Tackling the Design Deficit

What South Korea could teach Canada about the importance of design-led innovation in public policy

The ongoing plans behind Canada's 150th anniversary celebration for 2017 have already been met with controversy. After a recent article published by the CBC revealed that the federal government tested a preliminary set of five logo design concepts on focus groups, the Canadian design community decided to react. Citing a lack of originality and poor quality, the proposed logos prompted a group of Canadian graphic designers and art directors to create a website, the150logo.ca, in a bid to showcase creative alternative concepts from design professionals across the country. The Graphic Designers of Canada, Society of Graphic Designers of Quebec, and Association of Registered Graphic Designers have also issued open letters and petitions to the federal government calling for the Department of Canadian Heritage to reconsider the current development process for the 150th anniversary logo.

Of course, it has not always been this way. On June 1, 1961, the Canadian government under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had passed an Act for the Establishment of a National Design Council to "plan and implement programs to create an awareness by industry and the general public of the need for good design." Much of the success behind Canada's centennial celebration at Expo '67, which witnessed the extensive use of IMAX projection and computer animation systems to the creation of the Habitat 67 architectural project, was due in large part to the National Design Council. A sense of complacency, however, coupled with a federal government preoccupied with pursuing other national policies, eventually led to a common belief that public policy and government support for design activity was no longer needed.

The historical decision in 1985 and 1988 to dissolve the National Design Council and Design Canada, an industry-government institution and its arm, remains one that has left more questions than answers. Despite possessing the third-largest design service sector in the world, Canada lacks a coherent national design policy and promotion strategy. Although other governments in advanced countries - particularly those outside of North America - have adopted policies to support and promote design, much of the design activity in Canada has been left to individual cities to coordinate. As Sara Diamond, President of the Ontario College of Art and Design, writes in the Policy Options Magazine, the failure to incorporate design into "all aspects of Industry Canada's innovation agenda ... [has meant that Canadian design graduates export] more design services per capita than any other country."

The link between increased design capacity and higher performance in innovation and global competitiveness has been consistently outlined in several international studies. According to a report published by the British Design Council, the study followed the progress of 63 companies throughout the United Kingdom that had been using high-quality design from between 1994 and 2003, which found that these firms had outperformed the London Stock Exchange's FTSE Index by 200%. Another report commissioned by the Danish Design Center, based on a survey of 1017 telephone interviews with Danish companies, has similarly found that job creation, revenues, and exports were higher with firms that used design than those that did not.

A good example of a company that has recognized this direct relationship between design and economic performance is Samsung. In 1993, upon visiting retailers in Los Angeles, Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun Hee called on his managers to focus less on cost saving, and more on coming up with stronger product design by doubling its design staff and increasing the design budget from 20 to 30 percent annually. After investing millions of dollars into improving the design of its products, Samsung transformed itself into one of the world's leading electronics firms in design, becoming the first Asian company to have won more Industrial Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) than their American and European counterparts.

In fact, Canada could stand to learn from South Korea, a country that has benefited from a strong national design strategy for the twenty-first century economy. While Canada has continued to lag behind in innovation performance and global competitiveness over recent years, South Korea's ability to reduce its dependence upon low-cost manufacturing towards more design-intensive businesses has been reflected through its relentless focus on improving product design and quality.

Prior to the 1990s, South Korean giants LG Electronics struggled to break into India until a change in foreign-investment rules allowed the company to invest in design and manufacturing facilities. After, for instance, realizing that many Indian consumers used their televisions to listen to music, LG produced TVs with better speakers and more cost-effective displays. Many of these innovations were made possible following heavy investment into research and development, and the hiring of thousands of local designers and engineers at LG’s production innovation center in Bangalore – the largest outside of South Korea. LG has since become India’s market leader in the production of televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines.

South Korea's ability to maintain a high level of design quality has been contingent upon substantial investments in research and development (R&D). Compared to other developed countries, South Korea commits a larger overall percentage of its GDP (3.2 percent) to R&D than the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany. The escalating number of Korean students enrolling in design schools and institutes (either at home or abroad) since 1980 has seen the rise of leading global designers in the electronics and technology, film, fashion, and the auto industry. Nearly 29 percent of the student population at the Parsons' New School for Design, for example, according to a Financial Times article in 2009, was from South Korea alone.

The successful case of South Korea represents a situation that emerged out of a willingness on the part of both industry and government to recognize their respective shortcomings. After experiencing a decline in consumer demand for Korean goods in the 1990s, the South Korean government responded by committing to three five-year plans and investing millions into design research and product development programs. These efforts have been complemented by a national design promotion campaign, led by a 47-member Presidential Council on Nation Branding, to raise awareness about South Korea's status as a global design leader and increase the economic value of its exports. The end result has been an improved design capacity that has seen a shift away from the engineering of American products to the development of its own product designs,allowing South Korea to become a world leader in design-led innovation in the digital era.

Canada's design deficit should not be placed entirely upon the shoulders of a poorly coordinated national policy. But, if the South Korean example is anything to go by, greater multi-sector support for design activity and promotion could go a long way towards improving the ability of Canada's creative businesses to compete and innovate through design on the global stage.

These are a few ideas that might be useful in tackling Canada's ‘design deficit’:

  • Promoting Canada as a Design Nation

    Creating stronger public demand for higher quality design is crucial to unlocking new opportunities for designers and design-led businesses. Despite having a strong design workforce and education system, Canada lacks a national design policy and promotion strategy. After discovering that consumers in other countries marked down the value of identical products from South Korea by 30 percent or more, the South Korean Presidential Council on National Branding set out to aggressively promote the product design and quality of its brands in an effort to address negative perceptions. The re-establishment of a national institution similar to the National Design Council or Design Canada could play an important role in promoting Canada's status as a 'Design Nation.'
  • Building international education partnerships

    South Korean post-secondary institutions have specific design-related programs devoted to the visual arts and design studies, but also work to establish strong international partnerships with foreign universities. The Korean Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, for example, has collaborative agreements with various design programs at universities in the United States, China, and Japan. A stronger engagement with Asian countries with a proven track record in design (such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) amongst Canadian universities may allow design professionals to mutually benefit from foreign expertise and strengthen relationships.
  • Encouraging cross-sector collaboration

    As the Canadian Design Research Network suggests in its report, what constitutes as an effective design strategy in other countries may not necessarily be successful in this country. Canada possesses a cultural, architectural, and historical heritage that is unique in its own right, and should work together to encourage cross-sector collaboration between industry, government, and researchers in creating an effective national design policy.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Use 'AND' or 'OR' to refine your search.

Use quotes " " to get exact matches or remove them to get more results.