In his analysis of the Top 100 consultancies, Ian Cochrane rightly cautions the industry not to be too cocky about the current financial boom (see The Top 100). It isn’t fuelled by design groups churning out more of the same, but marks a sea change for the industry.
Expansion was rapid in design over the last 12 months of the 20th century, with fee income up a fifth on the previous year’s performance for the industry’s bigger players. Staff numbers, too, were up in proportion. But while branding in its broadest sense prompted some of the growth – particularly among global players – as Cochrane points out, a large proportion is directly attributable to digital media activity.
Apart from digital giants such as AKQA, Clarity IBD and Hyperlink, which have swelled this year’s figures as they make their debut in the Top 100 charts, numerous design groups have boosted their position by broadening their offer to take in digital media. It has proved a great way of keeping pace and, with even the likes of graphics purist Johnson Banks tentatively entering the digital arena, more “traditional” design businesses might usefully review their position.
But there’s a second caution to add to Cochrane’s warning – that dabbling in digital media isn’t enough; groups that succeed will have to go one better.
Not long ago, clients might have been impressed by the promise of digital media skills in a consultancy’s new business pitch. Certainly, the inexperience of many branding groups bolting on digital media was obscured only by the inexperience of their clients in this area. Technology-driven teams consequently had a field day
But life has moved on and expectations are higher, not least among consumers and Web surfers. Creating a website is, in itself, no more newsworthy than producing a brochure. Creating a good one is, though, with design coming into its own not just in graphics and in harnessing technical wizardry, but in developing on-line strategies and navigation systems that draw the visitor in and through to the inevitable transaction.
Digital media will soon be in the same situation as print. Anyone in the business can pull off a mediocre job that fulfils the brief – just – but doesn’t move the client or the industry forward. Anyone can pull out the stops in terms of technology, in the way a print designer might fall back on fancy papers, rivets and other gimmickry, regardless of whether it crashes the visitor’s computer. But to make a real difference takes talent, courage and, above all, content.
In essence, it’s just like any other piece of design.