£3m to fund early stage design innovation

£3m to fund early stage design innovation

Design Foundations is a funding programme offering £3m to support early stage investment in design. Announced at a London event on 17th January 2017, it is the first Innovate UK funding of its kind with an explicitly horizontal remit, intended to help a broad range of sectors achieve new business outcomes through explorative design approaches.


  • £1m available in the first round, registration closes 15th February 2017
  • Individual grants of between £20,000 and £100,000
  • Funding 50% to 70% of total project cost, depending size of applicant’s business

Innovate UK’s documentation and recordings are the definitive reference materials, but after attending the launch I’ve written this article to provide observations on the programme, application process and launch event, why it should interest our MEX community and my hopes for its outcomes.

I believe it is particularly important that, in addition to benefiting each funded project, there is an overall effort to collate and publish the resulting design principles and case studies for the development of the wider industry.

A design-specific funding approach, suited to the MEX community

Most Innovate UK competitions are centred on specific sectors or technologies, but Design Foundations is different.

It recognises that such specificity can be inherently limiting to user-centred design process, which by necessity may span multiple sectors and employ a range of technologies. Design Foundations feels like a considered, effective response to feedback provided by MEX and other communities over the years that unlocking the value of design requires a different approach.

Mat Hunter, Managing Director of the Central Research Laboratory (who you can hear in episode 24 of the MEX podcast), opened the launch event by reminding participants that designers thrived on the ambiguity which often attends early stage innovation.  Properly executed design process enables novel, user-focused outcomes to emerge from the maelstrom of opportunity, complexity and legacy which swirls around genuinely disruptive new initiatives.


Mat told participants that some of the most successful global companies, including the GAFA quarter (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), owe their achievements – in part – to employing explorative design to remain close to user needs.

This may not sound like news to the MEX community, as we are lucky to count many of those who pioneered these approaches among our members, both within agencies and client-side.  However, Design Foundations potentially represents an opportunity to apply these skills in new situations, new sectors and for early stage companies which might not otherwise be able to afford such services.

The state of UK design

The event itself was buoyant.  Seen as a snapshot of the UK’s innovation-focused design community, it suggests strength and depth.  There was broad range of design practitioners in attendance, leading to interesting conversations ranging from fashion to medical technology and enterprise training to animal health.

It was less clear, however, whether the event was as successful in reaching those new to the value of design, particularly on the client-side.  By definition, they were likely to have been the quieter participants, but I hope efforts will continue to involve those who consider themselves least able to tap into design expertise in the normal course of business.  They are surely those who could benefit most?

Understanding Innovate UK’s motivations and tips on applying

Ben Griffith, the Innovate UK project lead responsible for Design Foundations, provided useful explanation of the published competition guidelines and responded to questions.

Understanding Innovate UK’s motivation for offering this funding is, of course, key to making a successful application.  The organisation seems committed to ensuring it communicates these motivations and recognises it is in its interests to facilitate applicants to create the highest quality funding requests.

  1. At heart, Innovate UK is about change and growth.  Applications which seek to to maintain the status quo will be unsuccessful.
  2. Innovate UK states its funding is creating £7.30 in gross value add (GVA) for every £1 it invests.  It believes design, particularly when applied at the earliest stages of innovation, is especially effective at improving GVA.  The results of this initial competition will be evaluated to see whether it can justify further funding in the future.
  3. The objective is for each funded project to create a legacy of design impact, ranging from specific tools and processes to increased awareness of how design contributes to overall strategy.
  4. Innovate UK regards Design Foundations as a stepping stone.  Successful applicants may find it is the first stage towards other Innovate UK programmes and their chances of receiving future funding are improved by having embraced early stage design.
  5. The programme feels like it has been designed by designers and, as such, anticipates some of the nuanced challenges to creating lasting impact from design.
  6. For instance, applications must detail in advance how they intend to overcome organisational barriers to design which may limit the effectiveness of their plans.
  7. The majority of the funding may be used for sub-contracted design services and staff time, reflecting the talent-centric nature of the design industry.
  8. A wide range of outputs, from experience maps and user personas to UI sketches and business models, will be considered valid.  There seems to be a practical appreciation of the many ways to achieve a good, design-led outcome.
  9. Innovate UK is using the Design Council’s double diamond model (PDF) as a benchmark: discover, define, develop, deliver.  It is looking to fund work relating to the first 3 of the 4 steps in this model, not later stage activities closer to commercialisation.  It also acknowledged there are other approaches to design and will not exclude those which favour alternatives to the double diamond.
  10. All applications will be confidentially assessed by a team of independent experts and detailed feedback provided.  Even if unsuccessful with the funding request, this feedback may have a value in itself.  Innovate UK has a history of providing constructive advice which has helped start-ups refine their plans and achieve funding from other sources.

This is by no means a definitive list.  I encourage all applicants to work directly with Innovate UK and supporting partners like the Knowledge Transfer Network to ensure they fully understand the application process.

Creating last impact from Design Foundations

I hope Innovate UK will consider three things to achieve the greatest benefit from this initiative:

  1. The funds will be at their most effective supporting applicants which might not otherwise have considered early stage design and where the multiplier effect of user-centred process is greatest.
  2. It may be tempting for assessors to exclusively favour applications with conventional design methods, but I hope consideration will also be given to those trying something new.  This is how the design industry itself moves forward and becomes more effective in the future.
  3. Design Foundations is an opportunity to build a reference work of benefit to the whole community.  There should be a co-ordinated effort to extract useful design principles from each project and share them openly, where they can be further developed by the community.  This process would, of course, respect any confidential IP of the companies involved and separate shareable principles from proprietary information.

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