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Universities Design Their Way Forward

There’s no question that UK universities are under increasing pressure to innovate in order to stay ahead. Demographic changes, fluctuating market conditions and depleting funding are placing conventional university models under pressure. Finding new streams of revenue is becoming critical, in order to combat these pressures and to sustain growth.

Aside from their fundamental needs to inspire staff, attract students, build research, achieve international acclaim and react to all the changes around them, universities are having to think about how they engage with businesses in more innovative ways. They need to discover how they can generate sustainable revenue streams for their research, science and technology to engage with businesses, either as partners or direct customers.

These are changing times and applying their science has massive potential positive impact - societally, environmentally, economically and commercially. But taking their products and services to market can be challenging. By its very nature, the research is often complex. It is talked about in complicated, academic and technical language; not always language that makes sense to the commercial world.

Over the last two years, The Engine Room has been involved in design projects alongside the University of York, Sheffield Hallam University, Lancaster University and the University of Leeds. Each project has brought with it a number of different yet related challenges, very much centred around successful communication.

Our job is to de-clutter the offer that the university department is making to businesses. We act as translators, turning the offer into language and communication that makes sense to the customer. Propositions need to be user-led, promoting the benefits and the impacts (rather than technical detail). They need to tell real stories about the power of research application and how it’s making a difference.

Academics are a joy to work with. They are always very intelligent and hugely passionate about what they do, yet they’re often entrenched in the technical detail. Working with us as designers, they respect the process and there’s real opportunity to work collaboratively. They begin to understand the power of design thinking, in turning a complex and difficult-to-understand offer into a proposition that is clear and attractive to the market.

We break stuff down into its most basic form and we try to do that by asking the right questions…

- What do you do?
- Who do you do it for?
- Why does it matter?
- What benefits will customers get from your products and services?
- What are the wider economic and societal benefits?

It seems obvious, yet these questions are not always easily answered. A level of perseverance and some visual tools help the process. Through our work with Lancaster, Sheffield, Leeds and York, this has led to some highly innovative, bold and appropriate brand development work. These projects have huge potential for innovation, impact and change. In addition, our design thinking tools often facilitate ideas for additional applications for research and technology. When focusing on audience needs, coupled with research benefits, the potential for application often opens even wider.

To find out more about our work with universities, please contact