Design Skills

August 18, 2020

This guest post is kindly provided by Matthew Young Design Council.

Design Perspectives: Design Skills.

Over recent years Design Council has been thinking about change through the fourth industrial revolution – the rise of artificial intelligence, total interconnectedness of devices and people, and shared data – and their effects on different economic sectors. We are far from alone in that, of course, it has rightly been a pressing concern across public policy, consultancy, and business in general.

Finding policy prescriptions and anticipating tech changes is one thing, but we remain aware of the risks of trying to do too much predicting, and not enough preparing ourselves with the skills we should possess now. We know change is coming and we can’t stop it – for example when examining the potential impact of AI on three sectors – retail, planning and health. However we are also keen to look at the world as it is and what we know for certain about the type of change that is coming and move forward from there.

Design Council’s answer to both the short and longer-term questions is to emphasise skills that we think are crucial to keeping people in rewarding and stimulating work that also has greater value to the economy, and which happen (not coincidentally!) to be germane to the design process: skills essential to creativity like complex problem solving, analysis, visualisation, reasoning and critical thinking. We explored the importance of these skills in our report Designing a Future Economy. And we were backed up when the World Economic Forum emphasised these skills as being among those in highest demand in coming years.[1]

One problem is that we don’t believe the current or future workforces have enough of these skills to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. A narrowing of the school curriculum has seen, among other impacts, a massive crash in the number of young people taking the Design & Technology GCSE, from where it was in 2001 to 2019, a fall of 75%. While the D&T syllabus isn’t the only place people can get these skills, this decline is symptomatic of a bigger issue: the need for an education that gives more priority to skills and different ways of thinking.

It’s a key priority for us to make the case for these skills and their huge value to the economy as detailed in our new four-year strategy.[2] But we aren’t alone in wanting to make our case to the policymakers for getting a much greater spread of skills. There’s a multitude of organisations, from trade and professional bodies, learned societies, charities, think tanks, and educators who are all trying to make this case in different, innovative and creative ways. In a crowded field, could we get the attention of Westminster and Whitehall by ourselves? It felt unlikely.

So we set out to bring some of the most interested and interesting people and organisations together, with the aim of finding out what we agreed on, where we disagreed, and start to scope out grounds for consensus and collaboration. The group started with some of the bodies we have most contact with, such as the Creative Industry Federation, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Edge Foundation and the Crafts Council and we looked further to try to get a representative group which had the right mix of perspectives, not just from the design world, but across education, innovation, the public sector and practitioners.

We brought them together for a one-day design workshop with the help of our Design Associates Neil Gridley and Megha Wadhawan. The participants offered their experience, insights, knowledge and passion for their subjects. First to be explored were the skills that the group believed were most important to society and our economy now and into the future. We set out not to limit the group to only thinking about skills that we at Design Council see as priorities, but to find out where their diverse interest lay. This produced a rich variety of skills, attitudes and mindsets, as you might expect, from empathy, imagination, resilience and analytical thinking to leadership, visualisation, relationship building and courage.

We went on to group these ideas and generate thematic links. The most common themes to emerge, and which found a large degree of consensus, were skills that emphasised emotional intelligence, risk taking and experimentation, creativity, leadership and inspiring others, communication, practical know-how, adaptability, analysis, critical thinking and problem solving.

We went on to look at where there are barriers to accessing and acquiring these skills, across formal educational settings from primary through to tertiary level, in work, and in society as a whole. Through schools and FE/HE there was much agreement that the current curriculum is failing to provide young people with the broad range of skills they need. It isn’t adapting to a changing world through its content, assessment measures don’t provide the right incentives, and some teachers lack the awareness and knowledge of the skills they need to bring out. Careers advice is often not felt to be helping young people to see all the opportunities, and parents can be barriers too: many aren’t encouraging the choices that can provide a route into the changing world of work. Poverty limits the choices and opportunities that are made, as does a real lack of diversity in the jobs that we agreed would be growing in the future. More widely there is the barrier of a making culture being undervalued, and for too many, practical skills aren’t seen as a route to a fulfilling and prosperous career: our resource-intensive, disposable economy hasn’t reached the point where it adequately values the handmade, hand-built, and re-purposed.

When the group mapped the actors and their influence who can help us overturn some of these barriers there was a response that illustrates how big the challenge is. From Downing Street to students’ peer groups we collected a list of names and organisations that was startling in its breadth. As you would expect, teachers, parents and policymakers were high on everyone’s list but we also identified the professionals and institutions who can make a big difference: HR managers and recruiters; websites and apps; colleagues and friends; community public services and local charities and businesses anchored into their communities who could play a bigger role in getting messages across.

Finally everyone contributed towards beginning a picture of who is currently doing what to influence the policy agenda, to provide skills and opportunities outside formal settings, or to improve and deepen the way skills are taught now. This was probably the most encouraging aspect of the day we saw the true range of activities that are going on, including a huge number of programmes, hands on experiences, school challenges, competitions – creative and dynamic work being done in and out of formal settings, many run by some of the great organisations who came along on the day.

It was noticeable how practical and current the ideas and views generated were. There was little in the way of crystal ball gazing or abstraction. Instead the focus remained on what we could say with confidence about the way we need to live, interact and work to form stronger communities, and more sustainable economic and social futures.

Though interrupted by the current crisis, we remain even more determined to make sure the recovery phase has at its heart remaking a better, more sustainable, fulfilling and worthwhile set of educational experiences and work and life opportunities. Soon we will want to take forward some of the major challenges that the workshop identified and join together to see how we can bring down some of the barriers to progress.

We have identified some of the core skills: problem solving; creativity; leadership; analysis; experimentation; emotional intelligence; and practical ‘doing’ skills, and now we want to define more clearly the actions needed to equip more people, of any age and background, with them. Design Council has taken its own thinking forward and recently published a Design Skills Report Design Perspectives. Where do we go now? Our progress depends on cooperation and collaboration, and the depth of our determination to see a better world emerge from the struggles we are living through now. So we invite interested organisations to contribute to this developing thinking and the work needed to spread these critical skills across the country as we face the long road to recovery together. If you are working in this space please get in touch, we’d love to make contact with you.


[2] Workers with design skills contribute £209billion to the UK economy. Designing A Future Economy (2018)


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