Pandora’s box

David Bernstein discovers a mixture of surprises when he opens up the latest official design industry report, but says it’s still best to keep informed.

David Bernstein discovers a mixture of surprises when he opens up the latest official design industry report, but says it’s still best to keep informed

The toughest questions to answer are often the most basic. I used to make myself unpopular by asking them, but I have just had the tables turned on me by the Design Council.

I was sent The Business of Design: Design Industry Research 2005, its report produced in partnership with the Design Business Association. I thought I knew the design industry well, but the report had more surprises than a box of crackers.

Try answering these questions: a. How many people are employed in the UK design industry? b. What percentage are women? c. What percentage have a degree? d. What percentage are currently involved in design education? Answers at the end.

The report divides designers into three categories: consultancies; self-employed, freelance or ‘non-employing’; and in-house. I had no idea that the largest group is in-house (41 per cent) with design groups and the self-employed representing one third and a quarter, respectively.

Why do organisations have in-house teams rather than outsourcing? The main reasons are cost-effectiveness (47 per cent) and ‘ready availability of expertise within the organisation’ (49 per cent). Yet almost a quarter of in-house design teams ‘have to compete against external design consultancies or freelances for projects’.

The problem with any ground-breaking research is that there is little to compare it with. How have those statistics changed over the past decade? Are there more in-house operations than five years ago? One trend you can rely on is the source of competition. Seventeen per cent say there is more competition from outside the UK and 62 per cent of those say it has increased in the last three years. ‘Rising competition from abroad,’ warns Professor Janice Kirkpatrick, director of Graven Images, ‘adds pressure to an industry… perhaps not equipped to support its clients or the development of our economy.’

The Design Council and the DBA tell it like it is, allowing the facts and figures to do the talking – along with comments from active practitioners. Education comes in for analysis, as does designers’ lack of business skills.

Most revealing is the apparent indifference to long-term planning. ‘Over three quarters of the designers in consultancies… were the owner or a partner in their business, yet half of them do not have any plans for [its] continuation… when their involvement ends. Only 12 per cent say the business will carry on under the management of an existing colleague.’

The report underlines the fact that design consultancies are chiefly small and young. Fifty nine per cent employ fewer than five people. A quarter have been in business for less than three years, so it’s understandable that long-term planning is not top priority. Or do they see the design world as unstable, fragmenting, permanently shifting and regard selling-out as the only route to financial success?

The report may confirm the views of critics who say the design industry is not a serious business, but there is evidence to the contrary. Whether you think the glass is half full or half empty, you would do well to have the report to hand to reinforce your opinion.

Meanwhile, here are those answers you’re waiting for: a. 85 500; b. 39 per cent; c. 41 per cent; d. 20 per cent.

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