“In New York,” said Duke Ellington, “you can see the noise”. The city where the subway trains never stop, bars never close and cab drivers never take their elbows off their car horns has a mythical quality that sings out to us Europeans. As the financial, cultural and publishing capital of the US, it also promises success in excess to those newcomers who establish businesses here. The recent arrival of two UK design groups, Attik Design and Springpoint, provides the freshest evidence that the megalopolis hasn’t lost its appeal.
“It’s been the fastest six weeks of my life,” says Attik’s New York chief William Travis, who arrived in January a day before his computers and first US client meeting, and hasn’t eaten a meal at home since. Business, he says, has been “bananas,” with the studio already working for a range of clients in the entertainment business including Viacom (owner of MTV), Warner Brothers, ABC TV, Swatch and Columbia Tristar. Expansion has come so fast that Attik is experiencing problems getting the staff it needs and is jetting in designers from its UK offices to fill the gaps.
Springpoint NY is doing the same, bringing designers in on secondments from London to help the core team of two when needed. Established in December as a base for servicing the group’s US clients, Springpoint’s Manhattan HQ is handling a number of corporate and brand identity projects, working with an international brewery, charity, media group and various foods and consumer goods producers. Catherine Clark, Springpoint’s executive vice-president, seems to be equally electrified by the New York welcome. “The response has been fantastic,” she says. “People are so open. Everything feels possible here.”
The prosperity and infectious entrepreneurial spirit of the city provides a pleasant surprise for British newcomers expecting a rude, cold, harsh environment. Clients, suppliers, peers – even rivals – are encouraging and helpful. Not because New York is a hotbed of altruism, but because in the city’s elevator of free enterprise, people are looking for a free (or inexpensive) ride to the top. In a competitive environment, collaboration is strength. And in a (relatively) classless society, it pays to be nice. Your waitress may be your client next year. That bicycle messenger may be able to debug your computer.
For fresh-off-the-boat Brits, however, there are culture shocks in store. In design terms, the UK has established codes, visual jokes and moot points that don’t work in a country as large and dislocated as the US. Many Brits mistake this for a lack of irony or intelligence. But that’s hardly an accurate description of the country that produced Woody Allen, John Cage and Gertrude Stein.
New York can also be accused of proliferating a certain kind of conservatism. In the massively mass culture of the US, markets are large, risks are greater, and therefore are often studiously avoided. For Attik and Springpoint, cautiousness provides a number of specific learning experiences. Clark has noticed a perceptively higher level of brand loyalty and awareness in the US. “We have to be very careful about how we change brands and position them here,” she says. It is, after all, the birthplace of Mc Donald’s, Coca Cola and Disney; the world’s biggest brands. “People are really able to articulate what brands stand for,” she adds. For Attik, staffing the New York office with local designers has been difficult. “A lot of the big corporations here look for clean, crisp design and it restricts the design portfolios,” says Travis. At the client end, the involvement of more people in a design project makes the approval process more arduous and time-consuming. “Everyone wants to get involved,” adds Travis, “and the hierarchies are even bigger.”
The hierarchies are nevertheless set in place to facilitate the germination of new ideas, and ever since Hendrik Hudson sailed to Manhattan in 1609, outsiders in New York have been seen as the bringers of new – sometimes undesirable – traditions. Fresh faces like Attik and Springpoint are welcomed in New York, because like a hungry machine, the city needs bright ideas to feed the nation. Strange as it may seem, the old world is perceived as a rich source of inspiration and exoticism, and there is still an abundance of Anglophilic sentiment. The key for groups like Attik and Springpoint is to give the New World their wholehearted commitment. To plant both feet firmly in Times Square and feel the noise.