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Bigger than agriculture: How design became a multi billion dollar industry

According to a new report, the design sector contributed over $10 billion to the New Zealand economy in 2016. Henry Oliver asks Thomas Mical, the head of AUT’s School of Art and Design, what that means for New Zealand design.

Designers know that their work creates value, but a recent report from DesignCo – commissioned by ten New Zealand institutions including AUT – confirms it, by quantifying design’s growing impact on the New Zealand economy. According to The Value of Design to New Zealand report, the design sector contributed approximately $10.1 billion to the New Zealand economy in 2016, about 4.2% of New Zealand’s GDP.

And if design were treated as its own industry rather than a sector within various industries, its contribution to the economy would be larger than agriculture ($8.1 billion) and on the heels of retail trade ($10.6 billion) and food, beverage and tobacco product manufacturing ($10.6 billion). Product design and interactive design are the two biggest contributors towards design’s economic impact, along with manufacturing, human health, financial, environmental and construction industries.

But it’s not just design for design’s sake. The report shows a strong design sector and national prosperity and economic growth. Further, design is a powerful tool of urban regeneration and a way to help solve complex and hard-to-solve problems in both the private and public spheres.

Thomas Mical, the head of AUT’s School of Art and Design, was trained as an architect and has thought a lot about the interaction of public and private spaces. He sees reports like The Value of Design as vital, not just for the design industry to prove it’s worth to the government and the private sector, but for designer’s themselves to understand their economic impact and the value of the work they do. And for Mical, who sees the future of design everyday in his student’s work, its value is only going to grow.

Thomas Mical is the head of AUT’s School of Art and Design (Photo provided).

You’re the head of the AUT School of Art & Design. What do you teach?

I was appointed as a professor. All my degrees are in architecture but I’m kind of a generic, garden-variety, humanities, cultural studies guy. I do a lot of research about mixed-use spaces and how people use different types of spaces for different agendas. How spaces in movies or literature or media get turned into real spaces, and how real spaces start to influence other forms too. Sculptors work in clay, I work in theories of space.

So did you take part in the Value of Design To New Zealand report published this year?

AUT was one of many sponsors. DesignCo’s report is based on the British Design Council’s report which was organised by the leaders of the design schools and industry to persuade the government that design actually had a significant economic benefit. DesignCo’s report was more focused. Three universities – Vic, Massey and AUT – came together and worked with PwC to map and quantify everything.

That result just came out last month and the important number is ten billion a year. That’s bigger for New Zealand’s economy than agriculture. .

The report was intended, not only as a provocation or a justification but, for designers themselves, as a moment of reflection. They two biggest projected growth areas are interaction design and product design. One’s very 21st century, one’s very timeless. Some sectors are growing and some sectors are diminishing.

So how do you define in the design sector?

There is an organisation called the Designers Institute of New Zealand, that works with interior design, communication design, graphic design, digital design. There is a growing range of design practices now and they are increasingly becoming digital and experiential. When the students in product design make surfboards, we expect smart surfboards that can monitor sharks, temperature, stuff like that. Even when a textile student designs, we expect smart textiles so, for example, you can use them for signalling and communication. It’s infinite. They’re actually starting to invent disciplines that didn’t exist ten years ago, like service design, experience design, strategy design. These new design industries are in many ways, not just the future, but they’re already present here. Air New Zealand, for example, hires experience designers so all of the environment is taken into consideration. There’s been a significant understanding in corporate culture of the importance of design thinking. That argument has more or less been won.

So the design sector is expanding, both in terms of the types of work that it does and the money it’s generating for the New Zealand economy?

Yeah, it’s like a garden that’s gone wild. The traditional craft knowledge and the analogue equipment that went with it are disappearing. You used to do a manual poster design, or you would make shoes. Now you can expect our product designers to design shoes that are multi-purpose and biodegradable, with seeds in the sole so when they go into landfills, they turn into trees. Imagine door knobs that can deliver vitamins simply through touch. It’s a fascinating time. It’s like magic. Literally.

There is a type of empathy and emotional intelligence that’s showing up in design skills. That was always part of design but that’s becoming more rare for other parts of industry and society.

Most of this is coming from the private sector, right? Is there sufficient public sector support of design?

The government support for design education tends to be secondary and tertiary education. For example, I’m told one of the biggest consumers of advertising is actually the New Zealand government. They are highly selective consumers of design. Many designers run practices of one or two people, so it’s still at the New Zealand start-up scale. Here’s a couple major firms that dominate, like Weta in Wellington dominating digital animation. But designers are told they need to do a better job of actually advocating the value that they add and the report was about quantifying the value they add. Often we are so busy on their craft it might seem less important than the work but it is important. There is still not that clear communication.

When you say advocating, to who do you mean? Advocating to the world or to our government? Or to citizenry?

As an outsider, it seems everyone in New Zealand seems to be an amateur real estate speculator, and if something doesn’t improve the value of their home or property, like a coffee shop around the corner, they don’t seem that interested in it. There is still evidence of that suburban mentality. But there are grassroots movements, for example in design and social justice initiatives. I’m told the Auckland Council now is seriously looking at bike lanes and sustainable transportation instead of highways.

For right now, we’re going through a type of creative renaissance, I think, within the local and the larger global economies. With the polarisation that’s happening in most countries between the haves and have-nots, you’re finding lot more pop-up urbanism, a lot of spontaneous sharing economies. Like in my home country, the United States, the public services feel they are being contracted, if not collapsed, and leaving people on their own. Or, like in London. It’s one of the most creative cities in the world, which also has one of the biggest disparities between rich and poor. The creativity comes from the friction between the two. That’s Richard Florida’s old argument too. It’s the diversity – the socio-economic, racial, cultural diversity of a city – that determines its longevity in terms of creative industries.

As someone relatively new to New Zealand, how do you think those issues are being approached here?

I’m kind of new here, so I’m still studying it. There are many fascinating design practices here, intimate knowledge networks, and easy connections. I note more international companies are interested in New Zealand due to its unique demographics.

I recently taught in Vienna, and Vienna is considered one of the most well designed and beautiful cities in the world. My architecture and urban planning colleagues spent their whole lives there and they work in it, often ignoring what is excellent to outsiders. But I’m like, “You guys should be publishing the case studies of what you do because it would be globally useful.” I’ve always felt that about New Zealand designers too. There’s a humility here which puzzles me, and even our best designers don’t think they’re as good as they really are.

As an American, you figure something out and you might say, “Oh I deserve a Nobel Prize.” If a Kiwi wins a Nobel Prize, they might say , “Oh it’s not one of the better ones.” You know? As a consequence, I think there is less recognition of the inherent strengths and quality of design, design culture, design sensitivity present here. Even if it’s work with wire and tape and the do-it-yourself, fix-it-yourself imperative! It’s probably one of the few countries where people still imagine building eccentric functional devices, maybe even a time machine in their basement. You still get those kind of 19th century inventor mentalities here, and that is encouraging. I just find it fascinating because a lot of the world has become globalised, homogenised and stratified.

What is New Zealand’s strength in design? Is it that distance?

There’s a type of design outcome that has a “funky pragmatism”, but even the most slick work is always a bit edgy. It’s often highly socially responsible. The ethos of the landscape filters in, as do the cultural values of inclusion. There’s a greater shared sense of responsibility, it is an ethos that shows up in design so we don’t have as many frivolous or wasteful or flakey things as you would find in US or Australia.

The ethos also comes from not being wasteful, not designing something that causes harm as much. I see this a lot of the students when they go into their profession too. Design is to accomplish good, not simply to produce wealth.

How do you think that quality finds its way into the sector’s economic value?

Sector value is a quantification of the financial benefit – to get the attention of the politicians, to say to them that they’ve got a huge, huge, unique resource and a significant point of difference here that points to future industries and future social impact. Design for us is where the future is.

But the good designers aren’t grandstanding, they are just getting on with it. They don’t spend a lot of time reflecting or writing books about theories of design like they would in New York or London. They get busy and they stay busy.

As someone who has come from lots of places and studied spaces, what’s your take on the way that Auckland is approaching its public space?

It’s healthy. I take public transportation but I do that deliberately. Where I live, in Onehunga, I have lots of options to get around the city so it’s actually quite good. It’s more effective for me, cost- and health- and time-wise to use public transportation and that wasn’t the case in the past. There’s an increasing respect for healthy lifestyles, sustainable design principles, and we are seeing growing support for a lot of very enlightened policies around inclusive design.

The future of Auckland I would imagine would be in the aspects that are more attuned to subtleties of the environment, the climate, the cultural nuances. The old city planning techniques that served their purpose don’t really work with 21st century lifestyles. The number of people around the world buying automobiles in older economies is going down, and the traditional fuel that propels vehicles is also increasingly getting priced out by alternatives. In many ways, this is how good design innovation gains traction.

My only concern is that things move a little slower here than I’m used to. But I see great promise and great potential and I’m intrigued and sometimes surprised by the insights and outcomes of my colleagues and students. Designers are expected to live a bit in the future, to see signals and traces of the networked future in present scenarios, and this is how I imagine the spatial future Auckland.


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