Often drawn up by teams of economists, innovation policy has long been data-driven and evidence-based. Arguably the lack of comparable, empirical data about the value of design to the innovation process has been a barrier to the inclusion of design in innovation policy.

In recent years there has been a drive by governments, design centres and research organisations to rectify this by capturing the economic impact of design. Examples include the European Commission’s Innobarometer survey, the Design Council’s Design Economy report, the SEE Platform’s Design Policy Monitor and Cambridge University’s International Design Scoreboard.

Since 2010 when design was first integrated into the European Commission’s Innovation Union policy, the policy landscape for design has been transformed. Not only has the European Commission developed its EU-wide Action Plan for Design-driven Innovation, but the governments of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Ireland and Latvia have all adopted their own national design action plans.

The forces at play that resulted in the design policy were many but perhaps the most convincing argument was the economic evidence.

In January 2016, Ireland’s Department for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (DJEI) published its Policy Framework for Design. What makes Ireland’s proposals unique are the ambitious targets that have been set, the resources mobilised to implement the policy and the ongoing political commitment to design. The forces at play that resulted in the design policy were many but perhaps the most convincing argument was the economic evidence.

Demonstrating the value

As a result of support from business leaders at the Global Irish Economic Forum in 2013, DJEI designated 2015 the Year of Irish Design (ID2015). Government provided €5 million and industry sponsors pledged additional support for the initiative, a year-long national and international campaign.

ID2015 had ambitious targets set out in the Action Plan for Jobs 2015:

  • Create 1,800 new jobs in design
  • Establish 200 design-led business start-ups
  • Generate €10 million in design exports
  • Engage with 3 million at home and abroad
  • Enable 300 companies to participate in international design-based trade missions

Gathering evidence

To monitor the implementation of ID2015 and the Action Plan for Jobs, a steering committee was tasked with gathering evidence on the economic impact of design. As part of this, DJEI commissioned three studies which examined the role of design in Irish enterprises, the profile of the design sector and the Irish Design Footprint based on industry codes.

CM International and PDR were responsible for conducting a survey of a cohort of innovative Irish firms account managed by Enterprise Ireland to understand how they perceive and use design. The Design Maturity Ladder has become a reference framework for categorising how companies use design:

  • Stage 1. No use of design
  • Stage 2. Design as styling
  • Stage 3. Design as process
  • Stage 4. Design as strategy

The survey findings revealed that among the innovative cohort of companies surveyed, 41% use design as strategy compared with 14% across the wider industry base in Ireland (as reported by the Innobarometer). This indicates a significant difference between this group of innovative companies which recognised the strategic value of design and the wider industry base.

The Design Maturity Ladder originally developed by the Danish Design Centre

The accompanying study on the design sector was conducted by consultant Con Kennedy and revealed a strong regional spread of design businesses and a growing number of start-ups representing 1 in 5 businesses. Based on the study, two out of three design agencies were found to be less than 10 years old. At the end of 2015, there were a total of 3,868 design businesses in Ireland.

The Irish Design Footprint research conducted by DJEI revealed that 48,000 people are employed in design roles (2.48% of total employment) and between 2011 and 2014 employment in design has increased by 6.7%. Furthermore, exports from design account for €38 billion or 21% of total exports, which is higher relative to the UK.

In addition to these three studies, the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland evaluated the impact of ID2015 against the targets established in the Action Plan for Jobs. By the end of the year, they reported that ID2015 had reached or exceeded all of its anticipated impact targets:

Target in the Action Plan for Jobs 2015

1,800 new jobs in design
200 design-led business start-ups
€10 million in design exports
3 million audience at home and abroad
300 companies in international trade missions

Impact by January 2016

4,000 new jobs created
370 new design businesses registered in Ireland
€19 million in design-related export sales
28.5 million people engaged at home and abroad through 670 projects including 100 internationally
476 Irish companies showcased internationally

An economic rationale for design support

The impact of the ID2015 and findings from the three studies has created a clear economic rationale for more strategic support of design by government. As such, DJEI developed the Policy Framework for Design and has included new actions for design into the Action Plan for Jobs 2016, including:

  • Strengthening Ireland’s design capability and performance through Enterprise Ireland programmes such as the Competitive Start Fund, international trade promotion and clustering initiatives.
  • Expanding the Design for Growth initiative to Local Enterprise Offices across Ireland bringing small firms and designers together
  • Continuing to promote Irish design through embassies abroad
  • Examining the provision of design skills as part of the Government’s Future Skills Group

According to the Action Plan for Jobs 2016 ‘design-driven innovation is an important dimension of the innovation ecosystem’. For the Design Innovation Ecosystem in a country to operate effectively there needs to be a balance between the supply of, and demand for, design expertise.

It is the vision of the Business and Employment Minister, Ged Nash TD, to:

Engage with Ministers, Departments and agencies, and others in the Government sector to better embed design in various aspects of national policy – education, culture, tourism, foreign diplomacy – but most importantly enterprise and innovation, as a force for job creation, international competitiveness and foreign investment.

While the political tides ebb and flow, it is crucial that champions within industry, the design sector and government continue the quest for evidence to sustain the momentum generated by ID2015.