Just a matter of time

With more Asians studying design, here and abroad, creative services will no longer be immune from the threat of outsourcing

I was speaking to a whip-smart adman the other day – no, seriously, he was super-bright. During our conversation, I told him, rather smugly, that I thought that design and the creative industries were immune from the trend towards ‘outsourcing’ services to the so-called emerging nations. I can understand, I said, call centres in India, high-fashion handbags made in China, automobiles manufactured in Indonesia, but it is inconceivable, I went on, that businesses would go abroad for something as culturally sensitive as creativity.

My adman shook his head. In his opinion it was ‘only a matter of time’ before big corporations realised that they could turn to China or India and buy creative skills at a fraction of the cost they are currently paying. Besides, he added, it’s a global marketplace and ‘occidentals’ are no better equipped to deal with the realities of the new business landscape than ‘orientals’.

Financial power is lurching eastwards, and the global economic map is being redrawn before our eyes. The former Reagan-era US treasury official, Paul Craig Roberts – now a virulent critic of the Bush administration – has expressed the view that the US will be a Third World economy within 20 years. He notes, ‘Short-run goals are reducing American corporations to brand names with sales forces marketing foreign-made goods.’ He paints an unremittingly bleak picture of a country that only seems to know how to create government jobs, and which has blithely ceded much of its manufacturing capabilities to the Far East.

The more you think about it, the more my adman seems correct. It is delusional to imagine that the same corporations that are currently outsourcing manufacturing – and, increasingly, services – to the Far East will be shy about commissioning Chinese, Indian or South Korean consultancies to produce creative work, if they can save a few thousand dollars every time they do it.

A report on businessweek.com, entitled ‘India’s Designs on Innovation’, describes a new-found interest in design in India. It says, ‘So far, India has only a dozen design education programmes, compared with 241 in China. There are 300 design colleges in South Korea, in contrast to India’s ten. While China churns out 30 000 design students annually, India produces just one-third of that number.’

This emphasis on design education in Asia could be a double body blow for Britain. Anyone who spends time in the design departments of British universities will know that the courses are full of bright Asians. The British Treasury does extremely well out of the revenue generated from foreign students, and if they stop coming it will leave a painful void. Not only that, but domestically educated Asian design students will staff the consultancies of their native countries, who in turn will compete for Western business.

Globalisation means that we in the West are free to go and bang on the doors of Asian corporations and offer our services. Some are already doing this. We can be confident that we can compete in terms of quality. But can we compete on price? On speed of delivery? On suitability for Asian markets? The new super-nations are taking over our manufacturing base, and there’s no reason to think that they won’t make a grab for the creative skills we offer.

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