Other Governments Lend Their Might to Design. Why Can’t America?

The need for a government-funded design council has never been more crucial.

Most of the major countries around the world have national design councils. These organizations are funded by governments with the purpose of helping their country’s businesses become more competitive and improve their triple bottom line — the social, environmental and business indicators — by adopting design as a key business strategy.


For some reason, this idea has never caught on in the United States. Instead, many design trade associations, such as AIGA, IDSA, AIA, and DMI address the challenge. But maybe it’s time our government policymakers allocate some money for design awareness instead of just bailouts. The money would likely be a lot better spent — after all, a thriving design culture is what generates new products, inventions, and ultimately, jobs.

I was reminded of the difference between the U.S. approach and the rest of the world recently while attending a three-day Government Meets Design workshop presented by the Helsinki Design Lab in Helsinki, Finland.

It’s time our government policymakers allocate some money for design awareness instead of bailouts.

About 120 global leaders gathered to talk about education, sustainability, aging, and more. The idea was to examine how “owners” of large-scale challenges can — and are — using design to identify opportunities and techniques for strategic and systematic improvement. There were architects, designers, sociologists, policy makers, educators, business executives, entrepreneurs, engineers and design managers to help them probe into the future.

Putting such an eclectic group of people together is one of the basic foundations of design thinking. To solve really knotty problems, the theory posits, you need a team filled with “T”-shaped people, those demonstrating expertise in specific areas (vertical stroke) and who know how their discipline interacts with others (horizontal stroke). This notion is often attributed to the folks at strategic consulting firm McKinsey & Co. But I discovered that the concept was originally defined by an Italian, Marco Iansiti, in 1992. He also extended the theory to include “I”-shaped people and “V”-shaped people for that matter.

In welcoming this group, Marco Steinberg, Director of Strategic Design for Finland, threw out a call to action. “As the world turns with increasing intensity, the gaps between knowledge, understanding, and effective implementation have grown at alarming rates. Society’s organizational, disciplinary, and cultural silos are ill-equipped to address the growing needs that fall outside of traditional, neatly defined areas of responsibility. As an integrative approach, design can help provide a new model for leadership.”

No one expected us to solve all of these problems in three days, of course, but we definitely gave government officials some ideas about how to take a fresh look at them, and some new methods with which they might explore future scenarios. One specific outcome I have with DMI is to help Helsinki organize for their ICSID World Design Capital recognition in 2012.


While globally there is tremendous interest in the role of design as a business strategy, a study by Chiva & Alegre in 2009 indicates that investing in design alone is not enough. For design to be truly effective, it needs to be properly managed across the organization in order to fulfill its potential for enhancing firm performance.

Consider that when Procter & Gamble got really serious about design, they hired hundreds of design managers rather than thousands of designers. Those design managers then taught P&G’s executives about design thinking. Makes sense to me: after all, great design organizations take time to develop and are, so to speak, a team sport.

I think my experience in Helsinki is a sign of things to come. The role of design is expanding well beyond artifacts, communications, and experiences to broader problem solving — an interesting definition of “strategic design” may be “design that solves the right problems.” The whole notion of “business transformation” can indeed be shifted to “government transformation,” if we dare try.

It’s time for professional design managers to step up. We need serious design leaders like never before.

[Photo by Frielp]


About the author

Thomas Lockwood is founding partner of Lockwood Resource, an international recruiting firm specializing in design and innovation leadership, and past president of DMI, the Design Management Institute. He is one of the few people in the world with a PhD in design management, and is recognized as a thought leader in integrating design and innovation into business and building great design organizations.