Classifying Design (Part I)
This is a report from the APDIG discussion on the 10th June. A second debate will follow on the 3rd July.
The Department for Culture Media and Sport is currently engaged in an interesting bit of work, recalibrating how it measures the UK creative industries. DCMS, as a department, and the concept of the creative industries, as a discrete and coherent part of the economy, both emerged into the world at about the same time – and as a manifestation of the New Labour focus on the Arts, soft power, Cool Britannia, etc.
Because of the way the British government works, grouping the so-called creative industries together and then adding them all up to get to a fairly substantial number is probably the clearest way of demonstrating to policymakers that this confusing bundle of non-traditional industries is actually quite important to the economy. As was clearly demonstrated by the recent debate about the economic value of the arts, touchy feely justifications carry little weight with the Treasury.
But because these are non-traditional industries, they don’t tend to fit very neatly into the traditional system of national accounting, that assumes most economic activity falls into certain very clear categories: agriculture, manufacturing, services, etc. These categories – called standard industrial codes, and standard occupational codes – are internationally set, for the purposes of benchmarking, and so can’t be changed easily.
Unfortunately as a lens through which to view and add up the economic contribution of the creative industries, they have some blind spots. Design, which is not only a sector unto itself, but also an activity that happens in many places, particularly suffers from this. The design categories in this system are broadly either communication design (which covers a range of things generally around the delivery of information), and product design. The further ends of the spectrum – strategic/ service/ social design, and industrial/ engineering design – are missing. The former because it’s too new a discipline, the latter because it’s apparently ‘too embedded’ in manufacturing.
At a seminar on this topic in June, the design industry community met with the DCMS civil servants running the consultation, to understand what the process was, and how they could feed into it. Notwithstanding the very thorough and detailed analysis going on at DCMS, I think most participants came away astounded at the distance between what they see themselves as doing in their working lives, and what government actually measures.
But however imperfect, the SIC/ SOC codes are also the only real tools we have for working out what share of GDP is owing to our creative talent. And at the moment DCMS is trying to refine the way we use them, in order that their estimates most accurately reflect what is actually going on in the real world. To be fair to the civil servants in question, they seem to be doing a very well-intentioned job in a constrained situation. And the use of Nesta’s ‘creative intensity’ analysis does seem a helpful development. But, as often happens in policymaking activity, from some angles this looks like a case of refining the detail without rethinking the bigger picture: what is the political vision here? What do we think we mean by creative industries? Is this still a valid/ helpful industrial grouping? Why do we need to measure them? And can such a definition have any real meaning if museums, galleries and libraries – an important foundational aspect of the creative industries - are left out?
None of these questions seem likely to be asked, so the pragmatic thing is to think about what improvements can be made in the current situation. Admittedly, there seems little the design sector can do to influence the current set-up, because the imperfections are embedded too deeply. But there will come a time when the SIC and SOC system itself gets reviewed. At this point (or preferably beforehand) the design industry needs to engage, to take some ownership of the way government defines it, otherwise it will always look unrecognisable. And the design sector will continue to be the Cinderella of the creative industries.
By Jocelyn Bailey.
To continue the discussion about classifying design, join us on the 3rd July.