The smoke and mirrors

Spencer Buck can’t understand why the design industry is so London-centric.

Designers. We’re an open-minded lot aren’t we? Open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. So, why do many new consultancies still set up shop in London? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-London, I’m just confused. Years ago, I could see the point: accessibility to clients, art galleries, museums, and so on. A wealth of knowledge at your disposal. Then along came the Web and Adobe pdfs. Now what’s the excuse? I blame ‘sheep culture’ – people who actually hate working in London, but grin and bear it for fear of not being ‘in with the in-crowd’. Of course, they’ll never admit it for fear of not appearing open-minded. I was one of these people and I know of many more.

Ten years ago I was fresh out of Somerset College, full of beans, dreams and hell-bent on working for a consultancy in London. Why? London’s where it’s at. I landed an apprenticeship at Blackburns, where I worked for two years – I loved the job, but didn’t enjoy the ‘busyness’ of London, the Tube in summer, black bogeys and the quality of life. I did love the nightlife, but eventually that became part of the problem. The West was calling me back.

Being caught between a rock and a hard place is not nice. Move back to where it’s ‘not at’ and be content with living in a place I call home, or put up with the Smoke and seek comfort in the knowledge that I’m doing the right thing for my career. Eight years ago, design in Bristol, Bath and the surrounding areas mostly consisted of mediocre (at best) design groups. I just didn’t want to work for any of them. It was very depressing lugging my portfolio from one ‘work and churn design factory’ to the next.

The case for the West

Things are different now. There is a good design community in Bristol and Bath, with people like ourselves, Home, Reach, Dutton Merrifield, Thirteen, English Group, Mytton Williams and Northbank all working beyond the immediate area. There are good local art colleges, notably Somerset College, to supply us and we are now starting to see more and more designers getting fed up with the metropolis and looking for a better quality of life. But is it really a design community? Well, there is an occasional social gathering called Designer Drinks, but I’ve never had an invitation. I’d have to change the name anyway. Bladdered By Fax was a much better name, and a great event – even if it was in London.

Bristol is a city of status and heritage, rich in music, architecture, commerce and engineering; our studio is a minute’s walk from Brunel’s world famous Suspension Bridge. It might be much harder to be credible to a national audience if we were in Swindon or Southampton, for example. There is a bedrock of work locally; some of the biggest companies in the UK are based in the West. We work for some, but, like other consultancies, cast the nets wider. If you want to join the big game you have to be prepared to travel, wherever you are. It’s naive to establish a consultancy in a particular area just because your clients might be near. We have clients all over the country. Bristol Airport is 20 minutes drive; the M4 and M5, ten minutes drive; Bristol Temple Meads train station, 15 minutes drive – all offer quick and easy access to the world. It’s advantageous in terms of lifestyle too. Cornwall is just over two hours away, London an-hour-and-a-half.

I guess we feel more free to do what we want to do. In London, there is the dominance of the big advertising agencies, whose power and breadth force all other marketing services companies into niches. If we want to do advertising, promotional work or high-end strategy, we just do it. Likewise, we don’t have to consider whether we are packaging, graphics, 3D, corporate identity or literature designers. All this can be very refreshing for clients, even our London-based clients, who enjoy visiting us here in ‘laid-back’ Bristol.

Our location is part of our personality. It ticks the ‘when others are zigging, zag’ box, but I still find it a great compliment when clients have assumed, because of our work, that we are London-based – go figure. Increasingly, as clients understand that there is a lot of talent outside the bigger, reassuring groups, it really doesn’t matter where you are geographically as long as you deliver outstanding work.

To quote a particularly bad film: ‘If you build it, they will come’.

Benefits of business in the West Country

• low overheads

• the nice drive to work provides a chance to gather your thoughts

• improved brainpower from the fresh air

• easy access to the M4 and M5

• space to swing cats

• a relaxed, friendlier environment

• no congestion charge

• cider farms

• a bigger house, with views and a driveway

Spencer Buck is a director of Taxi Studio in Bristol

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