2014 will be a busy year for the UK’s Design Council as it marks the organisation’s 70th anniversary. In an interview with Chief Executive John Mathers, Icsid asked about its programmes and collaborations and about the upcoming Leading Business by Design Summit.

Q: Since your appointment as Chief Executive in September 2012, can you tell us about what has stood out most about your experience in the first year?

For me, what has surprised me the most about my experience with the Design Council thus far has been the breadth and depth of our activities. Just over two years ago, we integrated the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) into Design Council. Since then, our purpose, now more than ever is to champion great design that improves lives. With the Cabe now part of our organisation, we have a mandate that covers buildings, housing, communities, neighbourhoods, products and services.

However, if there were one single thing that we have done this year that stands out, it would have to be our work to celebrate and disseminate the great architecture and design work that went into the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

Q: Tell us about Design Council’s work with the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). How did this partnership come about? What are the goals surrounding the promotion of the value of design, especially for small businesses?

The partnership with AHRC came about through discussions between their CEO, Prof. Rick Rylance, and my predecessor. We realised that our two organisations had a shared interest in improving the quality and relevance of the design research that comes out of UK academia. In particular, we are aiming to boost the amount and quality of research that is undertaken regarding design, so that we have better evidence about the impact design makes on businesses and the public sector. This evidence can help businesses of all sizes understand what design can do for them, and to make better use of it, as well as help policymakers at the other end of the spectrum make informed decisions about ways to support design within the wider UK economy.

The partnership has gone from strength to strength, and the AHRC announced this year a number of new funding streams for new design research in the hopes of delivering some of that much-needed evidence. Together, we’ve also made a fantastically popular animation, drawing on existing academic evidence of the value of design for small businesses, which addresses some of the information gaps that small businesses have about design, even as we wait for new research to emerge.

Q: Design Council’s one-day summit ‘Leading Business by Design’ is coming up in February 2014 and looking at successful British businesses. What can an international audience expect to take away from this type of event? 

The summit will build on the findings of our recent research Leading Business by Design – Why and how business leaders invest in design, which explores how successful businesses are using design to stimulate sales, exceed customer expectations, improve services and transform corporate culture. Delegates from around the world will get the chance to hear how business leaders from companies such as Diageo, Barclays and Rolls Royce have transformed their organisations through their strategic use of design. The day will be a benefit to anyone looking to make similar improvements within their own organisation, as well as to anyone seeking to influence their country’s design or innovation policy.

Q: What do you think design agencies and businesses in other parts of the world can learn from similar organisations in Britain? 

Our team has just visited a number of countries including Chile, Brazil and India. Almost universally, there is an appetite to learn from the UK’s mechanisms to integrate design as a driver for growth, as well as learn more about the way in which we use design to influence and affect change in the public sector as evidenced in our Leading Business by Design and Design for Public Good reports.

Q: Design Council will be celebrating 70 years in 2014. Will reaching a milestone such as this spark any changes within the organisation and its programming?  

We are already seeing a significant change in the way we are both organised and the sort of programmes we are undertaking. Bringing Design Council and Cabe together has enabled us to look at major issues from a holistic perspective.

We will be taking a more international approach, building on the strength of the Design Council brand around the world and using best practice examples of design and innovation to spread the message about how design can make a real difference.

Of course, while we will be looking back at the last seventy years, since Winston Churchill set up the Council for Industrial Design in 1944, we will also be looking forward to the changes in the world of design that we might envisage in the next seventy years, as well as the challenges and, more importantly, the opportunities to come.

To encourage international representation at the Leading Business by Design Summit, the Design Council is delighted to offer Icsid Members 20% off the ticket price with this special booking link.


About John Mathers

John Mathers joined Design Council as its Chief Executive in September 2012. Immediately prior to his appointment, he was Chief Executive of the Holmes & Marchant Group, one of the world’s iconic design brands.

A career marketing and brand professional with over 30 years’ experience, John Mathers spent ten years gaining experience with Cadbury’s, Lyons Tetley and Safeway. John has led and built organisations, having managed a number of leading edge marketing, brand and design consultancies – Enterprise IG (now The Brand Union), Blue Marlin, Fitch and, most recently, Holmes & Marchant and Lloyd Northover.

About the Design Council

Design Council champions great design. For us that means design which improves lives and makes things better. As an enterprising charity, our work places design at the heart of creating value by stimulating innovation in business and public services, improving our built environment and tackling complex social issues such as ageing and obesity. We inspire new design thinking, encourage public debate and inform government policy to improve everyday life and help meet tomorrow’s challenges today.

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