Looking at views across the ocean

The Department of Trade and Industry is promoting design in the US. Bhavna Mistry explains how US clients operate and what they want from UK designers

It’s not news that clients in Europe are reticent to talk about their long-term design plans. Even the usually open Americans are sadly similar to their European counterparts in this respect. But over and above this similarity, few others exist when it comes to putting the design-buying skills and general awareness of each discipline under the microscope. In a week when the Design Business Association trade trip comes back from the US, working in the US comes under the spotlight once more.

The American approach to issues across design disciplines differs significantly from their European counterparts. This is partly to do with historical and cultural heritage, but differences largely stem from commercial nous and a ruthless ability to spot change, and not only adapt to fluctuating business trends and economies, but to act on that changing climate.

So how does a design group planning to branch out into a foreign market deal with such differences? Are the streets of the US really paved with gold?

Certainly the Department of Trade and Industry thinks so, with its push to export design via its long-running North America Now initiative. But while it seems to have marketed UK design abroad very well, little has been collated about which areas are buoyant, how to work in them and what to expect from US clients.

Corporate identity is a difficult sector to work in, but it has consistently been throwing up lucrative projects. Annual, comprehensive surveys by both Interbrand Schechter and Anspach Grossman Enterprise track companies listed on the country’s major stock markets. Both surveys have consistently pointed to rises in corporate identity changes since January 1993, when the Anspach survey reported an annual total of 1285 US companies changing their names.

With the increase in activity, there has been an attendant increase in client awareness of the issues surrounding corporate identity. With American colleges like Harvard incorporating modules on the commercial value of design to businesses, backed by case studies of who did it right and who did it wrong, most US businesses have an intrinsic working knowledge of corporate identity beyond the purely visual.

Anspach’s chief executive Jim Johnson explains: “Clients over here understand that corporate identity is almost as important as the product. A leading consultancy would never be asked to do speculative work and when clients come to us they understand the value of what they are coming to buy. They expect a consultant to partner them through change and understand that an identity programme is about more than visual gloss.”

Sampson Tyrrell chief executive Dave Allen agrees. Allen has been working with Johnson and says corporate identity is “a normal part of business life, with a large number of mergers and acquisitions happening as the US moves towards a single market”. He continues: “I doubt the senior people at Hanson, for example, thought of corporate identity as one of their priorities when it demerged a few months ago. In the US that would have been one of the first ports of call because they are tuned into its real commercial benefits.”

The attraction of UK consultancies to clients in the US is that they provide European perspective. The sharper US clients are acknowledging the importance of regional differences in their own country. And they are also acknowledging the regional breadth in Europe and know that to succeed they must incorporate that breadth in the way they communicate.

Peter Farnell-Watson, managing director at Landor Associates’ London office, thinks that while the Americans are more relaxed than European clients and faster at actioning concepts, the Europeans have the creative edge. “Clients over here are braver and go for more challenging design concepts. They have an understanding of colour and symbol which goes back to strong cultural and ethnic histories,” he says.

Carol Dean, senior designer at Fitch who worked in the consultancy’s US offices, adds that “clients over here are more educated about the design process, certainly in retail. They are more sophisticated in this discipline than their American counterparts, they take more on board and are prepared to discuss concepts”.

Even Jim Johnson at Anspach states that European clients “have learned more quickly than those in the US that you can’t blindly apply colour or pictures or use devices indiscriminately because they don’t translate across cultures”.

So it seems that both sides have a lot to learn from each other. The final word goes to Farnell-Watson: “If you want to work anywhere successfully, recognise that clients are different,” he advises. “One of the secrets is being able to adjust and adapt to the client in the right manner.”

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