Design Centres as Dlements of Design Infrastructure

Dr Terence Love, Curtin University, Western Australia.

(C) 2006 T. Love

Design activity is the means by which knowledge is converted into specifications for creating real-world products, systems, services, organisations and processes. These provide competitive advantage, and the means for fulfilling economic and social development agendas. Nationally, design activity depends on the provision of a multi-functioned infrastructure of which Design Centres are a core component.

Over the last five years, I have undertaken research into national and regional design infrastructure in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia. The research indicates Design Centres can play a significant role in a nation's economic and social development, innovation, and the building of competitive advantage at national and firm levels.

A nation's Design Infrastructure is the combined resource available to undertake design activity. Elements of design infrastructure include:

design professionals


design centres

businesses undertaking design


government agencies to promote design

departments undertaking design within organisations


design-focused associations representing those undertaking design

national design policies


government agencies to develop design-focused policies

hardware and software tools available to support design


organisations commissioning and funding design research

organisations educating designers


organisations educating design researchers

design researchers


organisations undertaking design research

organisations commissioning design activity


organisations representing design research

The resources of a nation's design infrastructure form a complex network across the large number of domains of design activity. Currently, over 650 subfields of design have been identified (unpublished research T. Love and K. Friedman) The number of domains is increasing annually in line with developments in new fields of knowledge, and increased awareness of the role of design activity in other domains.

In essence, Design Centres are multi-function service centres that act as nodes connecting and providing access to other elements of design infrastructure. The issue of access via a single address is a defining feature and an important source of the value that design centres offer. Access may be though a physical or virtual address. For example, the design infrastructure resources available through Design Wales can be accessed via Design Wales' physical address at Dylunio Cymru, Blwch Post 383, Caerdydd CF5 2WZ, UK with telephone number +44 (0)845 303 1400 and also via Until recently, it was assumed that design centres needed a physical location. Increased use of the Internet, however, offers the possibility that some design centres could be wholly virtual organisations with a web services presence providing the access point.

The complexity of design infrastructure and the very large number of interconnections and interrelationships between design infrastructure elements has resulted in a wide range of different forms of design centres, each with different purposes, vision, mission and strategies. Nations with their different developmental trajectories in design and innovation have different forms of design centres. In some countries there is an apparent redundancy of design centre resources. In other countries, there is an absence of design centres even when a clear need can be readily observed.

A central problem is how to design successful Design Centres that maximise the benefits of the investment in resources. Addressing this problem requires addressing several subsidiary questions. The following derive from applying the CATWOE criteria of the Soft Systems Method a described in, for example, ( Hutchinson, 1997):

Answers to the above questions are likely to the different from different stakeholder groups and constituencies with different interests. Value creation, and value exchange, however, is central to the successful functioning of a design centre just as in the design of any organisational, business, institutional arrangement. This raises two further questions, 'Value to whom?' and ‘ What are the market mechanisms for the exchange of value in design centres?'

Constituent Market Orientation (CMO) analysis, see, e.g. (Tellefsen, 1995) is well suited to addressing these issues. CMO analysis requires first identifying the constituencies influenced by, and influencing, the design, management and functioning of a design centre. The second step is to identify the market orientations of these constituencies towards value creation and exchange, and the implication for the purposes, functions, values, resource commitment, evaluation processes and management of a design centre. Figures 1 and 2 below offer a comparative view of typical constituencies of a business organisation and a design centre.

Figure 1: Constituencies involved in a typical business using design (PowerPoint slide from presentation of Tellefsen & Love, 2002)


Figure 2: Design Centre constituencies

Research into design centres shows that they are strongly influenced by funding sponsors and current management and tacitly or explicitly focus their role on providing their benefits to a restricted number of constituencies. In most cases, the practical outcomes of these constituency-based influences emerge in terms of decision in four areas:

  1. Specific domains of design on which the design centre focuses and offers access to design infrastructure
  2. User, stakeholder and constituent groups the design centre will support
  3. Sources and resources of design infrastructure the design centre will offer access to, and the types of access that are offered
  4. Organisational structure of the design centre as an organisation, i.e., the way the management of the design centre strategically structures its physical organisation to use its funding and resources to achieve its mission and vision.

The three exemplars of design centres illustrate the above points: Designium ( Finland), Ornamo ( Finland), and the Engineering Design Centres of the UK. The Designium design centre at the University of Art and Design (UIAH) in Helsinki primarily undertakes research and provides access to up-to-date research findings about the use of design in business contexts in Finland. In the main, it focuses on 'Art and Design' craft-based-design domains rather than technology-based design. In part this is a consequence of a language issue because in Finnish there is no word for 'engineering designer', and the term 'design' translates roughly as 'handcraft work'. In contrast, the role and functioning of Ornamo focuses on supporting professional interior designers. The role of Ornamo is shaped by the power balances between design constituencies. In this case, between differences in legal authority granted to architects and interior designers. In contrast to both Designium and Ornamo, the UK 'Engineering Design Centres' have little to do with 'Art and Design' domains. Their focus has been to undertake technical research to support engineering designers in designing products and systems that have competitive advantage through advanced technical knowledge. In each of these three exemplars, the structure of their organisation, what they do, what they offer, and who to, is shaped by a combination of the interests of their funding sponsors, and the will of their current management.

Addressing the problem of how to improve the design of design centres requires standing back from the situation, learning from existing design centres, and identifying the core components of the situation and the relationships between them.

Morphological review of existing design centres suggests a four-part taxonomy of design centre types along a spectrum from the promotion of design activity to design research:

Promotional Design Centre: Key features of this type of centre are that it be located in prime public retail space; have an open and welcoming appearance; present aesthetically pleasing displays of designed products, storyboards, graphically enhanced drawings, photos and  3D displays of design representations. This type of design centre has two important roles. The first is to explain to business how other businesses have benefited from using designers in terms of: improved competitiveness; improved profitability and growth; environmental and social responsibility; and improved sustainability. The second is to promote government support programs for using design services and improving design activity. In terms of location, the effectiveness of a promotional design centre depends on its public visibility and accessibility. Its physical form might be conceptualised in different ways. For example, a very small promotion design centre might use portable displays in targeted public spaces such as Local Government Offices, shopping centres, industrial parks and small business advice centres.

Design Advice Centre: Key features of this type of design centre are that it provides straightforward advice about design and about access to design resources, and operates from an easy-to-access office environment. This type of design centre would be expected to offer access to expertise in general product design; design processes: innovation processes; patents, copyright, and design rights; and business development. In addition, small and micro businesses may be offered basic teleworking access to software for drawing and illustration, simple 2D and 3D design, and business planning.

Design Services Centre: Key features of this type of design centre is the provision of advanced facilities and expertise for the designing, prototyping and testing of a wide range of products and services. This would be expected to be located in f a mixed office and technology environment such as in a technology park. The services provided might include: rapid prototyping services; access to in –house product designers; access to useability testing facilities and evaluation and measuring facilities; access to 3D development software, CADCAM software; extensive access to information needed for designing; focused access to expertise in wide range of discipline areas, e.g. first class industry specialists and academic researchers.

Design Research Centre: Key features of this type of design centre are the provision of two services. The first is as a contact point for arranging design-focused research to be undertaken, typically under contract, perhaps subsidised by a government funding support. The second is to make available, and facilitate access to, an extensive body of up-to-date design-focused research findings. This latter may also involve providing professional librarian and research assistant support for searching, collating and reviewing current research material and patent libraries. Depending on constituency orientation issues, particular design research centres may focus on specific design domains and specific areas of design research such as:

Each of the above four idealised types of design centre has a different function and role. Organisationally, and physically, however, for particular circumstances functions and roles might be combined, for example, in using a promotional design centre as the Physical or virtual front access for a design research centre.

Summary and conclusions

In conclusion, designing a 'successful' design centre means designing a multi-service centre with a single point of access that focuses on achieving targets in relation to the significant constituencies and stakeholders; their orientation and values; specific domains of design activity; and identified functionality.

The key issues for the successful designing of design centres can be viewed in terms of four focal dimensions:

Domain focus: Design is undertaken in over 650 different domains that can be roughly separated into three categories: technical (requiring mathematical expertise); 'Art and Design' (those design fields that primarily originated in craft skills); 'Other' design sub-fields (design fields such as 'government policy design' and 'education program design' that are not included in the other two categories). Individual design centres are likely to offer services relating to particular domains, either within or across the above three categories.

Constituency focus: There are many constituencies and stakeholders in design activity that range from government bodies developing policy to users of products, systems, services and organisations that have been designed. Design centres are managed by and for a restricted group of constituencies/stakeholders and it is necessary to identify these constituencies prior to commencing the design of a Design Centre.

Constituency market orientation focus: Constituencies and stakeholders involved in creating and managing a design centre will have specific and identifiable market orientations: ideas about who the design centre will benefit and how the design centre will create value in a market situation. These should be reflected in the design centre's vision and mission statements and strategic plans.

Functional focus: The four types of design centre outlined in the previous section have different functional purposes. The four type taxonomy provides a simple framework within which the detail of the above 3 focal dimensions can be located.


Hutchinson , W. (1997). Systems Thinking and Associated Methodologies. Perth, WA: Praxis Education.

Tellefsen, B. (1995). Constituent Orientation: Theory, Measurements and Empirical Evidence. In B. Tellefesen (Ed.), Market Orientation (pp. 111-156). Bergen: Fagbokforlaget.

Tellefsen, B., & Love, T. (2002). Understanding designing and design management through Constituent Market Orientation and Constituent Orientation. In D. Durling & J. Shackleton (Eds.), Common Ground. Proceedings of the Design Research Society International Conference at Brunel University, September 5-7, 2002. (pp. 1090-1106). Stoke-on-Trent: Staffordshire University Press.