The design economy is growing at twice the UK average – but not in diversity

A landmark Design Council study reports that the UK design economy is booming. But with the amount of students taking design at GCSE having fallen by 68 per cent, and 77 per cent of designers still male and 85.6 per cent of managers white – for how long?

25 July 2022


The design economy is growing at twice the industry average in the UK; between 2019-2020, it contributed £97.4bn in GVA to the UK economy. And yet, the future of the industry is at risk.

The Design Council, the national strategic advisor on design, has just launched Design Economy: People, Places and Economic Value, a study demonstrating the value of the design industry within the UK and researching the conditions needed for good design to thrive across the country.

Notably, it reports that the design economy is a significant industry in post-Brexit Britain. In fact, during 2020, one in twenty workers in the UK (1.97 million people) worked within the design economy, in industries from product design and graphics to architecture. Among these categories, digital design, perhaps expectedly, has experienced the biggest boom. Roles in user-experience, site development, app design, video-game creation and other forms of digital design grew by 138 per cent between 2010 and 2019, three times the rate of the UK’s digital sector.

But the safeguarding of this growth is not a current priority, which has implications beyond the design industry. Statistics across the UK show that entries to Design and Technology GCSEs have fallen by 68 per cent from 2010 to 2021 – and has not been offset by more take-ups of Art and Design. With seven out of ten UK designers currently holding this certificate, the report documents: “our design skills pipeline is at risk.”


Design Council: Design Economy: People, Places and Economic Value Report (Copyright © Design Council, 2022)

This might appear to solely impact the design industry, until we consider how crucial design will be to the UK, and the world, over the next decade. Beyond infrastructures like the NHS increasingly relying on digital design, we are facing climate and biodiversity emergencies. “The scale of what the UK needs to design – and re-design – to achieve net-zero targets by 2050 is immense,” the report states. Investment in education and the workforce will be paramount in tackling these challenges; these early indicators revealing how well the initiative is going thus far.

The report also details that the industry remains largely unchanged in its commitment to diversity over the past decade. 85.6 per cent of managers in the UK Design Economy workforce are from a white background; in comparison to 88 per cent in 2011. In 2020, 77 per cent of UK designers were male, a figure that hasn’t moved since 2016. There is significant variation in representation across design sectors too. For example, 24 per cent of workers in craft and clothing are disabled or have a long-term work-limiting illness, compared to only 10 per cent in advertising.

The report concludes: “The design workforce needs to reflect the diversity of the world it designs for. If it does not, the design of products, places, and services can overlook the aspirations, assets and needs of many people, excluding them and reinforcing existing inequalities and forms of marginalisation.” Diversity in the design workforce, or lack thereof, will hugely impact how capable the industry is in solving design problems now, and into the future. “We need more design-wide and sector specific interventions to learn from each other and tackle the diversity crisis within the design economy.”

Discover more key findings from the Design Economy: People, Places and Economic Value report here.

GalleryDesign Council: Design Economy: People, Places and Economic Value Report (Copyright © Design Council, 2022)

Design Council: Design Economy: People, Places and Economic Value Report (Copyright © Design Council, 2022)

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Design Council: Design Economy: People, Places and Economic Value Report (Copyright © Design Council, 2022)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

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