EU referendum: How would a Brexit affect the design industry?

The EU referendum takes place today, and as shown by our own reader poll (70% majority) and research undertaken by the Creative Industries Federation (98% majority), designers are overwhelmingly in favour of staying within the EU.

But if we do leave the European Union, how will this affect designers? We ask a number of key policy makers, organisation leaders and designers involved in politics what they think the main consequences will be if the general public votes for a Brexit on 23 June.

John Kampfner, chief executive, Creative Industries Federation. © Charlie Hopkinson.
John Kampfner, chief executive, Creative Industries Federation © Charlie Hopkinson

Representative of CIF members: majority REMAIN

“One major threat will be to our access to EU markets if the country votes to leave. A recent poll of our members showed that this is a major concern across the creative industries. The EU is the largest export market for the UK creative industries, taking 57% of all overseas trade in the sector and generating more than £10 billion each year. Changes to our terms of access would almost certainly prove costly to our design industry.

Our survey also revealed serious worries about access to creative talent should Britain reject the freedom of movement the EU offers. This could prove a huge issue for the continued growth and success of the design sector – particularly at a time when companies are struggling to fill skilled jobs from the domestic labour market and the Migration Advisory Committee has placed a number of design roles on the UK’s skills shortage list.”

Deyan Sudjic, director, Design Museum © Muhsin Akgün
Deyan Sudjic, director, Design Museum © Muhsin Akgün


“The economic evidence is all pointing to a prolonged and damaging recession if Britain leaves. Boris Johnson eating his hat on TV to apologise that he got it wrong will be no compensation to those who lose their jobs, and those who find it harder to work in Europe, or to the universities that will struggle to fill their courses, or the studios that want to hire bright graduates from outside the UK and can’t get work permits.

But this is not at heart only about the economy – it’s about the kind of Britain we want to live in, which is about cooperation and openness, not one of tribalism. If you want a reminder of how narrow cultural life once was in the UK then just look at Tate Modern now and the Tate as it was in the 1930s, with a director who refused to show expressionism or surrealism, and who claimed that Brancusi was not an artist.”

Christine Losecaat, chief executive officer, Little Dipper
Christine Losecaat, chief executive officer, Little Dipper


“The quick answer is no one really knows. Britain refused to join the Euro and most would agree that was the right call. Britain also opted out of the Schengen visa framework, and while you could argue it has restricted some international freedom of movement, it also means the UK has safer borders and there is no question that UK’s tourism and leisure industry is booming nonetheless, keeping many creatives across all disciplines in business.

In terms of freedom of movement for workers, creatives come and work here from all over the world and the need for talent, cultural understanding and language skills is from high growth markets like China who fall outside the EU in any event. Freedom from EU State Aid regulations could be a good thing in terms of providing a more level playing field globally – but only if the UK commits to continuing its support for the creative and cultural sector.”

Deborah Dawton
Deborah Dawton, chief executive officer, Design Business Association

Representative of DBA members: majority REMAIN

“DBA members cover a broad range of design businesses, from all disciplines and working in all industry sectors. On average 20% of their income comes from overseas – with over half of this from European clients.

The main concern for DBA members regarding the outcome of the referendum (cited by 90%) is their access to European markets and whether a Brexit will influence their ability to compete with consultancies from the rest of Europe.

The second issue (cited by 51%) revolves around access to talent, as many consultancies employ staff from the European Union to help service their European clients and provide different cultural perspectives within their studio.

And third is regulation (38%), suggesting that if the UK does pull out there may be a silver lining in the reduction of red tape – although this remains to be seen!”

Joe Macleod, founder, DesignIn 16
Joe Macleod, founder, DesignIn 16


“Sovereignty – is that a British car, designed in the Midlands, built in Poland, owned by a German company? Or a vacuum cleaner that is engineered in the UK, by Indians on international work VISAs, which is then built in Malaysia?

The UK design industry is international, with people from across the globe who create that rich diversity we value. This has resulted in a significant amount of growth: 2011-13 it was up 17.7%, three times the rate of the rest of the UK according to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

We would have little hope of continuing that pace outside Europe and the open borders that we enjoy. We could not do it with UK talent alone – we just don’t have the amount of people required. And if we shut our open borders to Europe, it won’t make it easier to recruit from Asia as some think. Those HR hurdles will still be in place, we just won’t be able to recruit from our closest neighbours. And not inviting your neighbours to the party never goes down well.

UK design isn’t a sovereign power, dominating the world with a single style and a narcissistic ego. It’s the centre-piece of an international design world. It is outward-looking, positive, embraces change, and embraces others. Collaboration starts with being inclusive, and that is the core of our industry.”

Naomi Turner, head of development, Projects by IF


“One of the main ways that an out-vote would affect UK design businesses is by severely damaging the sector’s reputation of being inclusive, outward-looking, and so much greater than the sum of its parts.

There is more than a whiff of imperialism about making any argument for ‘British Creativity’, yet it is its very porous nature that defines it. Design is an international business, actively damaged by prejudice, and more capable than other industries to give opportunities to people who might not find them elsewhere. I remember speaking with a successful Polish graphic designer who said that he had been discriminated against elsewhere, but here he was employed on the strength of his portfolio alone.

This week, I’ve been working as part of the Innovate UK and Arts Council-funded design studio at Near Now in Nottingham. Our cohort of eight boasts an Italian industrial designer and an Indian digital consultant. Over the last six months, we have worked with a Swedish design strategist, a Dutch film-maker, a Greek fine artist, an Australian UX designer. All have worked across borders, aided by both technology and – at least in the EU – freedom of movement and ideas. For this and so many other reasons, I’ve already voted remain.”

Dids Macdonald, founder, Anti-Copying in Design
Dids Macdonald, founder, Anti-Copying in Design


“Consistently Britain is regarded as one of the best countries regarding intellectual property law. Losing our influential voice as a key player in IP reform in the EU IP community would set us back decades in terms of what has been achieved. For example, after 40 or so years, a major concern with Brexit is that Britain would no longer be in the final discussions on the unitary patent system, high on EU agenda.

Also, questionable, would UK designers still be able to rely on EU design registration valid in 28 member states?  Albeit it failed Trunki terribly on a legal technicality but, nevertheless, positively, it has benefited many.

Equally important is losing our voice in the all-important digital single market discussions currently ongoing and in which we play a leading role.

For decades the UK has worked tirelessly to connect with EU to harmonise IP laws so that if rights are infringed in another EU member state, the same rules apply. The creative industries need certainty and not confusion when it comes to IP.

Access to future EU funding for research and innovation is questionable – this would be an enormous loss to the UK. Establishing positive trade relationships within the EU creative industries took years to build up and could take moments to destroy – let’s not lose what we have gained as key players in a powerful conduit for pan-European growth.”

Jack Tindale, manager, All-Party Design & Innovation Group and Design Commission
Jack Tindale, manager, All-Party Design & Innovation Group and Design Commission (APDIG)


“A Leave vote would very much be unchartered waters, and there are likely to be numerous effects upon the design sector.

It is near-certain that there will be some economic disruption in the short-term. Although the scale and duration of this is uncertain, a slow-down in economic growth (and possible recession) is very likely. This will obviously affect all areas of the economy, but especially small businesses – which the majority of design consultancies are.

In the longer term, the picture is far murkier. Ultimately – a significant change in GDP growth (more than a 2% shift) is slight, but far from impossible.

A Leave vote will result in full control of VAT being repatriated to the Treasury. However, the effects of this will be small, and the European Commission has (surprisingly) started returning control of various aspects of rate setting to member states anyway. However, return control of VAT (and perhaps even replacing it with a formal Sales Tax) could prove to be of tremendous benefit to the sector, as could the fact that the UK would no longer by bound by the EU’s otherwise very strict rules on state aid.

Despite this – a Leave vote would also bring an end to a number of harmonisation policies aimed at putting the creative industry on a level-playing field, such as the Interest and Royalties Directive and the Term of Protection Directive. The sector will be acutely aware of how vital these settlements have been in protecting intellectual property rights and preventing the withholding of taxation. Any subsequent negotiations of new treaties would almost certainly lack the standardisation that is currently held as a full member of the EU.

Finally, there is the cornerstone of the Leave campaign – migration. The future of Britain’s creative industries is dependent on attracting labour from the European Union (especially so for universities) and even a small shift would have repercussions for the long-term future of the sector. It is very likely that this – more than any single aspect of taxation – would be the most serious aspect of a Leave vote.”

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