Speaking terms

The ability to converse with overseas clients in their own language is a huge advantage, says Pamela Buxton. But good business skills are not built on language alone

Parlez-vous Français? Sprechen sie Deutsch? If so, you’re doing better than most UK exporters. According to a recent survey by Luton Business School, almost one third are unable to take a phone call in another language.

Fortunately for UK design groups working abroad, many major clients either speak English or are able to provide English-speaking agents or interpreters, giving less incentive for the lazy linguists among us to make the effort.

But for those who do, the benefits to the business can be considerable. As well as being plain good manners when dealing with overseas clients, linguistic skills can increase client confidence in the design team, avoid costly misunderstandings, and generally smooth the project’s progress. It is also a key asset to opening up new business markets.

French and German are the two most useful languages for design consultancies, followed by Spanish, according to Kate Ancketill, partner of Global Design Register, which sources design services for clients. The status of English as the global business language is a huge advantage for UK nationals. However, more are making the effort to learn a second language, especially new business managers, aware that it is perceived as a significant bonus by clients. “You have to be looking at design groups with less than five staff to have no language skills, unless they’re pretty backward,” Ancketill says.

And, by employing French or German nationals, a group gains not only a technical competence in the language, but a useful cultural familiarity.

Not surprisingly, for a consultancy set up by two German and one English director, Henrion Ludlow & Schmidt places great importance on speaking German in order to service its predominantly German clients. FHK Henrion himself was fluent in English, German, French and Italian and the group consciously set out to develop business in Germany. Now, half the staff are German or Austrian, and HL&S does its own translations to ensure cultural as well as linguistic accuracy.

“It’s absolutely essential,” says director Chris Ludlow, who adds that design businesses can use English’s lingua franca as an excuse not to make the effort themselves. “With clients it’s a comfort factor – if you feel you’re fully understood you’re more comfortable. At the same time, they want the benefit of the consultancy being in London,” he adds.

Germans speaking English are also more likely to be understood in a country such as Japan than native English speakers, HL&S has found; since they are likely to be more textbook, with clearer annunciation. Similarly, at Crabtree Hall many staff speak French. One of the founding partners, Gerard Lecoeur is fluent in four languages, and the consultancy has mostly mainland Europe clients and an association with French group Plan Créatif.

“Gerard has championed the view that wherever possible, senior staff on the design side should be able to speak French,” says partner David Mackay. “Psychologically it shows a commitment to the client.” Where possible, Crabtree Hall issues its specifications and drawings in the appropriate language, bringing in technical translators when necessary. And by hiring a Swedish national sales person, Crabtree Hall ended up with several Swedish clients.

“I’m convinced it gives us a commercial advantage… at board level. It’s appreciated that you make the effort,” says Mackay. The group now works in 18 countries with 70 per cent of its turnover outside the UK.

Wolff Olins’ London office is similarly international, with staff fluent in a total of 21 languages – the reception staff alone speak six. The group encourages foreign language skills, running language lessons and also classes in English for overseas staff for both business and motivational reasons. Since the designers are encouraged to present their work to clients, where possible, Wolff Olins likes them to be fluent in the appropriate language. According to communications director Alice Huang, the consultancy finds German, French and Italian the most useful, with projects involving merging international companies needing languages.

Design Bridge chief executive David Rivett says an inability to speak to key European markets inevitably “significantly reduces your market opportunities”. While clients may well speak perfect English, you have to be prepared for them not to, especially those implementing the project. “Even if you revert to English for the business part of a meeting the ability to chat is very useful,” he says.

Design Bridge employs several French and German nationals and also has capability in Spanish, Danish and Finnish, frequently making presentations in German and French. In Germany it is especially useful: “If you want to be serious, you need to know the language,” says Rivett. And if you do take the meeting in a foreign language, fluency is essential. “If you’re dealing with business issues the last thing you want is uncertainty and confusion,” says Rivett.

CLK marketing director Marcus Mitchell agrees that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and stresses the importance of cultural rather than purely linguistic fluency in understanding international markets. “Beware of the limitations of having even a very fluent speaker. It can only take you so far,” he says. Instead, he suggests the importance of staff with the ability to research the target markets through discussion with those in the field and interpretation of data. For this language is a useful tool but only one of many.

However, there is a flipside to all this. When recruiting, design consultancies can be blinded by language skills, says GDR’s Ancketill. She has come across several new-business staff who move around the design industry with excellent multilingual skills but are completely unsuited to the job. “It’s a big mistake to put language skills above the other skills,” she says.

Meanwhile, more and more designers are claiming language skills, according to Catriona Keen of Periscope. The recruitment agency estimates that 30-40 per cent of its clients claim a second language. Yet Management Personnel sales manager Jonathan Lindon reckons only one in 20 clients specifies that a new recruit must have another language, although if they do, it’s an obvious benefit. Recruitment agent Gabriele Skelton adds that the rush to hire European nationals prompted by a desire to get into Europe has now slowed. “Even though they may speak a language, it doesn’t mean they understand the culture,” she says.

So while it may not be a prerequisite, the ability to at least have a phone conversation in your client’s language can do wonders for nurturing the client/designer relationship. According to Clare Anderson, formerly Wagstaffs’ managing director, recruiting multilingual staff in the design industry is much easier than it was ten years ago. Since Wagstaffs works for many Spanish clients who don’t speak English, it’s essential to have fluent Spanish speakers in-house, especially account handlers.

“If you speak the language of those you’re dealing with, it gives an edge. It can help strengthen the relationship with the client and it is hoped give an insight into the culture,” says Anderson. Even if you don’t have perfect language skills, where there’s a will there’s a way, according to TKO, which does a lot of work in Japan. “We don’t have a fluent Japanese speaker on the team nor do we have a Japanese agent, but we do manage,” says director Anne Gardener, who adds that clients normally provide an interpreter for major meetings to speed things up.

“The quality of the communication is not necessarily based on being able to boast a great deal of language. It’s more about empathy and understanding,” she says, adding that TKO tends to communicate in other ways – lots of drawings, diagrammatical communication and pidgin English and Japanese.

Wickens Tutt Southgate, whose staff speaks a variety of languages from Afrikaans to Spanish, has plenty of overseas clients, but has never needed to speak the languages. The group once used a French agent to win a job, but on a three-year project with a French client, the designer hasn’t spoken one word of French.

Marketing manager Geoff McCormick says e-mail has made languages even less essential – whereas the new business team used to find it hard to get through to their English-speaking targets in the Far East, e-mail has made it easier to communicate directly.

But for designers wanting to learn another language, there is now a golden opportunity. Free courses in French, German and Spanish funded by the EU are being offered at five UK locations (details: 0845 603 3322). And the Chartered Society of Designers is planning language and cultural contextualisation training courses and glossaries of key phrases relevant to design. So now there’s no excuse – and with more English-speaking EU designers seeking work over here, UK designers would do well to take up the challenge.

Lewis Allen Fitch

Lewis Allen, the UK creative director of Fitch’s Paris office, took French lessons in preparation for the opening of the office at the end of last year. Already equipped with an A-Level in French, he and several colleagues were given two hours a week of tuition at the London office ‘before being launched in at the deep end’ when the office opened. He is now able to make presentations in French and has been complimented on his improved skills by clients. While many board level clients speak English, he finds his French particularly useful when dealing with middle management who tend to have less fluency.

While Allen speaks French 60-70 per cent of the time in the Paris office, he is still working on acquiring all the specialist vocabulary involved in retail design, and equipping himself fully for more abstract conversations about ideas and brand values. Learning another language has made him much more mindful when speaking English to foreign clients in multilingual meetings – he always tries to speak slower and cut out slang and difficult idioms that can be baffling even to fluent English speakers. ‘I wouldn’t say I’m by any means bi-lingual but clients do really appreciate it. It makes for better client relationships,’ he says.

Claudius König Wolff Olins

At a consultancy boasting fluency in everything from Arabic to Urdu, multilingual skills are not so much an exception but the rule at Wolff Olins. Consultant Claudius König is a case in point. German-born König came to the UK in the late Eighties and worked at Saatchi & Saatchi and Addison Design before joining Wolff Olins five years ago. His sales and marketing role had a German focus, with König developing and servicing Wolff Olins’ client base.

Also a French-speaker, he now has a more general European remit at the group. König finds that as well as his language skills, his ability to understand both cultures is crucial to his role – not only can he express the contribution of UK design and Wolff Olins’ work to a German client, he can also interpret the culture, as well as the language of the clients for his UK colleagues. ‘In meetings we tend to fall into English on most projects – our German clients come to work with us over here because they’re looking to work with a non-German company,’ he says, adding that his real skill is in understanding German behaviour, rather than language.

Having adapted his American-English vocabulary and accent since he came to the UK, K̦nig has even been mistaken for being English by German clients Рa linguistic compliment but nevertheless a loss of identity that does sometimes trouble him.


For the linguistically challenged, help is at hand in the form of translators and foreign language copywriters. On the plus side, they allow you to rise to the challenge when that rush job in Japanese comes in, but on the other hand there is the worry of losing control over the content – it is essential that the client or a host country representative double-checks the translation to ensure it is culturally as well as technically correct. Copywriting service, for example, World Writers has a team of nationals from a host of countries in its London office on hand for verbal as well as written enquiries, as well as freelances in less-requested tongues.

One service set up specifically for the creative services industry is TTC Creative, run by founder director David Mealing, a designer and typographer. The company has a network of 2000-3000 copywriters working throughout the world, all linked up by e-mail and ISDN to the London headquarters. By using copywriters living in the particular country, TTC Creative can claim to offer a service which is culturally as well as linguistically correct.

Its other key service is the ability to handle Chinese, Japanese and Arabic scripts by typesetting them in fonts sourced from the appropriate area and turning them into Mac-compatible artwork.

When seeking translators, TTC Creative recommends:

Identify the recipients of the text and the target audience

Make sure the original text is well-written

Hire a professional translator preferably living in the target country

Don’t cut corners – a Columbian version, for example, won’t work in Spain

Plan the translation project in precise detail with your translation company, identifying individual and shared responsibilities and setting delivery dates

Agree with your translation company who will be responsible for viewing and approving translated texts

Designate a local representative in each country who is competent to answer any queries in the production process

Allow sufficient lead-times for translation and approvals

Anticipate internal politics. Involve local personnel early in the project and obtain their cooperation and commitment to translation schedules


World Writers: 0171-287 4877, www.worldwriters.com

TTC Creative: 0181-567 5902, www.ttcweb.com

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