Reality check

Despite the economic gloom affecting the wider economy, the design sector appears to be holding up well. However, that doesn’t mean consultancies aren’t beginning to take a more cautious approach

DESIGN WEEK’S last salary survey (DW 20 March) indicated a sustained optimism about the industry. Salaries were holding strong and recruiters observed a buoyant, candidate-driven market, albeit tempered with an awareness that tough times might lie ahead.

Six months on, there has been a relentless drum of economic doom and gloom in the general media, with the credit crunch, declining housing market, rocketing oil prices and City redundancies making for worrying reading. Last month, a CIPD/KPMG Labour Market Outlook survey showed that employment prospects were weaker than at any time since the survey began in 2004, the British Chambers of Commerce forecast that unemployment would rise by up to 300 000 to just under two million over the next two to three years, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling said that the present economic times were as bad as they had been for more than half a century.

Surprisingly, given such a bleak economic climate, the design industry isn’t as gloomy. According to a Design Week straw poll of recruitment agencies, there are signs of a slowdown, but the market is still active. Consultancies with clients in construction/property and financial services are among the obvious casualties. However, as Lucy Cooper of Major Players says, ‘Generally, business still is relatively brisk, with many agencies as busy as ever.’

‘We are still extremely busy with some good quality briefs,’ agrees Xchangeteam director Valerie Gascoyne. ‘However, our clients do want more for their money and will only hire people who are truly going to make a difference to their business.’

Indeed, the most marked change over the past few months is consultancies’ attitudes towards recruitment. Blue Tree Recruitment managing director Claire Vidler has seen the number of jobs on •offer drop ‘significantly’, with clients becoming more specific about what they want. ‘Everyone is seeing how the market develops and being very cautious,’ she explains.

Companies are taking longer to make decisions, are choosier about the skill-sets they require and are often holding off on recruitment pending project wins. ‘The market is still as competitive, positive and buoyant – it is just more focused,’ says Vidler. ‘Consultancies are planning in a better way and are more aware of exactly what requirements they have.’ Periscope managing director Kim Crawford agrees. ‘Clients are more cautious and tend to be recruiting on a “needs must” basis. Impulse purchasing and window shopping are not du jour at the moment,’ she says.

The candidate-driven emphasis of six months ago is also starting to waver. ‘We’re on the verge of being in a client-driven market,’ says Blue Skies Marketing Recruitment head of design and branding Annabelle Johnson, ‘A year ago, consultancies would interview three, maybe four, candidates for an artistic director role. Now we’re seeing consultancies interviewing up to ten candidates.’ Clare Acfield at Eden Brown adds, ‘The bidding wars are over. Competing consultancies are not outdoing one another on a regular basis any more.’

However, Workstation managing director Nathan Mayatt thinks talk of a client-driven market is premature. ‘When you have a client-driven market, it gets up and smacks you in the face,’ he explains. ‘We’re not there yet. A lot of good people are not moving around, so there is not as much good talent [available].’ Crawford agrees, and says, ‘Talent with strong classic branding skills across packaging and identity is [still] in great demand.’

Staff are also more wary about moving, and consultancies are increasingly counter-offering to keep them and focusing on training and nurturing talent. ‘People are tending to stay put,’ says Purple director Paul Wood. ‘Perhaps they are scared of words such as “credit crunch”. They tend to be a bit more selective about where they should go.’ Some are even looking further afield to evade the threat of recession and are more willing to consider working overseas, especially in the buoyant emerging markets of the Middle East.

Given the air of caution and uncertainty, it is difficult to predict what will happen to salaries. According to some recruiters, remuneration has remained robust overall, although consultancies are beginning to negotiate more. ‘Salaries will not be rising over the next six months,’ says Crawford, and Johnson believes that, with market conditions as they are, there may be a slight dip in salaries over the coming year. Vidler, meanwhile, is adamant that ‘the best will always be rewarded with the top salary’, a sentiment echoed by colleagues – the message is that companies are still willing to pay good money for good work.

Reluctant to rely on divination and make rash predictions, recruiters are nevertheless steadfast in their outlook for the next year. Mayatt predicts, ‘It will be a tough year, but not disastrous’, and Steve Crompton of the Creamery says, ‘We need to stay calm and be positive. We should not stop recruiting if the work is still there and clients are spending, as that kind of action alone will take us into recession’.

Gascoyne seems to sum up the general mood when she says, ‘We’re not quite sure at this stage how badly the credit crunch will affect the design industry. [But] the industry is well established and will survive, as it has done before.’


‘Strong 3D, Web, packaging and digital personnel are scarce. They will still be paid a premium and are highly sought after’
Claire Vidler, Blue Tree Recruitment

‘Unsurprisingly, we are seeing an increased need for new business generators at all levels, from cold callers right through to new business directors’
Kim Crawford, Periscope

‘Hotel design is very much booming, especially outside of the UK. Therefore, more clients are looking for experienced hotel designers’
Clare Acfield, Eden Brown

‘Annual reports specialists and strong brand identity candidates are still scarce’
Annabelle Johnson, Blue Skies marketing recruitment


‘Retail designers, once very much in demand, now find themselves with not quite as many options’
Clare Acfield, Eden Brown

‘Consultancies are certainly still hiring – maybe more mid- to senior-level, or a level below who could step up into that role. Very senior brand consultants might be feeling the pinch’
Valerie Gascoyne, Xchangeteam

‘We have started to see redundancies with some clients, especially those to do with the property market’
Claire Vidler, Blue Tree Recruitment

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