Digital dash

Digital expertise is a hot commodity at the moment, and many designers and consultancies are eager to enter this booming sector. But where is all the talent coming from, and can the future really be as bright as it seems?

It’s all a bit like 1999, but now it is for real. The virtual promises of the dotcom boom proved an embarrassing bubble, but now demand for digital designers is soaring, and so is the amount of money they can command. An interaction with a brand is now very likely to be digital, whether on-line, on a mobile, or in a retail environment, and the design industry is reshaping in response.

For the established digital consultancies that survived the bubble, business is booming. But for traditional design groups wanting to get a slice of the cake or needing to satisfy their client’s expectations, finding people with the right skills is tough.

Of course, the easiest way of acquiring digital skills is to buy an existing digital design consultancy. But for most consultancies, whether they are established digital design groups or traditional design consultancies seeking to grow their digital side, recruiting individuals rather than buying outfits lock, stock and barrel is the answer. But finding them is no easy matter. ‘People are crying out for good creatives,’ says Laura Appleton at digital recruitment agency Propel. Karina Beasley at recruitment agency Gabriel Skelton says the dearth of freelances with strong digital design skills is especially acute.

Of course, there has been a general shift towards using freelances – in design and the wider economy – as part of a more flexible and project-based approach to recruitment, but this trend is even stronger when it comes to digital design. Some traditional design consultancies link up informally with digital specialists, but many are now looking to recruit themselves. ‘We are increasingly having traditional design consultancies knocking on the door looking for digital expertise, and the most common approach is to dip the toe in the water with a freelance,’ says Appleton.

But the talent pool is limited and shared with high profile specialists. ‘People with the right skills and experience don’t grow on trees, and they know their worth and are expensive to hire,’ says Andy Hobsbawm, chairman of digital design consultancy Agency.Com Europe. ‘Recruitment consultancies are struggling to get hold of people – we keep seeing the same CVs.’ Not surprisingly, this is leading to salary inflation. ‘It’s an open auction,’ says Beasley. ‘Earning £400-£600 a day is no problem. These are over-inflated salaries, but they have to work very hard. It really can be a 24/7 job.’

The salary levels are not only worrying recruitment consultants and employers. Amanda Merron, partner at accountancy firm Willott Kingston Smith, says, ‘My advice is always to try to hold the line and not give in to price pressures. Marketing budgets aren’t expanding and certainly not enough to justify the scramble to get the resource that is needed.’ She does, however, add that the money can come from different budgets – customer service rather than marketing, for instance.

‘Pressure on salaries will continue,’ says Nathan Myatt at recruitment agency Workstation. ‘At the moment, there are a lot of [digital design] freelances who consultancies want to employ for £35 000, but who are making £50 000 a year. So they will stay freelancing, unless they go to the few big established digital consultancies that can afford to pay that. Something has got to give.’

One of the responses is a willingness to look abroad to plug the skills shortage. Pulling in technical skills, be they plumbing or software, from abroad is a something we are familiar with, but recruitment agencies say digital creative skills are now also being sourced from around the world. ‘People are increasingly looking abroad, be it to Brazil or Europe, to find talent, especially at the more junior end,’ says Appleton. ‘Consultancies are willing to go through the fuss of getting work permits because they recognise the situation.’ Other recruitment agencies mention Australia and New Zealand, and, to a lesser extent, South Africa, as fertile hunting grounds.

While this paints a rosy picture for designers already in the digital realm, what does it mean for those who aren’t? Traditional graphic designers working in print will always find jobs if they are exceptional, says Valerie Gascoyne of recruitment agency BDG Xchangeteam. However, she warns that the rest will already be finding the going tough. As for younger designers, her advice is to ‘go digital for a stable career and better pay’.

And a migration is already shakily under way. ‘What we are seeing is quite a lot of people who are keen to get into digital/interactive design, but who don’t have the key skills. So there is a massaging of CVs and inflation of skills taking place,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘We are looking to grow our own, taking on junior people and training them – it’s more cost-effective and you get people who bond with the company and have the right skills.’

But Myatt points out that there are many different kinds of digital groups. ‘The days of everyone thinking they are hip and trendy are over; many prefer the quieter life of an in-house studio,’ he adds.

Designers working in the digital world also need to acquire a very different and very flexible approach. It’s still a fast-moving world where you need to continually retrain to take advantage of new technological avenues and packages.

‘There is also a mentality issue in the digital arena that designers have to address. Designers have a training that has a lot about craft and making things beautiful, but not much about effectiveness. It’s a challenge to the mindset. On-line you can see traffic and response and you can change things, so you need more of a campaign approach,’ says Andrew Pinkess, a director at design consultancy Rufus Leonard.

Another development is off-shoring. Many who call their bank or insurance company are used to being put through to India, but what is not as well known is that financial companies have also been outsourcing their creative departments. Could this lead to a situation where the lead conceptual design work is done in the UK and (as in, say, product design) the ‘manufacturing’ is carried out abroad?

Also, could the growth of digital design carry on apace to the extent to which, as some are already suggesting, it is the traditional graphics groups that are seen as the niche specialists?

‘An interesting situation is unfolding,’ observes Hobsbawm, ‘Will interactive/digital groups get the senior level of client relationship first, or will traditional consultancies get digital first?’

Even the definition of design in this new world can be eroded. As Pinkess points out, ‘Digital marketing and design might sit adjacent, but if the content is broadcast or interactive with the user dictating the look, the role of the designer becomes more difficult to define.’

The exact shape the design industry will have to take to meet the digital world remains to be seen, but it is certain it won’t be the same as it is today. And the question of the impact the digital world is having on design could soon be embarrassingly obsolete.

Design Week’s full Salary Survey will be published on 14 March

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