John Sorrell says good design is fundamental to the successful future of
UK industry, writes Carol Major
Some people say I should have been a football manager,’ says John
Sorrell, Arsenal enthusiast, Design Council chairman and joint supremo,
with wife Frances Newell, of design consultancy Newell and Sorrell.
Quietly spoken, courteous and lounging on a leather sofa at the firm’s
North London HQ, it is hard to imagine Newell in a sheepskin coat,
hurling abuse at his players in a dressing room. But Sorrell is used to
the pressure of playing in the premier league, juggling his work as
chairman of the Design Council with a host of clients at Newell and
The consultancy, which was founded by the husband-and-wife team in 1976
and now employs 75 people in London and Utrecht, attracted attention
recently when it emerged it is working with British Airways. Sorrell is
cagey about revealing details of the project at this early stage, but is
‘delighted’ to be working with such a blue-chip client.
Other work by the company includes a corporate identity for the Body
Shop mail-order catalogue, brand identity work for Boots baby foods, the
Nice Day campaign for WH Smith’s office supplies, and the Letter Box
campaign for the Royal Mail. These and other projects helped the firm
pick up six Design Effectiveness awards and numerous other accolades.
Richard Dykes, chief executive of Post Office Counters, whose corporate
identity was designed by Newell and Sorrell, says: ‘Sorrell is very
sympathetic to deal with. It is refreshing to work with someone who has
strong ideas but looks at all the possibilities and understands the
The best motivation for Sorrell is to see when his work ‘has an impact’.
This explains his fondness for the Letter Box campaign, which attracted
375,000 entries last year. Proving that design works and improving what
he calls ‘design literacy’ are subjects close to Sorrell’s heart.
Design, he says, is key to pulling the UK economy out of the doldrums.
‘Design is absolutely fundamental to this country’s success. I’m keen
for British manufacturers to produce things the public wants. People
underestimate the British public. They like things to be well designed
and at the moment they are buying well-designed imports,’ he says.
‘If we get things right, we can enter the next century as a nation full
of enterprise and initiative, using the huge range of abilities at our
Taking design skills into the wider world is key to Sorrell’s recipe for
success. He argues that the 15,000 designers trained every year is too
many: ‘There are only a few hundred jobs a year for them. The others
should be developing a wider mindset.’
This broad-sweep approach is reflected in the importance Sorrell
attaches to studying overseas markets - he employs an anthropologist and
makes a point of immersing himself in the cultures with which he is
Sorrell’s passionate beliefs have turned him into an ambassador for
design and British industry. He has effected a quiet revolution at the
Design Council, helping design awareness initiatives at all levels of
society, from primary schools to Parliament.
Few businesses miss the importance of good design, says Sorrell, but
smaller and medium-sized businesses need more convincing. ‘Many business
people have never had the chance to see how design can help them
This steadfast refusal to be negative sums up Sorrell’s character. He
even throws a positive light on the recession: ‘It made a lot of us
stronger; it created a lot of people who are really mature, experienced
business people.’ What about overblown bureaucracy in the civil service?
Not at all: ‘It gets a lot of criticism which is completely unfounded.
People work very hard and have very challenging tasks.’
So he’s a Tory? ‘I don’t want to sound party political. I’m not talking
about the Conservative Party - I have a dialogue with everybody.’
This willingness to work with all comers is demonstrated by dealing with
Michael Heseltine when he was President of the Board of Trade, and his
initiation of an all-party parliamentary group on design. Mark Fisher,
Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent and co-chair of the group, praises
Sorrell’s efforts: ‘John is enthusiastic and knowledgeable and has made
a real start in raising the profile of design.’
Although he is keen to point out he doesn’t ‘hang out in the corridors
of power’, Sorrell says it is important to raise design’s profile at a
parliamentary level. ‘I want all to return to their constituencies and
to tell all the manufacturers and businesses there how design can help
them,’ he says.
As a doer in a market full of talkers, Sorrell is perhaps one of the
best placed to make a rallying call for design awareness. The question,
in a nation notoriously shy of modernity and change, is whether his call
will be answered.