Winstons War Council | Design Hub

It’s not surprising that the Design Council has its HQ here, in the capital’s design hub. It “champions design” – but what does that mean, exactly? What does it do? Kate O’Donnell finds out…

Design. It’s hard to pin down its influence – but the Design Council has uncovered some interesting facts and figures. It’s worked out that every £1 spent on design can boost a company’s revenue by £20, and its profit by £4. It’s also found that a well-designed workplace can reduce staff sick days by 39 per cent. UK businesses spend £35 billion on design every year: that’s more than is spent on R&D. The message? Investing in design pays for itself – and then some.

These statistical nuggets feature in an information video the charity hosts on Vimeo, one of more than 230 advice videos it has on the platform. These range from the basic What Does a Graphic Designer Do? to the specialist Reducing Violence and Aggression in A&E. That particular video, called The Value of Design, signs off by saying: “Design is about thinking differently and growing your business.” It all sounds very modern – but the idea of value added design is not a new one. The Design Council is, in fact, celebrating 70 glorious years of growing British businesses through design.

It was launched in 1944 by Winston Churchill’s coalition government. Back then, it was called the Council of Industrial Design and its mission was to “promote the improvement of design in the products of British industry”. This meant engineering, technology, hardware: things that could help British industry get through the war and, when it was over, help the country to recover its once-mighty industrial base.

It organised the Britain Can Make It exhibition in London in 1946, a consumer-friendly introduction to industrial product design. It showcased outstanding British design again at the Festival of Britain in 1951. And in 1956 it moved to its first proper base, the Design Centre in Haymarket. By 1972 it had changed its name to the groovier-sounding Design Council and its Haymarket headquarters had a shop where outstanding products were labelled with a distinctive black and white triangular swing tag, an instant identifier of quality British design for British design aficionados.

These days the Design Council is at the top of St John Street and part of the design hub that is Clerkenwell, not the design desert that is Haymarket. And it’s no longer a quango affiliated to the government but a charity whose tasks have segued from promoting Britain’s light and heavy industries to tackling big-picture contemporary issues like health, ageing and how to improve the space around us (in 2011 the Design Council joined forces with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, another former quango-turned-charity).

So how exactly does the Design Council work? The idea is to improve people’s lives through design by encouraging, supporting, advising, training and educating individuals, small companies, town planners and corporates at every level on how to make design work for them. So, everything from introducing a Yorkshire farm shop to a local agency to redesign their branding to high-spec technical advice for architects, town planners, local authorities and developers on multi-billion pound urban regeneration projects.

Battersea Power Station is one of theirs. It’s also given its design input on Crossrail, and worked with LOCOG on the highest of all high-profile events, London 2012 and the Olympic Park. So the Design Council’s changed a lot over 70 years, although Churchill certainly understood the impact of planning and architecture based on this famous quote: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

More prosaically the Design Council produces case studies, design guides and reports; it works with universities as well as local authorities, charities and community groups; it runs training courses for professionals in the built environment; and it gets involved in events and hosts talks and summits, featuring the likes of Vince Cable, Morag Myerscough and Barber Osgerby. Its 50-plus staffers can call on more than 50 design associates and more than 300 built environment experts for projects as required. And it does all this on the remarkably small budget of roughly £8.5 million a year.

The emphasis has expanded from supporting British industry through design to supporting everyone through design. And despite showstoppers like the Walkie Talkie skyscraper in Fenchurch Street (its architect, Rafael Viñoly, raves about the Design Council, by the way) and the Olympic Park, the charity’s design work is not necessarily glamorous. The Thames Tideway Tunnel (aka London’s new super-sewer) is a current project, as is designing easy-clean hospital commodes and bedside cabinets. But these are important and there’s often a lot of money, not to mention dignity, at stake.

It’s easy for us to take design for granted, particularly here in Clerkenwell. But in the big, wide world where not everyone is design literate? We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Design Council.

Kate O’Donnell is a journalist and style writer. Follow her on Twitter: @TheKateEdit