Digital money

Despite a gloomy economic outlook, interactive designers are better placed than many of their offline colleagues. Nurturing digital clients requires both creative and tactical thinking, plus an awareness of how design spend could shift, but there is definitely gold in the digital hills, says David Benady

Interactive design looks set to be one of the few bright spots for consultancies in a tightening UK economy. With the credit crunch and inflationary pressures, brand owners are cutting back on advertising through traditional media such as TV and print. Instead, they are diverting marketing budgets into value-for-money alternatives, such as websites, mobiles and digital posters.

Online advertising is predicted to continue growing, though at a slower rate than over recent years. Online ad spend hit £2.8bn last year, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau, and some predict this could double to some £5bn by 2012. But online budgets are not immune to the downturn and recorded their lowest rise since 2002 in the second quarter of this year, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s Bellwether Report.

Meanwhile, demand is growing for interactive design services in a range of new areas. Briefs are being tendered for urban wayfinding systems in overseas markets, many requiring an element of digital design to be integrated into them. The London 2012 Olympics is creating opportunities for digital designers, both within the Olympic Village and from brands sponsoring the games. Museums and art galleries are increasingly introducing digital elements to exhibitions.

A significant new area of digital design business is opening up in outdoor advertising. The launch of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 this year, with two-thirds of poster sites using digital, heralds the birth of the new medium. Digital poster sites are appearing on the London Underground and on roadside billboards. There will be opportunities for moving images on some sites, or rapidly changing still graphics on sites by roads. Some predict a fierce battle for digital poster work between advertising agencies and their interactive rivals.

Designers eyeing sectors likely to spend heavily on digital should consider the Government. Last year, digital spend by the Central Office of Information rose by 57 per cent on the previous year to £35m. Another potential area is the car sector, which is set to boost online spend. Following mixed results from early trials of interactive TV services for promoting car models, many believe websites will become the major method of delivering information about cars. Financial services brands have ploughed large portions of their online budgets into search marketing in recent years, but some have started pulling brand-building spend off TV and are putting it into online display advertising. Optimists predict that gambling sites, e-commerce and social networks all offer potentially lucrative prospects for website and online designers. Some are holding out for new opportunities to design applications and advertisements for social networking sites. But these sites are far from the money-spinners that people once expected and they struggle to make money. There are also doubts about whether virtual worlds, such as Second Life, will prove financially fruitful.

The big bucks are likely to be made in the less glamorous world of e-commerce, in particular from businesses migrating to the Internet, whether they are insurers, retailers, car marques or Government departments. They require everything from website design to running the entire online operation, which is a definite money-spinner. As ever, the business-to-business sector will make great use of digital technology to feed databases and collect information, although this source of money may be adversely effected by the downturn. Even so, there will be strong opportunities for digital designers to tap into new areas of business.

Gaming design and mobile interface design are expected to stay buoyant, while website design, one of the most established digital money-makers for designers, will continue to provide many with work. Site design is becoming pivotal in the fierce battle for eye balls online. High quality design – with usability and ease of navigation – is the main trick to ensure users stick with a site until they have got what they need rather than clicking out to a rival.

Consultancy designers could learn from some of the pure play Internet services such as Amazon and eBay, with their embedded teams of in-house designers. But digital consultancies will need to address the trend for brands to take interactive design in-house. Some blame this drift on the lofty creative ideals of consultancies, which put beauty before function. Innovative designers still need to channel their ideas into good business practice.

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