One of the more interesting links to cross our desk lately has been a fund-raising proposal on crowd-sourcing website Pozible. It’s from the Australian Design Alliance, a loose confederation of design organisations seeking to raise funds to research a national design policy.

“We want to see a national policy for design adopted by the federal government that will be embedded in all government policies but specifically linked to Australia’s Innovation Agenda and cultural and urban design policies,” the Alliance states on Pozible.

To help develop such a proposal, the Alliance wants to raise $15,000. It’s around two-fifths of the way towards its target, having raised $6076 in pledges earlier this morning.

The Australian Design Alliance’s executive director Lisa Cahill explains that “the funding will specifically go towards the work we need to do to advocate for the national design policy”, including research, creating a website and lobby meetings in Canberra, “so when the government does say ‘yes’ we’re ready to proceed”.

The alliance fleshed out what it means by a national design policy in a submission to the National Cultural Policy process. Specific recommendations include ensuring “design experts” are represented on key bodies such as the Innovation Industry Councils, IP Australia, Commercialisation Australia, the National Measurement Institute, as well as relevant council of Australian government committees and taskforces.

Cahill argues design is an essential component of future economic growth.

“The creative industries themselves, and design being an enabler of the creative industries, provides us with a whole sector that we really need to look to for growth in the future beyond the mining boom,” she said. “Pretty much everything that we do in everyday life is designed.”

Ultimately, she thinks “design is there to solve modern problems”, citing the way in which design is integral to manufacturing, health, education, the environment, urban planning and innovation — in other words, much of the modern economy. “It’s actually instrumental and inherent across the board,” she said.

Roy Green is the dean of the University of Technology Sydney’s Business School, as well a member of Julia Gillard’s manufacturing roundtable, which met for the second time on Wednesday. Australia’s manufacturing sector has been contracting in the face of structural change in the economy, especially the high Aussie dollar.

“If manufacturing is to compete in the high value-added end of international markets, then much of that value is derived not just from science and technology innovation, but also from … new business models, systems integration and above all the role of design,” he told Crikey.

Green singles out Denmark as an example of a country that has actively sought to compete in high-end manufacturing such as wind turbines, rather than low-cost widgets. “Everything in terms of the competitiveness of their manufacturing industry is around quality and uniqueness, and [the] attractive and compelling nature of design,” he said.

Green thinks Australia needs a national campaign to raise awareness of the importance of the design. “Design should be everywhere — and part of it is about understanding the aesthetic … as well as the functionality of design,” he said.

He argues that the government can afford it, particularly in the context of current government R&D programs that aren’t delivering good results in terms of innovation. “We spend $200 million a year on agricultural R&D organisations, who don’t do much R&D, but do a lot of marketing,” he said.

Mark Burry, director of RMIT’s Design Research Institute, cited Australia’s long history of tariff barriers protecting manufacturing as key to the lack of design understanding here: “You take away the trade barriers, and suddenly there’s manifestly superior products often produced in economies which have cheaper labour. We have to be particularly clever, and not hide behind the excuse of being a small country.”

If anything, Burry argued, the push for a design policy is not ambitious enough: “It just strikes me at the moment it’s a little more modest than I think what we need.”

That lack of awareness of the value of design percolates down to the studio. Melbourne designer and blogger Andrew Ashton points out that many of his clients simply aren’t aware of the value of what designers create, especially when compared to the more prosaic aspects of the industry, such as television advertising or PR.

“I think that within creative and design sector there needs to be a bit of a more broader appreciation about what that means in terms of doing everyday work,” he said.

Ashton would like to see changes to tax rules to clarify design as a valid deductible expense for business. He says clients often ask him to change invoices so that his work falls into categories of advertising or PR. But he’s sceptical of any government interest.

“Design and creativity just don’t seem to have any legs in terms of government. Look at the new Queensland government, the first thing they did is axe the writers gig,” he told Crikey.

The importance of design within the innovation agenda is something well-understood by Terry Cutler, the author of the federal government’s 2008 review of the national innovation system. Indeed, Cutler points to Burry’s work as an exemplar of high-quality design research in Australia.  But he’s sceptical of whether the current push will achieve anything.

“There is more than a whiff of pre-Raphaelite whimsy in the breathless exhortations from the Australian Design Alliance,” he wrote in an email. “We don’t need a national design policy. We need amendment to existing policies and programs to remove that which inhibits and discourages good design practice.”

Cutler cites “research funding models that discriminate against multi-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary research” as well as “our failure to develop models for valuing design or building design value into asset classes” and “innovation-poor procurement models and practice”.

But is anyone listening? Cutler’s ambitious plan for Australia’s innovation system has largely gathered dust since being delivered early in Kevin Rudd’s first term. And while there have been some encouraging noises about design from Arts Minister Simon Crean, there hasn’t been a lot of interest from the rest of the political spectrum.

Crikey contacted the offices of Greg Combet, the Minister for Innovation, and Sophie Mirabella, his shadow. A spokesperson for Mirabella told us she is aware of the importance of design, but neither Mirabella nor Combet got back to us.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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