Skip to content

Design champions need to be built into projects from the outset, new research shows

20 October 2023

The findings highlighted that the role is required across all major infrastructure projects and outlined a need for more clarity.

Design champions need to be built into projects from the outset, new research shows
The research shows that there’s a need for a role which focuses on ensuring design is considered at all stages of a project. Image credit: Shutterstock

The appointment of a design champion should be a legal requirement for all major infrastructure projects, research commissioned by the ICE, on behalf of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), has found.

Such an appointment, made at the outset of major projects, is necessary, but how the role works in practice needs clarity. The ICE will take this work forward as a priority.

When conducting its research, consultancy firm Birdi & Partners spoke to project leaders from across the design, construction and infrastructure sectors.

It consulted on what the role of design champion might need, who could be considered for it, and how it would be integrated into existing working practices.

Building the role formally into consent processes, such as into the Development Consent Orders needed for major infrastructure projects, would ensure that good design is high on the agenda from the outset, the research found.

It also found that developing a method of measuring design quality would strengthen the weight of advice from any design champion on a project’s direction and scope.

What are design champions?

In 2018, the NIC’s first National Infrastructure Assessment recommended the creation of the design champion role.

The NIC outlined that this role facilitates delivery of the commission’s design principles, which seek to ensure that projects are developed with respect for people and places while addressing climate and delivering value.

Then, in its 2020 National Infrastructure Strategy, the UK government stated that all infrastructure projects should have a board-level design champion in place by the end of 2021.

The institution, on behalf of industry, took on the role of defining and developing the criteria of the design champions role to give better clarity.

In 2022, the ICE published a working paper, Defining and developing the design champion role, that sought to explain the role of a design champion.

It followed the What makes good design? project, which aimed to identify ICE members’ awareness and understanding of the NIC’s design principles.

Defining the role of a design champion

To help develop further insight on the role of design champions, and how they should be integrated, the ICE commissioned the research by Birdi & Partners, supported by Frame Projects.

The research team interviewed a diverse and balanced spread of 27 individuals operating across the design, construction and infrastructure sectors.

The ICE’s research and role in further refining the role of the Design Champion was acknowledged in the 18 October launch of the NIC’s second National Infrastructure Assessment.

Mark Hansford, ICE director of engineering knowledge, said: “In exploring the idea of a design champion, we have been encouraged to hear such positive and interesting perspectives from across the industry about what benefits such a role could bring, not just to individual projects, but to society as a whole.

“As a sector, we have a responsibility to create infrastructure that reflects the needs of the communities, now and in the future.

“Building a greener and more sustainable future must be at the top of our priority list, and design plays a hugely important part of that.

“Creating resilient infrastructure takes planning, and we look forward to design champions taking a lead in pushing for solutions that help address the climate challenge.”

Research findings

The research stage of the project delivered useful insights and strategic guidelines to help create a framework for introducing the role of design champions more widely.

It was clear from conversations with all individuals that there’s a need for a role which focuses on ensuring design is considered at all stages of a project.

The design champion would ensure infrastructure is built to a higher quality, creating wider benefits to society.

It would change the perception that infrastructure is ‘imposed’ rather than built to better serve the public.

Participants also shared that such a role needs to be held by someone at board level, ensuring calls for good design come from the top.

They also believe that design champions should be required to report progress to the government.

The research findings will be used in the implementation phase of the project.

Led by the ICE, the next phase will consider how to create a simple process to appoint a design champion, and develop a toolkit to support champions in their role.

Hansford said: “The next steps are to focus on implementation. Through the creation of guidance for client bodies, we hope to build consensus around the role and enable them to introduce design champions on their projects.”

A high-level steering group, led by ICE Fellow Tim Chapman, with representation from government, clients and the NIC has been established to drive the project forward.

Find out more

The key findings are set out in the executive summary and explored in more detail in the report prepared by Birdi & Partners and Frame.

  • Alexandra Wynne, knowledge content director at ICE