Design entrepreneurship inside the academy

In my last post, I documented key dates and projects during my first 10-12 years in industry. In this post, I explore how design and entrepreneurship have been manifest in my roles as an academic, where I have led entrepreneurial projects as an ‘intrapreneur’, supported entrepreneurs and driven design-led innovation.

Having worked in industry for over eleven years, I turned to academia in late 2002, eventually securing a post to start in February 2003. The relief at not having to worry about the bottom line for once after my brief soiree into ThreeTV and occasional freelance work was palpable. Finally, I had found my calling. Looking back nearly 20 years later, there is no doubt that the move to The Surrey Institute of Art & Design (SIAD) was transformational across many aspects of my life.

The Early Farnham Years

When I came into SIAD as Senior Lecturer of Graphic Communication (Digital Media) I brought a wealth of industry experience to undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Initially appointed to lead the Digital Media pathway within the BA(Hons) Graphic Communication course, I immediately set out to make an impression.

What helped the development of the curriculum was my start-up experience. I am motivated by developing new initiatives and the first step – with Course Leader Stuart Hodges – was to help reshape the curriculum which had been under the careful stewardship of Mike Ryan, Seymour Roworth-Stokes and Catherine Slade-Brooking at various points in it’s evolution.

We reshaped the curriculum and I was adept at writing, drafting and organising the curriculum ready for external review and validation. At the same time, I was writing new module content for new units in the digital media pathway, one of four which began halfway through the Graphic Communication course. (It had begun life as Visual Communication).

After being in post as pathway leader for a year and a half, I was the appointed Course Leader for the entire course, with a cohort of around 200 students and also led the Masters in Graphic Communication. I managed a team of three full-time and eleven part-time staff. The course is one of the strongest performing in the UK (evidenced in 2007 when I was still Course Leader that one of my students – Scott Evans, who I was personal tutor of, went on to become D&AD Global Student of the Year). In the three years that I led the course, we went from strength to strength and impressed at degree shows held in London and in Farnham.

During that time I also oversaw the development of the Masters in Digital Game Design and brought in one of my industry contacts – Jon Weinbren – who ended up creating a niche but well-respected Masters programme. We worked together on driving forward the course and – in my full-time role – I was able to push for SIAD to back the venture with resources.

Venturing in practice

During my time at UCA Farnham I started my own business as an ongoing concern – Novari – based on the the Latin word novare (to make new, refresh or renew).

Figure 13: Novari Design Consultants business card. Design/Image: Philip Ely

I started a small-scale design company and was immediately commissioned to design a brand identity for a Warwick Business School spin-out entrepreneur. I also worked with other start-ups, including a local chef who was launching a new pickle range. I gave him not only ideas for his brand but also advice about how to launch. Novari continued as my private design practice on and off over the next eight years.

Figure 1: Novari online portfolio page, pictured later in 2008 Design/Image: Philip Ely

Driving business into academia

In September 2007, I was appointed Director of Studies (External Development) in a promotion that saw me continue my Postgraduate teaching of Graphic Communication and Design Management students. In this role I led and secured funding for an Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded knowledge transfer project (“Weaving Narratives”) for a textile mill in Wales. The project (and my write-up) was featured in David Clews & Steve Mallinder’s report Looking out: Effective Engagements with Creative and Cultural Enterprise (p.108) published in 2010.

Being responsible for external development, I also took on the portfolio of Short Course provision which was run as a mini-venture. Many of the short course in existence were what would usually be termed ‘leisure courses’ – courses that retirees or stay-at-home mums would undertake. Given that Farnham has one of the highest per-capita income and disposable household in the UK (see data from Surrey County Council) it is no surprise that the middle classes were keen on short course providing access to ceramics, glass, jewellery and fine art facilities at SIAD. However, the chargeable rate of these courses was relatively small and the costs (staff and facilities costs – including running costs of gas furnaces for glass blowing) is relatively high by comparison.

To make any headway in providing sustainable course provision, we needed to generate income from professional development courses. To this end, we began with a pilot programme for Novartis and Nokia respectively and then, later when I was made Associate Dean, Business & Community (and Head of the Business & Community School) I led the bid for £450,000 from the Prime Minister’s drive to tackle the global financial crisis – Economic Challenge Investment Fund administered by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE). We successfully secured this funding and delivered a programme of professional development courses and grants to the creative industries. The programme, Creative Advantage was led by SIAD (which had by now become the University for the Creative Arts) in partnership with Arts University College Bournemouth and the University of Winchester.

In our evaluation and write-up of Creative Advantage we estimated a three-fold return on investment, with our professional courses approximating to £1.2 million in market value. We served over 2115 individuals aiming to develop their creative businesses, primarily through courses, marketplace events (to coincide with the forthcoming London Olympics) and paid internships. I led the first-ever cohort of the Craft Council’s Hothouse programme for craft entrepreneurs and developed UCA’s first Employability & Entrepreneurship Strategy, established the first student-led enterprise society and designed and delivered a development programme for staff on entrepreneurship education.

Figure 2: Banner design for Creative Advantage designed by Charlotte Adams Image: Philip Ely/UCA

Whilst in my role as Director of Studies, Associate Dean and Head of School, I continued to lead our research and consultancy initiatives, resulting in commissions in Interior Design & Architecture, Fine Art, Journalism and Animation. It included the design of a new public exhibition space at Farnham Castle opened by local MP and eventual Cabinet Minister for Culture, Media & Sport, Jeremy Hunt.

There were many entrepreneurial projects that I initiated and led at Farnham (and later at the Epsom campus too). I hosted a panel discussion on the power of the creative industries at UCA Epsom with panellists Joe Ferry (Head of Design, Virgin Atlantic), Chris Ingram (Entrepreneur & Investor), Colin Tweedy (CEO, Arts & Business), Professor Elaine Thomas (Vice-Chancellor of UCA) and Rob Holdway (Founder of Giraffe Innovation and Channel 4 Presenter); we later hosted the RSA’s The Future of Universities debate at Epsom, fronted by RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor; and – with the creation of the UCA Business & Community School – had increased collaboration between industry and art & design academia.

My design practice – through Novari – involved the design of the Digital World Research Centre at the University of Surrey (where I was studying my PhD), a promotional campaign for an international dance scholars conference, my own symposium at UCA Not In The Manual and the brand identity for a research cluster Home Entertainment Episode 1 which became a foundation to my later PhD.

Figure 3: Poster/Programme Cover design for Not In The Manual, featuring Tom Fisher, Tim Dant, Roni Brown, Jim McClellan, Miles Park and Philip Ely Design/Image: Philip Ely
Figure 4: Design for the Digital World Research Centre. Design: Philip Ely/Kristina Langhein Image: Philip Ely
Figure 5: Promotional material for the Society of Dance History Scholars Annual Conference in 2010. Design/Image: Philip Ely

Designing comes back to the fore

In my role as Head of the Business & Community School at UCA, I also Chaired the university’s Employability & Entrepreneurship Committee. We had developed a much-needed business support programme for entrepreneurs through Creative Advantage and I’d led the UK pilot of the Crafts Council’s Hothouse programme for UCA.

In 2012, after completing my PhD, a new Vice Chancellor was appointed at UCA and the Faculty Executive was changing rapidly. With a clear mandate to shape UCA for it’s next stage, Simon Ofield-Kerr undertook a substantial reorganisation of the university and my Pro VC and champion resigned. Many others left too as the university evaluated its 5 campuses across Surrey and Kent. The Business & Community School was one of its victims due to be dissolved and, having just earned my PhD, I took advantage of voluntary redundancy and began working at the Digital World Research Centre as a Post-doc Fellow on the Interactive Newsprint project, a citizen journalism project which used advanced conductive ink technology in new form factors for newspapers (see slideshow below).

The project itself served as a speculative form of design, where the future of hybrid print/online news content was imagined. A full write-up of the project – including all the collaborators on the project – is available here. My involvement in the project was substantial, designing all of the speculative interfaces that you see featured above.

Developing the next generation of entrepreneurs

By January 2013, the project came to the end of its funding and I started a new challenge – as lead for student enterprise at University of Portsmouth. Whilst I became a Visiting Fellow at Surrey, I was now fully applying my expertise in design and innovation to drive entrepreneurship education at Portsmouth. From 2013-2016, I was directly responsible for driving university-wide entrepreneurship amongst students, applying my skills and knowledge in business and design.

Whilst we make assumptions that student enterprise is focussed on business venturing, in my role as Associate Dean and Head of School at UCA it was clear – from the community of enterprise educators and researchers that I had met at the International Enterprise Educators Conference in 2011 (Cardiff) and 2012 (Coventry) – that ‘entrepreneurship’ meant more than starting-up; an entrepreneurial student is one that even in employment is able to create value in multiple settings, initiating projects, making change happen or innovating through developing new products, services or processes. This broader definition of entrepreneurship coincides with the French derivation which can be traced back to the 1760’s referring to a person who owns and manages a business or – more widely used in the 1800s – a person who organizes plays, operas or other entertainments 1. When we consider the etymology of entrepreneurship and design respectively, we might think of these two terms as being related; where design infers planning and execution, entrepreneurship infers action. Design plans for entrepreneurship. This is certainly how my time supporting entrepreneurs can be understood.

During my time at Portsmouth, virtually all of the initiatives that I launched were reliant on my application of design thinking and doing. Although my time at Telstar and Granada (as exemplars) was directly applying design to business venturing, at Portsmouth design was fuelling the creation of entrepreneurial support programmes. From day one, I created an identity for the new initiative to drive student enterprise (Figure 6) and over the course of the next couple of years, designed not only identities for projects or initiatives but designed and delivered the very programmes themselves (Figures 7-10).

Figure 6: Student + Graduate Enterprise identity at University of Portsmouth. Design/Image: Philip Ely
Figure 7: Identity for Project 23,000, the initiative to support all 23,000 students annually enrolled at Portsmouth for enterprising futures
Figure 8: Infographic showing entrepreneurial development programme across stakeholder groups and phases. Concept, Design & Image: Philip Ely, 2013
Figure 9: RoutetoStartup start-up development programme identity and infographic. RoutetoStartup was a three-stage (3 x half-day workshops plus drop-in support) programme for student entrepreneurs directly engaged in business venturing. Concept, Design and Delivery: Philip Ely (2013) Image: Philip Ely
Figure 10: Social Startup was a development programme for budding social entrepreneurs for the city of Portsmouth, including students of the university, local colleges and members of the community. Programme concept/identity design: Philip Ely (2014). Image: Philip Ely

The Social Startup programme was developed in partnership with Portsmouth City Cathedral, Highbury College and the University, funded by UnLtd, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the University of Portsmouth and included the development of an open-source toolkit at (which was eventually published by UnLtd in print in 2018). It is an example of how my entrepreneurial mindset has served me well in academia, where I create value out of the resources available to me and I chase opportunities when they present themselves. Coupled with my application of design expertise, I hope that this has made a positive impact on the communities (local and national) that I have been part of.

An example of this was the Into The Cell Block programme (Figure 11), specifically designed to support creative entrepreneurs who may – ultimately – end up utilising the newly-acquired lease (secured by the University of Portsmouth) for the old jailhouse for drunken sailors in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Figure 11: Identity for the Into The Cell Block creative industries development programme. Design/Image: Philip Ely

I’d secured £80,000 from the successful Regional Development Fund from the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills and the European Union and the programme was delivered by Percy Emmett in July 2013. It created a pathway for designers, filmmakers, animators, game designers and artists looking to develop their businesses or self-employment towards financial sustainability and offered subsidised studio space (albeit in a jail cell) at a prime location.

During 2014/15 I negotiated the use of the 2nd floor of Halpern House as an incubator for startups where we had 22 entrepreneurs using the space as a home for their ventures and in 2015/16 this had grown to over 45. Although we had raised awareness of our work in student and graduate enterprise amongst over 4,500 students in 2014/14, we were still keen on raising our profile and in 2015 I created another distinct identity – nest – (Figure 12) after working with colleagues and stakeholders on the possible name for such a venture. The concept was developed after visiting and contacting a number of startup incubators, including Google Campus London, Kaospilots in Denmark and observing the work of the Stanford

Figure 12: Top: nest master identity; Bottom: nest identity applied to promotional material (Design & Image Credit: Philip Ely, 2016)

As part of the brand identity system, I designed a primary typeface to be applied to marketing materials (including the website [Figure 13 below]) and used as a headline typeface. Primary typefaces should never be a mirror of those that are used in a master brand identity, for this can dilute the visual impact of a master brand.

Figure 12: The typeface Charlottely designed specifically for use in the nest promotional material.
Figure 13: Screenshot of ‘About’ nest.2 Design: Philip Ely; Coding: Zac Colley (2016). Image Credit: Philip Ely

To help promote the launch of the brand, I wrote a brand story that we circulated amongst stakeholders and partners who provided resources and facilities post-incubation (see Figure 14 and download below).

Figure 14: Extracts from The Book of Nest written in October 2015 to promote the new incubator to partners and stakeholders. Written and Designed by Philip Ely (2015)

Design down under

In October 2016, I started working at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia to take up a position as Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design. In the early months I finished the writing of the Social Startup Toolkit ready for design and publication, which was eventually published in 2018. Becky Chilcott FISTD, founder of Chil3 took my early version and turned it into a usable toolkit of case studies, worksheets and narrative on starting up a social enterprise (see gallery images below)

Figure 15: Gallery of images of the Social Startup Toolkit. Words: Philip Ely; Pictures: Becky Chilcott FISTD,

In the first year at Curtin not only did I take over leadership of the Graphic Design & Creative Advertising undergraduate degree but also supported entrepreneurs in the Curtin Accelerate programme and Curtin’s executive development programme SWITCH. I’ve also designed and delivered a professional development programme applying design thinking to social innovation challenges for energy company Woodside, supported our then Chief Marketing Officer in delivering a design-led innovation workshop for marketing professionals and – applying a hybrid of design and entrepreneurial methods – supported the same CMO in delivering a Curtin Marketing Hackathon, designing new lean/design tools in the process.

Whilst much of the above has been related to either entrepreneurial or ‘intrapreneurial’ 3 activity amongst students, employees or clients, I’ve endeavoured to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to my design research. To his end, I created the Design Futures discipline – complete with branding (see Figure 16 below) – and then created an identifier for design research engagement with industry with the Design OnDemand programme (Figure 17). Both initiatives and identities lasted just over a year before a new Head of School arrived in January 2020.

Figure 16: The Design Futures identity. Designed in 2019, the identity uses the typeface Reross from the Adobe Type Collection Hidden Treasures, originally designed by Reinhold Rossig and redesigned in time for the 100 year anniversary of the Bauhaus by Elia Preus. Image: (c) Philip Ely
Figure 17: The Design OnDemand programme identifier which I used to promote the design research capability of the School of Design and the Built Environment. The identity was specifically designed to complement the university’s gold and black identity and – again – was designed so that the Curtin brand was not diluted by an overuse (as can still be found) of the SansaSoft Pro typeface family. Design/Image: (c) Philip Ely (2019)

In December 2019/January 2020 I led the creation of a cross-university research group, The State of Design, to help advocate for (and understand the impact, value and application of) design in Western Australia (see Figure 18). Just prior to the first COVID19 pandemic lockdown in Western Australia, we formed part of the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Incubator programme supporting researchers across Curtin University, UWA, Murdoch, Notre Dame and ECU.

Figure 18: The State of Design research group identity. The identity is animated using Processing and a variable typeface that represents the fluidity and expansion of design practice and research. See also Design/Image: Philip Ely, 2020

The State of Design continues to exist as a cluster of researchers interested in applying design to meaningful societal and business problems and – as I write – we are collaborating with not-for-profits and government agencies to grow our research startup.


During my time in academia since 2003, there have been a number of instances where my experience in entrepreneurial settings has fuelled a number of self-initiated projects for the benefit of my university employers. At UCA and University of Portsmouth in particular, this has resulted in significant funding and community and business engagement. In 2011 I was shortlisted for an International Enterprise Educator Award for my work at UCA in driving creative entrepreneurship and in 2015, my work at Portsmouth resulted in me being awarded the status as one of Britain’s Top 50 Business Advisors by Enterprise Nation, an award I neither anticipated or lobbied for.

In the roles at UCA and Portsmouth, I was afforded great agency in ‘making things happen’ which gave me scope to conceive of, secure and deliver design-led entrepreneurial activity. Whilst this degree of agency has been less evident at Curtin, my hope is that The State of Design, my own research exploring the value and impact of design, and my entrepreneurial spirit will eventually demonstrate outcomes that have as lasting an impression as Social Startup, Creative Advantage and (to a lesser extent) UCA Business & Community School, nest and Into The Cell Block.

Individuals alone though cannot affect change or drive innovation to the degree that communities and businesses require; this I have learned the hard way. They require workplace cultures that – like effectual entrepreneurs – are able to make the most of the human capital that is given to them. And whilst this description of human ability can itself sound functionalist, it highlights how too often our employers or our clients or our communities do not create the environments within which individuals can thrive and innovate.

Like the number of startups that I helped form in my industry years, I treat each potential new project or initiative as a chance to create real value. At Curtin, I currently lead the Master of Design course and through my engagement with friends, peers and inspirational thinkers across the globe I have attempted to expose our postgrads (and the PhDs I supervise) to entrepreneurial and innovative ways of doing. In every walk of life – and particularly in the capitalist system in which we are all locked into – being entrepreneurial or innovative does involve a concern about economic growth but this should be the benefit of entrepreneurial spirit and designerly thinking rather than the purpose of our actions. In other words, I have found that it is in the pursuit of initiatives that meaningfully help others that financial support has followed. To follow the finance and not the problem purpose only results in disappointment.

Whatever comes next, design and entrepreneurship are at the core of my identity. One day I hope it’ll make a difference. Until then I’ll be resiliently venturing forward with as much ambition and humility as when I set out in my career in design back in 1986. See you along the journey.


1 “entrepreneur, n.”. OED Online. March 2021. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 24, 2021)

2 An archive of the website can be found on the Internet Archive at:

3 See Pinchot, G. 1984. Who is the Intrapreneur? In: Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 28 – 48

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