It’s been a while coming, but the icy wind of the economic downturn is finally blowing around the fringes of the design industry. Given the frenzied and incessant media coverage, the slump has arrived with a certain inevitability – we may have been one of the last people in the office to catch the dreaded cold, but it was always going to get us in the end.
For a while, we tried to kid ourselves that we might just escape with no more than a runny nose and a tickly throat, but the signs are that we’re in for a good dose. Already budgets are tighter, projects are being shelved or postponed. Events higher up the food chain are beginning to kick in too – long-standing client contacts are losing their jobs or being moved along as part of restructuring programmes. Invoices are taking longer to get paid, and credit is about as likely as a snowman on a sunlounger.
But whatever lies ahead, we need to find ways of making the most of the situation. First of all, we shouldn’t get too caught up in the hyperbole – the media has gone into verbal overdrive, using a daily vocabulary of terror that’s more reminiscent of apocalyptic scenarios to do with millennium bugs, climate change, avian flu and other much-vaunted catastrophes. Crash, crunch, crisis, slump, fall, loss, meltdown, Armageddon, doom, gloom… with these portentous words screaming at us from every front page, it’s no wonder we’re all feeling a bit twitchy.
But as Adrian Shaughnessy pointed out in his Private View (DW 6 November), this is a time to remember that design is not necessarily all about persuading people to consume. While you can’t get away from the fact that it has lately become an adjunct of capitalism, it can also be a force for social improvement. Over the centuries, designers have proved themselves remarkably resilient, remodelling and reinventing themselves to the times, using their ingenuity to tackle the issues of the day.
One thing’s for sure – we can all benefit from having some more time on our hands. Time is a valuable commodity, and when it’s on your side, the key is to use it wisely. Where we’ve previously just paid lip service, now we can finally get around to all those things we’ve been putting off for so long. To say goodbye to the rushed job – take care and pride in the work we create, to make sure it’s immaculately crafted and considered. To experiment and explore. To help prepare the next generation coming through with coaching and mentoring. To devote more time to people, relationships and pro-bono charity work. To do some profile-raising, by working on your own projects and pressing the flesh with industry peers and potential clients.
Above all, time gives us the opportunity to take stock. To take a step back and assess our strengths and weaknesses, to decide on a strategic direction and stick to it, rather than being buffeted this way and that by whatever project happens to drop in next. This is a time for focus and leadership – difficult decisions come with the territory and clear thinking is required to make sure they’re taken decisively.
High-pressure circumstances can spawn the most ingenious, creative responses – from inventions and innovations to cures and breakthroughs. While it would be disingenuous to call for optimism, we need to stay positive, to see the economic downturn not as a time of threat, but of possibility.