Design at the service of economic growth

Tiia Vihand, director at the Estonian Design Centre, wrote an article for Postimees about good design as an essential factor in achieving economic growth.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications recently published a vision for the development of the economic policy of Estonia, presenting a plan that sets guidelines and indicators for 2035. The document's ambition is to double the volume of the Estonian economy by 2035.

Design was not mentioned in the document, however, Estonian designers certainly want to contribute to the realisation of this ambition. Unfortunately, as research shows, conscious use of design is not, in fact, self-evident.

The physical and digital space around us, and the ways in which we interact with the artificial world, have been designed by someone. How things are made, what they are made of, what they look like, and what the consumer experience is like is all (mostly) the work of designers. Everyone knows that houses are shaped by architects and clothing by fashion designers, but not too much thought goes into everyday objects or online content and services.

And yet we want to own or use precisely those goods and services that are durable, high-quality, functional, beautiful, create value and make us feel good. The decision to purchase may often be based on usability, quality, product longevity, or even just a desirable brand. And that is the case all over the world. Bad, ugly, and dysfunctional goods or services are undesirable. Design plays a vital role in the economy.

One of the definitions of design is as follows - Design is a consciously driven creative process which begins with identifying a problem and leads to the development of new, vibrant, user-centric, aesthetically pleasing, and innovative works, products and services (1). This definition lists the characteristics within the framework of which a good design must fit. It also describes the process as being managed consciously.

Photo: Estonian Design Awards 2014. Noted work. Electric sauna heater.

More design awareness and better targeting

Although it can be noted that awareness of the importance of design has improved among entrepreneurs compared to 2018, the conscious use of design is still not something that is widely known, as was revealed by the study "Use of Design in Estonian Enterprises and Foundations", conducted in cooperation between Civitta and the Ministry of Culture, and published on March 15th this year.

Unfortunately, the study states that “small and medium-sized businesses, in particular, continue to have a little to no awareness of design possibilities along with limited resources. Many companies consider design to be merely a cost and find that the use of design is irrelevant in their field. The main reason for this attitude can be attributed to precisely the low level of awareness of the possibilities of design, as well as the lack of positive personal experience. There are major shortcomings in implementing product and industrial design as part of business development.”
The study also finds that the needs-based targeting of measures needs to be improved – "More than half of businesses/institutions have not used nor are aware of measures to support design competencies. Many of the companies that have used the measures felt that they had not had any effect."

It also became clear that "Measures and activities to support the use of design should not be viewed nor planned in isolation, but rather the design components should be integrated into other entrepreneur-oriented measures. Some design providers explained that, in cooperation with or under the administration of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, it would be easier to integrate design into different measures and programmes aimed at entrepreneurs. This would make it easier to reach entrepreneurs, and the meaning and value of design would be more understandable and closer to the entrepreneur."

In addition, as an umbrella organisation for the design sector, the Estonian Design Centre has mapped the Estonian design field. The map provides an insight into the diversity of creators, non-profit associations, and companies operating in the field of design in Estonia. The mapping, which will see the light of day this April, along with the aforementioned survey, should definitely provide meaningful input for implementing the Estonian economic policy plan.

Of course, simply reading the documents does not help grow the economy, but getting acquainted with them will help understand the specifics of the field of design and find ways to make better use of design by creating good (and buyable) products and services. For its part, the state could contribute to the development of the use of design by assessing the distribution of business support and the role of product development and prototyping in the creation of marketable products and services.

Although, within the division of ministries, design falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture, it would also be worthwhile for the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications and the implementing agencies to involve experts from the field of design in the development of national support measures regarding design. I am convinced that such an approach would improve the efficacy of support measures and produce better economic results.

Design from start to finish

Involving designers in the product development process from start to finish helps create a stronger foundation for effective solutions throughout the life cycle of the products. While smaller businesses are afraid of the costs involved, it is certain that involving professionals from the start will help companies be more successful in the long term.

Such a strategy is also the backbone of the circular economy that is being pursued – the product life cycle analysis enables designers and businesses to develop more sustainable, easily recyclable, and repairable products, thus reducing the environmental impact throughout the product's life cycle.

Additionally, entrepreneurs and businesses could be more open-minded in the design market. According to the study, entrepreneurs often prefer designers with whom they are already familiar as their partners. This is understandable – relying on tried and trusted people when doing your job is easier. However, exploring new perspectives could lead to even better results. One of the tools for finding new design partners is the online database of the Estonian network of design agencies.

There are many examples from various fields that showcase how the work of professional designers has been an essential component in achieving success - from Huum's internationally renowned sauna heaters and Silen's silence booths to the Oru Hotel next to the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, where designers were involved from market research down to the last detail of interior design and even the selection of the hotel’s business cards and pens.

These few examples above of the importance of design in the market may indicate that the plan for economic growth can be best achieved by working together with designers. To this end, Estonian companies and the state should broaden their mind and further increase the emphasis on good design, using the knowledge and experience of professional designers. Design thinking, prototyping, and user-centric development are key factors in helping create better products and services. These approaches allow companies to be more successful in the market. Estonian businesses that invest in design are investing in their future. Good design is an essential component of a successful business. It is necessary to understand the value of design and its potential to promote economic growth and social well-being.

1) Melioranski, R-H., Pärn, M., Meister, L., Siimar, J., Lehari, I. (2012) How to Reinvent the Wheel: Design-Mindedly About Business. (Kuidas leiutada jalgratast. Disainimeelselt ettevõtlusest.) Estonian Design Centre and Estonian Academy of Arts

Here is a link to the Postimees article

The Ministry of Culture’s study on the use of design in Estonian businesses

Economic policy plan - Long-term economic outlook

Download the pdf