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Design: One of the UK's global strengths?

Spencer Thompson

13 June 2012

Design is extremely important to innovation. Often it acts as the key link between a piece of technology and the user, with good design helping exciting new inventions find a market. Design is also being used in new and exciting ways to transform how services are delivered. We were recently commissioned by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) to look at the international aspects of the UK design industry, and assess whether there is any support policy can offer the industry. The results of our research are being given their first airing at an event at the Big Innovation Centre on 13 June.

Design is an extremely broad concept. Design activity takes place across many different industries, in small, bespoke business service companies as well as larger manufacturing firms. As such it is difficult to make sweeping statements about design in the same way we might about other sectors.

What we have managed to do is to identify several different sub-sectors that employ a large and concentrated number of designers, and together make up the design industry. We found that as a whole it is a highly export-facing industry, accounting for around a third of UK exports in 2009. Design is predominantly sold to advanced economies, although emerging markets are becoming increasingly important.

The intellectual property (IP) system is of great importance to the design industry, since the value of the industry stems from creating pieces of IP in the form of designs. Different design businesses use the system in different ways, from creating a design and then licensing it to other businesses for manufacture, to providing design as a service in a bespoke way with the resulting IP underpinning the sale. Whilst the IP system has provision for protecting designs in the form of a registered ‘design right’, many businesses use other forms of IP such as patents and unregistered design rights for protection.

What we recommend for policy is firstly that it should recognise the diversity of the design industry, and that this should guide thinking on policy for different parts of the industry. We make four targeted recommendations:

  • Given that UK design is a global industry, there may be value in the UK promoting the creation of a global system for the registration and protection of designs. Strengthening UK design rights would offer little help to internationally focused design businesses.
  • Many design services businesses are SMEs, and the range and complexity of IP used by the design industry justifies providing guidance to help SMEs navigate the system.
  • Design services are, unusually, both dominated by small businesses and extremely export-facing, so there is a case for expanding support to these businesses for writing contracts and IP enforcement.
  • Some businesses commission and license designs from and to other organisations. These 'design aggregators' could provide a focus for IP advice from government, since IP is so central to their business models.

The UK design industry is extremely innovative, internationally competitive and highly export-facing, making it a key player in global markets for the UK. Our research shows that policy should recognise the diversity of the industry and provide targeted support to help design businesses overcome the barriers to exporting and growth.

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04 Sep 2014 3:33PM

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