The Cox Review

With the UK's industries under threat from emerging economies in the Far East, the Cox Review proposes that the UK competes through better use of design. So can industry become more design savvy?

In September 2005, Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, commissioned Sir George Cox, the chairman of the Design Council, to review the use of creativity in industry. The main aim of the report was to "look at how best to enhance UK business productivity by drawing on our world-leading creative capabilities". Sir George recently published his eagerly-awaited findings, so what do they mean for British designers?

According to the Cox Review, the UK's industry is under threat from emerging economies in the Far East and the vast potential of China, Brazil, Russia and India. But these countries have more than just cheap, low-skilled labour to offer.

"They are building up new technologybased industries... and investing massively in education, technical skills and creative capabilities," says Cox.

To counter this threat, Cox suggests that "sustained success in business increasingly depends on the ability to innovate, which in turn depends on the availability and exploitation of creative skills."

At present, however, Cox says that too little creativity is routinely used by British business. In a survey published this year by the Boston Consulting Group, polling the views of nearly 1,000 senior executives around the world, only one British company made it into the top 20 most innovative companies.

Cox suggests that the obstacles to a better use of creativity in business are: a limited understanding of how creativity could be used to a business advantage, a lack of confidence that investing in creativity will bring a worthwhile return, and a lack of knowledge in finding creative solutions. In order to overcome these, Cox makes the following recommendations:

  • Form closer links between universities and businesses and establish academic centres of excellence for business engineering, technology and design.
  • Rethink the Government's 'value for money' approach to buying, which may inhibit the use of innovative solutions.
  • Establish a network of Creativity and Innovation Centres throughout the UK, with a central hub in London.

Clearly such a high-profile examination of the benefits of design and the creative industries is a good thing, but how will these recommendations be realised? Creative & Cultural Skills' Annabel

Praeger, the industry skills director for design, welcomes the focus on education. She believes that industry needs to see the potential of design students.

"We need to help schools and colleges to support design education and form links with industry, and start getting people from industry going into schools, working with students on projects. It's a two-way street." Praeger also believes that business needs to adopt a different approach to how it commissions designers. "When clients are buying design they tend to do it through the procurement process rather than viewing it as a strategic thing. It's essential that design is considered strategically. It doesn't just come down to price," she adds.

The public sector clearly has a big part to play in leading the way with design, but is Cox right about the Government's 'value for money' approach to commissioning?

We spoke to Applied Information Group's (AIG) Tim Fendley about his time working with Bristol City Council, which commissioned AIG London to create an innovative way-finding system comprising maps and signposts in the city centre. Although the public sector might not see the value of good design en masse, Fendley is largely positive about his experience. "Great things come out of mavericks at councils," he says. Fendley concurs with Praeger on the issue of the current perception of design: "Essentially the standard practice is to go for the lowest common denominator but design seeks to find the most elegant solution. If you present your ideas and rationale in the right way and there's a degree of ambition, whether those things will happen often depends on political will."

The Creativity and Innovation Centres concept certainly seems like a good way to raise awareness, but the focus on London won't be appealing to all designers.

Annabel Praeger thinks this reflects the reality of the design industry: "Everything has been London and south-east focused," she says. "The London-centric view is inevitable because that's traditionally where most of the activity comes from so it makes sense to have the centre there. But if regional activity clusters together it will reach a critical mass and develop recognition. Regional perspective is essential."

Whether the findings of the Cox Review result in any change to the design culture in the UK remains to be seen, but such a high-profile report brings some much-needed attention to the practical and commercial applications of what designers do.