British design travels well across the world

On the back of British design’s favourable reputation abroad, designers are bagging an increasing amount of overseas work.

Malcolm Garrett loves it, Callum Lumsden is learning all about it and Lavinia Culverhouse can see the positive side of it, as long as she’s within easy reach of e-mail.

With too many groups chasing a decreasing pool of design briefs at home, the need to look for opportunities further afield is a stark reality, making working abroad a necessity for many consultancies.

But while overseas work presents benefits, both for the consultancy and the individuals representing it, it can provide its fair share of headaches too.

Lumsden, managing director of Lumsden Design Partnership, has become a frequent flyer of late. He hops between London, Madrid and Vienna on a once-a-week basis as his consultancy tackles projects for the Albertina Museum in Vienna (DW 9 May) and San Gabino, the optician chain, and Nido, the textile and furniture warehouse group, in Madrid.

‘It’s a whole new learning curve for me and for LDP,’ he says. ‘The biggest danger for a small group [such as LDP] is that one or two people are out of the country at once. The job has to be worth it in terms of profile and fees.’

Culverhouse, managing director of Design House, has just spent a gruelling week working in South America, travelling between Peru, Venezuela and Columbia. She says consultancies have to have the structure in place to deal with any shortfall in the workforce.

‘You manage it because of the team structure. Every other week we have a team of two or three people travelling abroad, but there will always be someone from the account team to field calls from clients, and designers to deal with different projects,’ she says.

‘A lot depends on what part of the world you are working in. In Europe and the US you can access the office quite easily. In South America the time difference is a problem. You can’t manage a business from that sort of distance,’ she adds.

AMX president Garrett admits that he is not indispensable to his office when it comes to travelling abroad. ‘It’s how you work it at a company. We have a design director to ensure every project goes through. My travelling is coordinated to the needs of the business because my travelling is projectoriented,’ he says.

Garrett has been working on a project with the Science Museum that has taken him to Canada five times since September last year. He’s also travelled long-haul every other week between Christmas and Easter with the British Council and its travelling exhibitions and workshops. So does he enjoy the constant to-ing and fro-ing?

‘I love it, it really is quite glamorous. It’s really good to go somewhere and just focus on that job. From an individual point of view, the travelling is very good, although I hate the two-and-a-half-hour journey from my home in east London to Heathrow. Time will tell whether the speculative trips I make to conferences and business meetings will pay dividends,’ he says.

Lumsden’s biggest problem is keeping his health in good condition and his life in order. ‘Keeping the stamina factor going in terms of programming yourself is a challenge. You have to be careful you don’t ruin your health and your life,’ he says.

Lumsden avoids the tiredness caused by travelling by taking an overnight stay in a country instead of flying back the same day. Typically, this type of expense is paid by the client, as are travelling expenses, says Culverhouse.

Despite English being the international language of business, the language barrier can sometimes be a problem, particularly when the nuances of a detailed design brief need to be explained. Translators can be the answer.

‘The language barrier is not insurmountable, but it is difficult. You need to brief a translator clearly so they present the conversation to the letter, as there are subtleties in the [design] presentation that can be missed. The translator has to have an idea about design and I find the right person through other people in the [design] industry who have worked with them,’ he says.

Possibly the most enjoyable aspect of any trip abroad is the opportunity to experience new cultures and see how other designers work.

‘Looking at other design influences is invaluable,’ says Culverhouse. ‘You think about these things when you come back to the UK and are working on projects.’

Lumsden agrees. ‘Seeing how other cultures work, getting to know from a grass roots level how people think, and seeing how far clients are prepared to go, is a real eye opener,’ he says.

‘Sometimes overseas clients are more receptive to ideas than British clients, which makes it easier for us as designers,’ he adds.

The good news is that opportunities for consultancies to work abroad are continuing to grow. Overseas clients see British work as a beacon for good design and the activities of the likes of the British Council, which plays a key role in promoting British design abroad, can only fuel overseas enthusiasm for the UK product.

As Lumsden says, ‘Overseas clients, in LDP’s case the Spanish and the Austrians, are 100 per cent behind the idea of a British design consultancy working for them.

‘The reputation of British design certainly does carry through.’

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