Why is the British broadcast design sector blighted by conservatism?

Conservatism blights the UK broadcast design sector, but is this creative failure down to cutbacks – or too much technology? Emily Pacey reports

Redundancies at Sky and Channel Four’s design departments and Sky’s poor performance at the Promax awards earlier this month are compounding concerns that the usually outgoing broadcast design sector is drawing in on itself in the face of the looming recession.

Martin Delamere, creative director of Addiction and former Sky network creative head, describes current broadcast design as ‘creatively conservative and narrowly orthodox’.

Part of this conservatism is down to the credit crunch’s affect on the industry.

‘A tap has been turned off – broadcasters’ budgets have simply dried up over the past six or eight months’, says Liz Dunning, partner at Dunning Eley Jones, which has worked for the BBC and UKTV.

She adds, ‘Advertising revenues are down and TV channels are relaunching for very small amounts of money.’

And there are other factors at play in the sector. With its roots in graphic design, illustration and animation and a remit to inform and entertain, broadcast design was destined to fall madly in love with computer graphics technology. But as the relationship approaches its third decade, some believe it has grown stale.

‘The constant use of cutting-edge computer graphics can mean designs end up looking uniform,’ says Disney Channels UK creative director Simon Amster.

Amster, who has been at Disney since February 2007, claims to be inspired by the work of broadcast designers from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. He describes overseas TV companies as having ‘a very different aesthetic’ from those in the UK.

He says, ‘British designers still have incredible kudos, and yet there is fantastic creativity coming out of other markets that is skill-based, with designers using stop-motion or drawn animation to create graphics that feel like someone really did design them.’

Dunning Eley Jones creative director and partner Marcus Jones believes there is life left in computer graphics.

He says, ‘There are no formulas in broadcast design. You can find good and bad examples of both hand-made styles and computer graphics. Being original is what counts.’

The consultancy also maintains that British broadcast design is still a leading creative force. Dunning says, ‘British design is hailed as some of the best in the world – why else would our broadcast design groups get called up by companies to compete in pitches all over the world?’

On 1 November Disney won the best design award at Promax for Recycle, one of a set of interstitials that features puppetry and paper cut-outs, which Disney made in collaboration with Studio AKA, Bermuda Shorts and four other groups for its Playing the Planet initiative.

Using external design groups can appeal to broadcasters both creatively and financially. Amster believes slimming down an in-house team need not spell disaster for broadcasters.

He says, ‘The most important thing is making sure that you do not let creativity suffer when you lose staff from your in-house team. It means that you have to be smarter about how you work. There are so many one- or two-man bands out there with a Mac and lots of ideas. Redundancies don’t mean creativity has to suffer, but it might come from a different place.’

Designers and broadcasters agree that excellence is invariably crucial, but while creativity is always prized among designers, in a downturn broadcasters can grow more conservative.

‘I have seen three downturns in my career,’ says Marc Ortmans, industry veteran and brand communications strategist, who worked with Proud Creative on the Welsh channel S4C in 2006 and has also worked with broadcasters to select designers.

He says, ‘It is not that people don’t have radical ideas in a downturn. It is that, when clients are looking for a guaranteed “bang for their buck”, they often filter out the wackiest ideas.’

Irresistible Rise of Computer Graphics

• Broadcast computer graphics began to emerge in the UK in the early 1980s

• The BBC was a pioneering exponent of computer graphics, with some of the earliest examples created by its Computer Graphics Workshop for political elections

• Satellite television allowed an explosion in the number of TV channels in the 1990s, stimulating growth in the broadcast graphic design sector – which benefited again when broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel Four went online

• As TV channels spread to mobile phones and other handheld devices in the coming years, broadcast design will find its next challenge and opportunity

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