Boomer bubble bursts

It has been noticed that you never seem to see a baby pigeon. I’d like to add to that observation that it is also difficult to spot an aging designer. What ever happens to them, where do they go? Well, perhaps we are on the cusp of a revelation. Now don’t expect to see a delegation of baby pigeons with placards protesting their existence when you take a taxi through Trafalgar Square next week, but over the next few years you might expect to see a growing number of aging designers.

You see it appears that the huge growth of the industry in the mid-1980s has effectively created a design-boom generation, many of whom are rapidly approaching the same sort of mid-life crisis as their baby-boom counterparts. “What do I do now?” “Have I missed the boat?” or “Where else would I want to go?” are a few of the soul-searching questions in fairly wide circulation today where there are too many senior designers stuck in a rut. Let’s face it, there isn’t room for everyone to own a business, be a creative director, or pick up the guru mantle.

Equally, not many are willing to pioneer the aging designer movement. Twenty years ago the obvious answer for an ambitious 30-something was to set up a business, but that was in an era of huge growth. In 1999, many are resigned to the fact the last thing the world needs is another design group (desperately trying to justify its existence). Apart from that, start-ups are prohibitively expensive. In the 1980s you could get by with a kitchen table, a layout pad and some Edding marker pens, not so today with our greater reliance on technology. Couple that with the reserve of banks (and individuals) to finance such ventures, and it’s easy to see why start-up businesses are a relatively rare thing today.

The next option is to move to a place where the grass is greener, but this too becomes increasingly difficult as people quickly run out of places to go. Call it snobbery, call it short-sightedness, but most appear to define a fairly small universe of businesses for whom they aspire to work. Once you’ve done the rounds, that’s that. Few are prepared to risk relegation to a perceived second division team, even with the promise of being the star player! The natural response appears to be to stay put and wait for that promotion to the board. This might explain why, at more senior levels, there appears to be a state of virtual grid-lock.

The option taken by so many seeking change is to go freelance and I wonder if this is about to take on a new significance. Not so much about jobbing designers spending four weeks here and three weeks there, but about an elite of hugely experienced senior creatives who are really in a fantastic position to attract and service their own client companies. Richard Seymour recently observed that 1990s design was about being very good or very cheap. If someone can offer both, might the industry be about to revert (at least in part) to its former cottage status? Will we see the rise of the consultant designer?

Another possibility is thrown up by the phenomenon of convergence which continues to gather momentum. Ad agencies, management consultants, and consumer consultancies all want to offer integrated communications packages. Certainly, in the area of branding and packaging (which has become perceived as a low-status area by many who work in it) might we see a number of designers jumping the mainstream ship to pursue something felt to be more sexy and challenging? After all, an understanding of brands and a reserve of good ideas should be transferable across visual disciplines.

And, of course, many of the businesses born in the 1980s are beginning to scout for the next generation of management as succession becomes a big issue for UK design. Being the owner of a few grey hairs will undoubtedly work in your favour when experience is top of the agenda.

At the end of the day who knows what’s around the corner, but I do sense that we are likely to see considerable developments as the design-boom generation takes stock and makes some overdue changes. I hope that it will be a very good thing for an overweight industry so often accused of being slow to respond to change.

For a long time now people have been quick to say that design is a young person’s profession and that you have to be constantly looking over your shoulder at the advancing army of students coming out of colleges. I believe this is increasingly being proved wrong for a simple reason. As sure as pigeons find their way home, talent – young or old – will always find a way to rise to the surface.

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