A new dawn beckons

Some consultancies are witnessing signs of economic recovery, but the design landscape has changed forever. Adrian Shaughnessy looks at what the future holds

After more than five years as a self-employed designer, writer and consultant, I’ve just had my two worst months on record. By ‘worst’ I mean that my earnings have flat-lined. And next month doesn’t look any better. My income has held up remarkably well since the recession began, but now it’s gone all RBS.#

So what’s happened? Is my evaporating turnover an indicator of a worsening financial situation, or are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse holding off as their steeds graze on the succulent shoots of recovery? I decided to find out how design is coping in the downturn by asking a few studio bosses for their reading of the situation.

I spoke to four people from different points on the design compass. Their views make interesting – if inconclusive – reading.

My friend Georgina Lee at This Is Real Art gave me a breezy appraisal full of cautious optimism that could have been uttered at anytime over the past decade.
Yet when we met for lunch back in gloomy November she had confessed to a deep unease about the worsening financial situation and told me about her plan to take up the floorboards in her house to burn as fuel when the gas and electricity failed. Today, her company is busy, and those floorboards are safe.

Nat Hunter of Airside notes that business ‘went downhill from November’. ‘All our clients were squeezed. They squeezed us, and we squeezed our suppliers. We even persuaded our landlord to reduce the rent,’ she adds. Airside has not made any redundancies, and although it’s got work, the budgets are smaller and profit margins tighter. ‘In recent weeks, it feels as if there’s more of an uplift,’ Hunter notes. ‘Lots of pitches around, and some of them are for big budgets.’

Mathew Rudd runs Rudd Studio. He works mainly in broadcast and new media. ‘Towards the end of last year things suddenly got weird,’ he says. ‘Fairly big pieces of work got cancelled. Big jobs for which we had won pitches didn’t happen.’ More recently, however, he has noticed a gradual pick-up, adding, ‘In the past three months new projects have started. Things are no longer static. People seem to be looking forward and getting on with it.’

As Jonathan Ellery, of Browns, showed in his recent D&AD lecture, he has a sophisticated approach to the marriage between creativity and business pragmatism. For Ellery, the recession had been ‘tough, very tough, and I don’t feel the design landscape in this country will ever be the same again’. However, he went on, ‘But I don’t necessarily see that as negative. It’s a numbers game now, educationally and professionally. The economy will inflict a healthy edit on the number of design businesses. The void this creates will allowcontemporary talent to emerge.’

I share Ellery’s view that the design landscape has changed.

Market triumphalism cannot survive intact from the knock it has just taken, and there is evidence that a new sensibility is emerging with a more communitarian focus – both within design and the wider culture. It’s the theme of Michael Sandel’s recent Reith Lectures, which I heartily recommend to anyone who wants to consider alternatives to market dominance.

Whether my income revives is another matter. I really must stop eyeing up my floorboards and make some calls.

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