Designing innovation

 9 April 2014

What do we mean by a design business? How do we define design?

In Northern Ireland we've been working through these questions recently as we deliver projects in partnership with the NI Design Alliance. Over the last few months we’ve collected a survey and hosted an event aimed at increasing our understanding of the role of design across the economy.

"Design is empathy... understanding how and why people use something."

Our aims have been threefold:

  • To capture better information about a sector we want to work with more
  • To use that information to build a directory of design businesses
  • To show how the design industry could play an important role in growing the NI economy.

We know from existing research that the majority of design businesses have less than five employees, but our survey has helped reveal the ambition of these micro-businesses.

Of the 144 who responded to our survey, 93% want to grow their business, 76% of NI designers are already exporting and 86% are interested in developing their business through export.

The design debate

Design is a vibrant industry in Northern Ireland. It’s the largest of our creative sectors and increasingly seeking to engage more strategically with Government as well as other parts of the economy. 

Despite this ambition, Northern Ireland is currently 11th out of 12 regions in the UK’s innovation ranking.

Northern Ireland is currently 11th out of 12 regions in the UK’s innovation ranking.

We sought to address this at our recent event, ‘Designing Innovation’, where we were joined by 80 delegates from business, government and the creative industries.

We discussed the role of design in delivering the Northern Ireland economic strategy, and specifically looked at ways to kick-start a debate on how design can play an integral part in improving that statistic.

Our keynote speaker, Lee Sankey, Design Director of Innovation and Customer Experience at Barclays Bank, argued that designers bring real value to business when they are allowed to implement their skills in all aspects of a company.

Lee used examples from mobile telecommunications, travel accommodation and the photography industry to illustrate the impact design-led innovation can have. Design is empathy, Lee Sankey explained, understanding how and why people use something, to better design the thing they actually want.

Design is empathy ... understanding how and why people use something.

Design is increasingly recognised as a strategic tool to drive innovation and gain competitive advantage. NI designers are keen to get that message across; to move away from the stereotype of ‘making something pretty’ and getting stuck into the serious business of creative problem solving to help their clients succeed.

As Steve Jobs said, ‘design is about how it works’, and that carries across all areas of industry.

Setting the strategic agenda for design 

This message requires a cultural shift in how design is used in Northern Ireland. With this in mind, our next phase of work will be to feed the outputs of the survey, event and newly developed Design Directory into more a more strategic agenda with government. For example:

  • Embedding design within government policy as a strategic tool
  • Developing collaborative business and design networks, to drive and support innovation
  • Offering tax incentives to businesses using design processes, to develop products and services
  • Embedding design thinking into every business strategy
  • Establishing a professional design network across Northern Ireland, helping designers to work effectively with business, education and government
  • Supporting the NI Executive to adopt a design led approach to solving society’s big challenges, e.g. transport, health, housing, unemployment and crime.

This kind of tactical investment in the design industry will not only improve Northern Ireland’s innovation rankings, but also unlock the potential for a new driver in economic growth.


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