The Value of Design to SMEs

By John Mathers


In an increasingly design-savvy world, it is remarkable how little the UK’s world-leading design services are exploited by UK businesses. Talk to many small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and it becomes clear that their view of design rarely reaches beyond their website and logo. While these are critical aspects of design, there is so much more it can do.

For some SMEs, understanding how to deploy design strategically and effectively can seem complex - particularly when using it to respond to business challenges. For many it is not a high priority in the face of other pressing business imperatives. Design can seem like something to explore when times are good, perhaps, but less so when resources are squeezed. 

However, for those that understand the value of external advice, and are then willing to put it into practice, the benefits can be profound – gaining a stronger foothold in the marketplace, rising above the general noise and becoming visible in new markets. 

Over the years, Design Council has worked with hundreds of SMEs. Our subsidised programme for small and medium-sized businesses is now part of the government's Business Growth Service. The programme matches businesses with an expert – a Design Associate (DA). These experts then advise, guide and support them along their design journey, showing them how to manage design effectively.
The reasons a business might need external support are many and often complex. A common challenge our Design Associates encounter is a business that struggles at first to see how design could benefit them. 
West Midlands-based White Logistics was one such business. Eager to grow at a time when the UK haulage industry was becoming ever more competitive and increasingly commoditised, they knew they needed some help, but could not see how design might give them the support they needed.
Upon first contact with a Design Associate, Judith Stracey, White Logistic’s chairman, highlighted a common misconception about design when she said: “Design? What’s that got to do with us?” Working with a DA quickly changed her mind. A decision was made to invest in two design projects: one to strengthen the corporate brand, the other a service design project to harness customer insight for new product development.

The result was an award-winning rebrand and a service design project that developed a number of new initiatives – including a driver training programme to strengthen the drivers’ roles as brand ambassadors. £500k in new business in the first six months after the DA’s intervention was proof enough of what design could for White Logistics, a company that continues to grow. Just last week, the work they did with design agency The Allotment won another award - a DBA Design Effectiveness Award.

This is just one example of what design can do for businesses. As the nature of the British economy evolves, it is vital that its businesses adapt. Design is proven to help businesses adjust to rapidly changing environments, and help them plan for the future. This is perhaps design’s integral benefit – SMEs gain valuable skills and capabilities to manage design strategically, ready for the next step-change in the economy, and long in to the future.