Design Week’s review of 2008

With headlines playing up the downturn, it would be easy to forget the bright spots of the past 12 months and ignore any signs of recovery. At the end of a stormy year, Design Week takes the pulse of the industry

Credit Crunch:
2008 will be remembered as the year the credit dried up. And as industries from banking to architecture started to crumble, it wasn’t long before the design world was hit.

One of the first victims was curatorial design duo Marcus Fairs and Rupinder Bhogul of Dezeen, whose projects for Guest Hotels were cancelled after the group went into administration in early October. ‘If a company as robust as Guest Hotels can suddenly cease to exist, we’ve all got to be careful,’ said Fairs.

His words were to prove prophetic as a series of high-profile clients fell during the year, leaving consultancies chasing unpaid fees. Identica chief executive Franco Bonadio told Design Week that he learned of the collapse of Icesave, his consultancy’s third-largest client, as he was on the way to the Marketing Week Effectiveness Awards, where Identica’s work for that very savings bank was up for a prize.

The UK high street went into nosedive, with companies such as MFI, Woolworths and The Pier falling into administration. The effects on retail design are sure to be felt over the next year, with Dalziel & Pow’s David Dalziel predicting ‘a new austerity’.

And as the wider economy started to falter more and more, many consultancies were forced to restructure and redundancies became inevitable. Sky Creative, Universal Design Studio and Scotland’s The Lighthouse gallery were among those that were forced to lay off staff, and product design consultancy Pearson Matthews went into liquidation.

But not everybody saw doom and gloom in the recession. Branding legend Michael Peters thought it was the perfect time to unveil his third consultancy, announcing, ‘The most exciting, creative, award-winning work is done in times of recession – this is the time when new opportunities can arise.’

Overseas Expansion:
With the UK economy on the slide, securing work overseas was considered key in surviving the bust in 2008. Even though most economies are struggling, a globally diverse client base can spread the risk and provide a sound long-term strategy.

Asia was seen as a particularly buoyant market. Retail design consultancy Dalziel & Pow opened an office in Shanghai last month – the firm’s first international office – to win business with both international and local brands, and hopes to land its first win before Christmas. Start Creative’s Hong Kong office will be up and running in January, and, following years of nurturing client relationships in India, Wally Olins’ Saffron Brand Consultants opened a Mumbai office in the summer. Saffron is keen to transcend the traditional, yet increasingly limited, London/New York axis.

Eastern Europe is another key growth market, and both FutureBrand and Lambie-Nairn set up offices in Germany to service it. Anglo-Scottish group Navyblue opened an office in Budapest, and reconfigured its UK operations to push overseas expansion. It also continued to nurture its ties in South Africa, setting up a three-way partnership with two South African companies. WPP branding and packaging consultancy Coley Porter Bell, meanwhile, created an arm in Cape Town in a joint venture with its sister company Ogilvy’s South African offshoot.

Consultancies are also following early birds such as Turquoise in setting up offices in the Middle East. Start Creative opened an office in Dubai in November, with Wolff Olins following in December, while Elmwood has earmarked a location there as part of a global expansion plan over the next three years.

The Middle East may no longer be the perceived land of milk and honey, with competition intensifying, but along with other growing markets, it continues to provide sustenance for UK design.

Old Etonian, ex-member of the Bullingdon Club, one-time Spectator editor, much-loved Have I Got News for You host, and now Conservative Mayor of London. Boris Johnson was elected on 1 May, defeating Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone. London’s design community held its breath, waiting to see how Johnson would engage with them.

In a speech at the opening of the London Festival of Architecture in June, Johnson said he would name a design advisory panel, featuring architect Richard Rogers, and also announced plans to introduce drinking fountains and create ‘urban hills’ across the capital made from construction waste. We had to wait until mid-November for Johnson to unveil his panel, which also featured architect Sunand Prasad, developer Roger Madelin and heritage advisor Joyce Bridges.

A couple of weeks later, Johnson announced Neil Barron’s design as the winner of Thames Water’s London on Tap competition to create a carafe for serving tap water in restaurants across the capital. There has so far been no word on either the drinking fountains or the urban hills.

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Art, which had its brand valued at £57m by Interbrand, unveiled plans to shift its art schools to a new campus in Battersea, a move current rector Sir Christopher Frayling says will give the design school ‘room to breathe’.

The RCA also announced that Frayling will next year be succeeded as rector by Paul Thompson, currently director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York. Thompson is also a former director of the Design Museum, which is in the early stages of planning a move from its Shad Thames home to the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington.

And should Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic need to pop out for a pint of milk in his new west London home, he could wander over to the Westfield shopping centre, which opened at the end of October to bumper crowds but design indifference. Fred Burt of branding consultancy Siegel & Gale labelled it ‘a missed opportunity’.

It was a good year for the digital industries, which appear to have largely avoided the economic mire.

As music and DVD sales fell, computer game sales rose and an increase in the amount of work being won by digital consultancies on graphic user-interface work for games has been noted.

Last year’s Apple iPhone has been followed by the Blackberry Storm and Google and T-Mobile’s G1 handset, signalling a consolidation of technologies in smart phones.

In February, the Pervasive Media Studio, a digital facility, opened in Bristol, through which design and technology companies are encouraged to pitch jointly for digital media projects. September saw Quad, a hi-tech visual arts, audio and digital media centre opening in Derby, and the Media City UK complex in Salford, which will be home to more than 1000 businesses, is still taking shape.

The Beijing Olympics brought a host of digital work for designers and consultancies. In the UK, Jamie Hewlett’s BBC animation sequences for the TV coverage were seen by millions.

With Zip Design creating a moving album cover, for McFly’s Radio:Active in October, music industry insiders and technology experts anticipate the arrival of MP3 devices that can play animated album covers.

Several policy proposals and announcements punctuated the year, marking changes for the whole design industry, digital included. In May, the Technology Strategy Board cited fragmentation of the design, film, advertising, gaming and architecture industries as a challenge to its knowledge-transfer network.

The role of design in creating a knowledge economy became the focus of September’s London Design Festival in the opening speech of Peter Mandelson, then EU Trade Commissioner. In November, the first Global Design Agenda was held in Turin, with designers encouraged to work with public service providers by the Design Council.

2008 has seen what could be regarded as an unprecedented flurry of activity centring on rosters, with the Arts Council, Heinz, GlaxoSmithKline and the Central Office of Information among those reviewing or renewing their external design services.

While consolidation and rationalisation have been the order of the day among public-sector and fmcg clients – just think Waste & Resources Action Programme and Premier Food – those as diverse as lawyer Addleshaw Goddard and London parks administrator Royal Parks, putting their first frameworks together, have demonstrated that there is a growing professional approach to design among clients.

Though some roster reviews, such as Sainsbury’s, the BBC and Nestlé, have courted heated debate over structure, allocation of work and tedious procurement processes, what is evident is that in the current economic climate, securing client connections that can be developed and maintained from rosters is preferable to total new business inaccessibility.

The gravitational pull of the brand appears to be greater than the possibility that a place on the roster does not guarantee work, and it is no surprise that this has resulted in extensive longlists. Some consultancies have reported having up to five pitches on the go at any one time, a practice that puts enormous pressure on their resources.

But whether or not the effort and time put into pitching for a roster is worth the amount of work yielded, the kudos that comes with the winning of a roster place and the status of being a preferred supplier is something that consultancies still value.

Furthermore, what’s emerged is a growing emphasis on client integrity and their handling of rosters. We’ve seen a number of clients this year, including Tate and Land Securities, championed for their design-buying skills. How this filters into the wider world next year remains to be seen.

While Liverpool flaunted itself as Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2008, the city’s design groups grumbled that the programme of more than 300 events had entirely overlooked commercial design. A happy ending to the tale came when several local design groups channelled their frustration into producing October’s last-minute Liverpool Design Symposium with the DBA, D&AD and Design Initiative, which they hope to turn into an annual event.

The birth of one design event was balanced by the demise of another, when the same month bought news of the cancellation of Scotland’s Six Cities Festival. The Scottish Assembly has decided to withdraw funding for the 2010 festival, which would have been the popular triennial event’s second outing.

And yet the UK’s regional design festivals are, in general, flourishing. October bought the fourth annual Cardiff Design Festival, while, in November, Birmingham hosted the Plus Design Festival’s innovative programme of typographics-based events.

November’s other specialist design event, the Onedotzero Festival, took place at the British Film Institute in London, catering for those interested in digital animation and design.

Meanwhile, autumn 2008’s packed itinerary also saw the North East’s annual design festival, Design Event, take place, albeit without the added Designs of the Time financial boost received last year.

The design festival circuit’s star turn, the London Design Festival, took centre stage in September. Besides its usual agglomeration of events across London, including 100% Design and Tent, the LDF this year launched Greengaged, a series of workshops and discussions on sustainable design.

Peter Mandelson stepped up to the microphone to open this year’s LDF, one month before his appointment as Business Secretary. Expectations are now running high that Mandelson’s interest in design, coupled with his new post, spells good news for the industry.

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