The Design Unit was established in 1992 when it was commissioned to design and develop a range of nuclear plant decommissioning equipment for British Nuclear Fuels Instruments Ltd, and a range of burglar detection products for DA Systems.

During the 90's and early 2000's The Design Unit undertook innovative design research projects for companies such as Guinness, Reckitt and Coleman, Adidas and the Post Office. In 2004, The Design Unit was asked to work with the BBC on their Innovation Nation TV programme (forerunner of the Dragons Den), where three very different products (proposed by the British public) were designed and prototyped in just 6 weeks.

Also in 2004, The Design Unit began its first regional design support scheme, the highly successful Improving Business by Design (IBD), which helped a number of SME's to develop a wide range of products through to manufacture. IBD also provided an opportunity to involve many of the regions product design consultancies to help deliver these interventions. This was followed by the Manufacturing Advisory Service, Design Pilot Scheme in 2008 and the European Regional Development Fund, Regional SME Design Support Scheme in 2009. In 2006, the New Product Development Centre was set up, using state of the art additive manufacturing facilities to assist in New Product Development. In total The Design Unit has helped well over 100 SME's develop products through these schemes, representing £3 million of design support for the region, with over £700,000 of this funding being invested in the region's product design community.

The Design Unit continues to blend private sector commissions from larger companies (national and international), the delivery of regional design support schemes for SME's and design research funded by Government.