Industry is regrouping in preparation for the future

I was asked the other day if I thought the design industry had shrunk of late. The obvious answer is yes if you consider the cutbacks at the top end of the business, with identity giants such as WPP Group’s Enterprise IG and Omnicom’s Interbrand and Wolff Olins and key players like Cordiant Communications Group’s Fitch London laying off staff as the mergers and acquisitions that traditionally fuel their workload come to a halt. Meanwhile, we’ve seen closures lower down the chain of which the demise of Basten Greenhill Andrews in August was typical.

Consultancy incomes have arguably also shrunk, though we won’t be able to track this effectively until we publish Design Week’s 2003 Top 100 consultancy trawl next spring. Word in the industry is of tight client budgets, stalled projects and increased competition for work, not least against ad agencies and others.

Despite all this, you could argue that design has actually expanded, if not financially, then in terms of the number of smaller specialist groups born out of the collapse or streamlining of the bigger players. The shock closure of digital design supergroup Deepend last year, for example, spawned a host of creative hot shops, DeConstruct and Poke, set up by Deepend founder Simon Waterfall and Nic Roope, among them.

The same was true of the recession of the early 1990s when economic pressures wreaked havoc with creative giants such as the then Michael Peters Group, RSCG Conran Design and Fitch. That squeeze coincided with the creation of start-ups such as Wickens Tutt Southgate (now Brandhouse WTS), Tutssel St John Lambie-Nairn (now separate WPP consultancies Tutssels Enterprise IG and Lambie-Nairn) and, eventually, Ergo. Groups like these have built on the foundations laid by their 1980s parents to create the industry as we know it now, just as the new breed of consultancies will write the next chapter.

Meanwhile, many client companies have taken design in-house, taking from consultancies maybe, but adding a different dimension to the industry. You could say that this balance between consultancy and in-house teams is a real sign of an industry maturing.

Given these changes, it is not surprising that London Mayor Ken Livingstone has identified the creative industries as a growth area in the capital (see Design Business, page 14). This belief must also underpin the British Council’s latest bid to promote UK design abroad through its new advisory group – members of which we can also expect to see on Livingstone’s committee.

So maybe design hasn’t shrunk, except in immediate financial terms. It is just regrouping to meet the challenges of a different era. Let’s hope so.

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