News, Technology

Interview: Cat Drew, Chief Design Officer at Design Council

Amie Haven

Amie Haven, Editor

Cat Drew tells us how Design Council is celebrating 75 years of design expertise

Cat Drew is the Chief Design Officer at Design Council. In her role she brings together architecture and the built environment, public sector design and business innovation to support people in living healthier, happier and safer lives. Previously, Cat has held leadership positions at FutureGov and Uscreates. She was a co-founder of the UK Government’s Policy Lab and combines 10 years of experience in Government with an MA in Graphic Design. She speaks widely about the value of design and co-presents BBC Radio 4 The Fix. She is also a member of The Point People.

Tell us about Design Council’s history and what its purpose is.

Set up in 1944 by Churchill’s war cabinet to support Britain’s economic recovery after World War II, the Council of Industrial Design had the founding purpose of promoting ‘by all practical means the improvement of design in the products of British industry’.

75 years later, our work has evolved, and we have a unique offer. Drawing on our unrivalled network of more than 450 experts from all kinds of design disciplines, we bring our skills and knowledge together to benefit three major areas of the economy: places, public services and business innovation. 

We publish world class national research on the value of design, using evidence to show the need and make the case for its use. This is often used as a blueprint by other government departments in the UK and around the world. 

We develop and run major design-led programmes in the UK and abroad that evidence the value of design, helping clients discover for themselves what works.

We provide independent advice for clients, stakeholders and partners based on a mixture of this evidence, insights and expertise. This enables them to both develop relevant policies and find design led solutions to their current and future challenges.

We evaluate all we do, providing evidence and stories to influence local and national governments in the UK and abroad, inspiring others to act, and endorsing and promoting design as a force for positive change.

We communicate our work widely on a range of different and predominantly digital platforms, passing on our knowledge, skills, expertise and insights, and pressing for change where needed.

How is Design Council celebrating turning 75?

In December 2019 we turned 75 and throughout 2020, we’ll be marking this special milestone by digging out rich histories from our archives and calling on designers and non-designers to reflect on Design Council successes over the decades. As well as looking back, we’ll also be thinking ahead – considering how design can tackle the societal, environment and economic issues of today and tomorrow.

In the first of our ‘We Are 75’ blog series, former Design Council Director Ellie Runcie, now BBC Chief Design Officer looked back on the evolution of Design Council’s world-renowned Double Diamond into the Framework for Innovation, and the vital role of design in making life better for all.

In your opinion, what have been the most significant changes in design over the past 75 years?

For me, it has been the evolution of design as an outcome (a noun, the ‘thing’) to design as a process (a verb, the change of existing situations into preferred ones). When Design Council started, our purpose was to improve the standards of industrial design. Since then, design has evolved from the design of products, to services to policy and now systems. Design Council has been very much in the forefront of that, pioneering approaches to public service design through the Design in the Public Sector programme that we’ve run for nearly seven years with the Local Government Association (LGA), which has upskilled staff from over 70 local councils in using service design approaches to improve what they do with residents. We are also part of the Restarting Britain commission, which paved the way for the Government’s Policy Lab, bringing design thinking into the heart of Government.

What specific design projects excite and inspire you the most?

Since joining Design Council in 2019, I have added in different design disciplines to my graphic, policy and service design background: business innovation and architecture and the built environment. I’ve always been curious about different design (and other) practices, and service/policy design is a bit of a magpie in how it picks up other tools/techniques (e.g. speculative design, community development, data visualisation) and adds them in. 

The Design Council teams have led some great integrated projects this year, such as community and SME engagement events around the Home of 2030 or Think Station (future of stations), combining architecture & built environment, speculative design and design facilitation. And our work with the Health Foundation and the LGA on their Shaping Places for Healthier Lives is combining design with systems thinking to broaden how local areas improve the health & wellbeing of their residents, thinking beyond health services into the built environment, businesses and community activism.

Where is the cutting edge of design right now?

For me, looking at how design can play a role in tackling the climate crisis – there are opportunities for design disciplines to learn from each other. For example, restorative design (e.g. rewilding or biodiversity) could learn from how service design builds capabilities in others, or circular design could learn from asset based community design, or how the design of new materials could learn from the invisible materials of service design (such as values or power), and all vice versa.

Working between different disciplines allows for innovation (as Matthew Syed sets out in his excellent book, Rebel Ideas, recommended by Andrea Siodmok from Policy Lab), but it also requires some good prep — again building relationships and shared languages so everyone can work well together.

Design Council has partnered with Nesta and States of Change to encourage innovation and problem-solving in the civil service. How do traditional institutions currently respond to innovative change? And what are your hopes for the future of innovation in the civil service?

We’re increasingly seeing innovation methods in governments around the world. I was privileged to be part of the UK Government’s Policy Lab, and I’m part of the States of Change faculty, which is a global network of amazing government innovators based in countries around the world. We’re currently partnering with them to deliver the UK States of Change, supporting four teams from Scottish and Welsh Governments and Ofcom to take a user-centred and systemic approach to tackling challenges. This means getting out of the office and spending time with people experiencing the policy challenges civil servants are writing about. This means toggling between deep empathy with people, and a broad understanding of the bigger picture, and the wider resources in different – and often unusual partners – who might also be part of addressing a challenge.

What are Design Council’s aspirations for the years ahead?

We’re about to launch our strategy for the next five years, which is really exciting. We’ve thought hard about our particular role and focused on areas that need a multi-disciplinary approach and require action from grassroots to Government. These are health & wellbeing and sustainable living. We’ll be researching the value of design to these areas; we’ll be developing place-based programmes to demonstrate this; and we’ll be building skills of non-designers (businesses, communities, local government staff) to use design in their work. And through it all, using design and visual communication to tell the story, ask bigger provocative questions about what a hopeful future might be, and inspire others to join us in getting there.


UX Connections would like to thank Cat Drew for talking to us about Design Council’s past achievements and its exciting future.


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