Why design is becoming the world's 'soft power'

Published 21st September 2017
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Why design is becoming the world's 'soft power'
Written by Sir John Sorrell
Sir John Sorrell is one of the UK's leading figures in design and the chairman of London's Design Festival. He was awarded a Knighthood in 2008 for his services to the creative industries. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.
The first London Design Festival was launched in 2003. Since then, around 130 cities across the world have set up their own version. Why? Design is key to building a successful creative economy and a festival is a major gateway to individual creative industries.
Design is at the heart of those creative industries, which in the UK include film, television, tech, music, games, fashion, advertising, architecture, arts, publishing, craft and more.
Twenty years ago, Britain was the first country to measure the overall value of these individual but highly connected disciplines and to promote them as a single and main sector alongside financial services, construction, energy and so on.
The results were compelling: over the last two decades, the creative industries has been the fastest growing sector in the UK, delivering £87 billion a year, or around $118 billion, to the economy.
It provides 3 million jobs and is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy, generating £9.6 million per hour. It's the envy of the world. A serious, big, wealth-earning, life enriching and reputation-enhancing sector, which sums up the term -- 'soft power'.

Good design goes global

All cities want to show that they can design global products and they want to be seen as being creative. Many have a deep desire to reposition themselves from the old industrial age into a new era of creativity.
In 2009, I met the mayor of Beijing to discuss why we had started and developed London Design Festival. I told him that our aim had been to present and promote London as the design capital of the world and as the gateway to the UK's rapidly growing creative industries.
When he launched the first Beijing Design Week in 2010, he said: "We want to change 'made in China' to 'designed in China."
Now, most major Chinese cities have an annual design festival as well as a Design Promotion Center, to develop China's design industry and compete with the world. It's a key part of the country's industrial strategy.

Design to differentiate

Since the Brexit referendum, the UK needs, more than ever, to find ways to influence and work with other nations. Creative partnerships are key: there is nothing more powerful and enduring than shared creative interests to win friends and influence people.
Every winning business uses design to differentiate itself from its competitors. Only one can be the cheapest, after all. And if you really want to win, you need to be serious about great design.
Apple's extraordinary success is due to its 'must have' products which I've heard British polymath Sir Stephen Fry describe as "so beautiful they are lickable."
Apple's design strategy is steered by the brilliant British-born designer Jony Ive. He told me once that every Apple product begins with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. The technology is important but the idea has to come first.

Problem solving

It's a fact that careers in design are more futureproof than in other sectors, because robots don't have the power of imagination... yet.
Good design is about problem solving. From engineering designers to fashion designers, architects to games designers, transport designers to illustrators and dozens more. The vast range of design disciplines responds to the truth that everything has to be designed; someone has to decide how things will function, look and feel.
When the design decisions are wrong -- often because trained designers were not involved -- it's immediately apparent. But when the designer gets it right, the results can be life enhancing and sometimes life-saving.

Education, variety and diversity

When I speak in other countries about London's creative industries, I'm always asked what a city needs to emulate London's extraordinary creative success.
I say there are three main components. First, a world-class creative education system, from early years to universities and colleges, with lots of cultural and professional interventions. Second, a very wide range of creative disciplines, with businesses working alongside cultural organizations and education. And third, a creative community encompassing people from across the world.
London is fortunate to have all these three and when you visit the 500 or so events staged by the London Design Festival and its partners this year, you'll witness the transformative energy that only a creative community can bring to a city.