UK facing growing gap in design skills

The United Kingdom needs to address a growing gap in design skills if it is to make the most of economic and technological change.

So concludes a new report from the Design Council that suggests design skills contribute £209 billion to the UK economy.

design skills The report calls for design to be incorporated into the educational agenda for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Image: pixabay-2791442

Titled Designing a Future Economy: Developing Design Skills for Productivity and Innovation, the report is the first to estimate how much design skills contribute to the UK economy.

The research behind the new report builds on previous work published in 2015 in which design was for the first time “mapped, coded, and measured” in a systematic way across the economy of the UK.

Growing design skills gap

Design skills – which the Design Council refers to as “the fusion of creativity with technical ability and interpersonal competencies – are used not just by designers but by people in professions across the UK’s economy.

The new research finds that design skills form an important part of the day-to-day activities of over 2.5 million workers in the UK, making them 47 percent more productive than the average worker, and giving nearly £10 extra gross value added (GVA) per hour.

But it also reveals that this contribution could be under threat, and suggests that the UK faces a looming crisis in design skills due to a growing skills gap and a narrowing pipeline of newly-qualified people.

This gap is starting to damage the UK economy – shortage of design skills among people already working in jobs where they are important “cost the UK economy £5.9 billion in lost output in 2015,” note the researchers.

This is because around 59,000 people with jobs in industries that are design skills intensive do not have all the design skills they need.

Pipeline of newly-qualified people narrowing

The research also reveals that it costs more to train people in design and that designers are often less likely to receive the training they need compared with the average UK worker.

This is happening at the same time as the pipeline of newly-qualified designers joining the workforce is narrowing.

In 2017, nearly 61 percent fewer General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) students took subjects in Design and Technology than they did in 2000 – some 166,000 fewer students in the pipeline.

GCSEs are academic qualifications that are generally taken by students aged 15-16 who are in secondary education in England and Wales.

At the same time, the number of teachers and secondary-level teaching hours allocated to design have dropped, and there has a been a fall in the number of people completing higher qualifications in subjects related to creative arts and design.


Call for action

The report calls for action on the part of government, industry, and educators to reverse the decline in design education. It suggests that the action is necessary in order to “respond to the challenges of productivity, Brexit and the rise of the robots.”

It specifically recommends that these groups should:

– Make design a key part of the curriculum in schools
– Incorporate design into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) agenda
– Treat design as a priority in life-long learning and support and resource it better
– Use design and associated skills to “deliver the industrial strategy”
– Promote more use of design in those parts of the economy that most need boosting

Mapping design skills and identifying economic contribution

The Design Council went through several steps to identify the jobs that use design skills.

First, they identified 23 types of job that make up the UK design economy. They did this by searching the Standard occupational classification (SOC) codes for the UK.

Then, by searching the US Department of Labor Occupational Information Network (O*NET) database, they extracted 177 skills that feature in design occupations.

From the 177 skills, they identified 13 design skills – such as knowledge of design, visualization, and creative thinking – that are of “above average importance” in all 23 of the UK design occupations they had identified earlier.

Then, using the list of 13 design skills, they revisited the UK SOC codes and identified another 17 occupations that listed knowledge of design – plus at least two other skills from the 13 – as an important element of the job.


The Design Council call these jobs – now totalling 40 – “design-skilled occupations,” and the sectors of the economy that they operate in “design-active” sectors.

In the final step, they analyzed UK government data sets to work out the contribution that workers using these skills make to the UK economy.

Exploring the data

There is a webpage where you can explore the data of the research and see how different design skills contribute to different industrial sectors.

For example, if you select “Architecture and Built Environment,” you will see a list of attributes – abilities, knowledge, skills, and work activities – of which the first five listed are:

– knowledge of building and construction
– knowledge of design
– knowledge of geography
– work activities that involve drafting, laying out, and specifying device parts and equipment
– knowledge of engineering and technology