Transmitting inflections

The accent on the UK design industry is undeniably on London, but Jim Davies argues that a base in the regions can give a consultancy a more distinctive offer

Few of us actually like our own accents. I certainly don’t. That’s probably why I start sounding like Dick van Dyke whenever I cross the Watford Gap, and a bad Jasper Carrot impersonator if I find myself anywhere near Birmingham. But our accents are something we should be proud of. A verbal badge. A kind of spoken corporate identity. As 17th century moralist La Rochefoucald once said, ‘The accent of one’s birthplace lingers in the mind and the heart as it does in one’s speech.’ So it probably extends to the way people design too.

Which brings us to the Scottish Design Awards, where people with the most lyrical of accents recently gathered to celebrate the best work from over the border. Like other regional awards, it’s an occasion many design consultancies regard with ambivalence. To some, winning armfuls of silverware from these events is like winning the World Cup because Brazil didn’t bother to turn up that year. Yet boycotting them looks churlish and arrogant, a slap in the face to local clients and rival design groups. These are also occasions when petty jealousies can surface, when clannish differences can blur the bigger picture.

In some ways, separate regional awards schemes are divisive. They foster insecurities and assumptions, maintain an us-and-them culture. It’s a mind-set that’s easy to fall into. I should know. Five years ago, I rather reluctantly moved out of London. At first I was apologetic about it. I only mentioned it if I had to, constantly stressed my spiritual allegiance to Stoke Newington, showed off my familiarity with the city like an over-zealous young cabbie doing the Knowledge. I even tried to keep my 0207 phone number, though BT were having none of it.

Why? Because I felt people’s – especially clients’ – perception of me would be clouded, as I no longer belonged to the exclusive metropolitan club. If I was out of sight, it somehow followed I’d be out of mind (and out of touch). Despite it only taking me half an hour longer to get into London’s West End than it did on the number 73 bus from my beloved Stokey.

It took a while to feel comfortable with my new environment and a little longer still to realise why I had such trouble accepting it. The truth is, after 15 years in London, I’d developed a superiority complex. In design terms, certainly, the country seemed to revolve around London. It wasn’t called the capital for nothing – all the desirable budgets, commissions and clients were here.

But I gradually began to appreciate and empathise with the significant pool of design talent based outside the M25: The Chase and Love in Manchester, Elmwood in Leeds, Attik in Huddersfield, Marketplace in Abingdon, and the edgy Designers Republic in Sheffield. Scotland too boasts a wealth of creativity – Pure, Newton EH6, Graphic Partners and Navyblue in Edinburgh, Pointsize in Glasgow among the pick.

These companies belie the myth that location is all important. Yes, they look after local businesses, but they also have a national presence. Many have London outposts, feature in national awards and attract exciting, far-sighted clients that don’t mind trading a train ride for charismatic, intelligent design.

If there is a stigma attached to working outside London, it’s largely self-perpetuating. Love’s website, for example, rather apologetically describes the consultancy as ‘one of the leading creative agencies outside London’. No argument there, but the words ‘light’ and ‘bushel’ spring to mind. Pure, meanwhile, hedges its bets with ‘…one of the leading integrated communications agencies in Scotland and the UK’, which borders on the tautological.

This self-deprecation is self-defeating. In fact, working outside London gives you an instant point of difference, it shapes your identity, gives you a distinctive offer. The Beatles couldn’t have come from anywhere but Liverpool. The Smiths were quintessentially Manc. Their points of reference were parochial yet universal, personal yet inclusive. Remember, too, the north of England is currently enjoying something of a renaissance – Liverpool is basking in the glory of being European Capital of Culture for 2008; Newcastle was recently voted one of the most desirable places to live in Europe.

Regional design groups should take the opportunity to feed off this contemporary cultural buzz. They should emphasise other refreshing traits that could come through in a working relationship – plain speaking, down-to-earth attitude, sense of humour and creative individuality. In other words, play up their accents, accentuate the positive.

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