Taking design to North America

The DTI’s North America Now export campaign has finally hit on design as a priority. Beverley Cohen reports

SBHD: The DTI’s North America Now export campaign has finally hit on design as a priority. Beverley Cohen reports

North America is clearly the place to be if you’re a design consultant. And David Babb, head of the Department of Trade and Industry’s North America export desk, told more than 100 designers at a Question Time event last week (DW 10 March) that design is now a top priority service for export. Clients are receptive and Government funding seems to be forthcoming. “The coming year is when the industry will get more funding than it ever has,” declared Alex Pratt, the DTI’s exports promoter for North America.

Maureen Thurston-Chartraw, president of the US firm Access International, which links industrial designers with manufacturers, gave some excellent advice to a rapt audience. “Know thyself. What has your consultancy got to offer, what kind of return do you expect? Subscribe to US periodicals. Keep up with company mergers. And send a case study of your work – folks in the States really like case studies.”

The event, arranged by the Design Business Association, was undoubtedly a success and the design community is keen to launch itself into North America. But just how well-organised is this campaign?

Initially, the DTI was to sponsor several designers to attend key North American trade shows this summer (DW 3 February). But Pratt then told Design Week that it had backtracked – the trade show plan may go ahead but the focus now is a US-based “design operation”, also referred to as the design exchange. He admits that the details are “a bit woolly – there’s no getting out of that”.

The aim of this is to “promote the quality of British design and forge links with UK consultancies”, according to Pratt, who is unable to give further information. Communication between the DTI and DBA seems poor, with DBA chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill unaware that the DTI had amended the trade show plan until told by Design Week.

The next step for the DTI will be to put together a proposal for the design exchange and circulate it to the design community. If it is supported, Pratt will fight for funding to set up the scheme. “I’m confident we have a good case,” he says, but goes on to add: “The DTI wouldn’t be involved for a long period.” He is unclear about the fate of any potential scheme after DTI involvement ends.

Funding is another grey area. Rowland-Hill believes the DTI is “an open door” for financial support. But Pratt says there is no money allocated specifically to design, and is non-committal about the funding of the design exchange. “The DTI could maybe offer help with the startup costs, finding offices, employing staff.”

So would the project eventually have to be self-financing? It seems so. “We’d expect consultancies to become shareholders, and organisations like the DBA and the British Council to help,” says Pratt, adding that no funds will be expected from the Design Council. Rowland-Hill is reticent about the idea of the DBA providing funds. “The idea has just come up, it’s far too early,” he says.

Another idea spurred by the Question Time event is the notion that British consultancies could be a gateway for potential US clients to market their wares in Europe. “Smaller US companies are shy of Europe, they see France as totally different from Germany, for example. They need help in tweaking their products,” says Chris Thompson, a member of the DTI’s North America Advisory Group, managing director of product design group PSD and a DBA director.

Pratt blames the “woolliness” of the campaign on its immaturity. “Before the Question Time we didn’t even know if we had the support of the people who matter.” He also cites the fragmented nature of the industry. “There are so many different organisations with members to target. It’s hard to reach them all.” Will the DTI contact every member of every design body in the country? “We’d look to that,” says Pratt.

While even this small, unsure effort is welcomed by the industry, it is curious that design has only just cropped up. The North America Now initiative has been up and running for 18 months with a mission to boost UK exports. It has helped to export visible products such as food, drink and textiles.

The DTI recently commissioned management consultancy KPMG to produce a report into the export of “non-visible” services. Though still in progress, the report reveals what the design industry has been telling the DTI already – that design is a top priority for export. “We’ve just found out that we’ve got a great industry here, that the British design community has something really marvellous to offer,” enthuses Pratt.

His enthusiasm – albeit rather late in realisation – is catching, and, as he has influence at the DTI about how and where to channel its funding, this augurs well for designers who see the streets of North America as being paved with gold. But quality British design has been an accepted fact for some time now, so it’s about time the Government caught on and backed a winner. With only adequate planning, this initiative has the potential to be more than just hot air. It remains to be seen how solid a foundation evolves from the raw materials mooted at the Question Time event.

`We’ve got a great industry here: the British design community has something really marvellous to offer.’ Alex Pratt

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