Overseas expansion needs careful planning

The Design Council/Design Business Association report on design as an export suggests that we in UK have a long way to go in order to reach our potential and build strong relationships with clients abroad (see News, page 4). It’s hardly surprising really, given the general lack of awareness among the majority of smaller design groups throughout Britain of the potential which overseas markets might yield. Unless they’re already working for a multinational client, few set their sights beyond these shores. Consequently, the same names crop up with every export initiative planned by the Government or other agencies.

But the underlying implication of the report is that work abroad is there for the asking, if UK consultancies can get their acts together on the business front. The sentiment may be a throw-back from the old days of the empire – or even the mid-Eighties when UK design groups were setting up offices across the globe with a vengeance – but it simply isn’t true today. Alliances such as the deal now cemented between Lloyd Northover Citigate and US consultancy Bass Yager show just how carefully design groups have to plan providing a global spread by having reputable partners already established in the countries they’re targeting. A glance through the second Design Council report this week, published this time with product consultancy Ideo Europe and less than favourable about British design, starts to suggest why.

Our track record for design isn’t bad, the report finds, particularly in fashion, graphics, interactive design and retail. But we lack the consistent zeal for innovation and creativity that makes countries such as Japan, Germany and the US acknowledged world-beaters; or the long-standing reputation for design that Italy and others have managed to maintain. Interesting that the UK Government is currently flying the banner of innovation and creativity through projects such as the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, but with the emphasis seemingly more on science and technology than design.

We can draw comfort from the fact that such surveys are about perceptions, and that perceptions can change. But, however uncomplimentary they are, how much healthier to let the Ideo findings inform any actions the Government or design’s official bodies may take to boost the standing of UK design abroad or develop its potential at home. Perhaps now we can pull back a bit from those “pioneering” forays abroad, rely less on flag-waving for the sake of it and offer a more sensitive look at what specifics UK design has to offer that might complement local strengths rather than seek just to rival them.

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