One of the major forces in British design education in the 19th century, with a particular emphasis on its relevance for industry, Cole was also significantly involved in setting up the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the establishment of the Journal of Design. From the age of 15 he was involved with public records, eventually rising to the post of Assistant Keeper at the Public Record Office in 1838. Under the pseudonym Felix Summerly he became involved in a number of design‐related activities including the publication of illustrated children's books, the first Christmas card, designed by J. C. Horsley in 1846, the year in which Cole won a Silver Medal from the Royal Society of Arts for his design of a tea service that was later put into production by Minton. In 1847 he founded Felix Summerly's Art Manufactures, commissioning a number of artists to produce a series of designs in different media. His interest in art manufactures was followed through in his organization of a series of annual exhibitions from 1847 to 1849 through the Society of Arts, which he had joined in 1846. Having worked closely with Prince Albert and other members of the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition, Cole was also involved with the London International Exhibition of 1862 and the Paris International Exhibitions of 1855 and 1867. With the artist Richard Redgrave as its editor he also founded the Journal of Design and Manufactures (1849–52), an important campaigning voice for improvements in British design education. In 1852 Cole was made joint secretary with Lyon Playfair of the Department of Practical Art, established in the same year by the Board of Trade to administer the Government Schools of Design. He became secretary in his own right in 1858, a position he held until 1873. He was also responsible for building up a collection of design that was to form the basis of the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was knighted in 1875.