beneficial to their economy.

This article originally appeared in Artichoke 24, and has been republished with permission.