Storm clouds looming

Will the current global economic crisis have the same repercussions for the design world as in previous downturns? asks Adrian Shaughnessy

According to Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, the ‘nice decade is over’. He has said that high food and fuel prices, problems in the global financial markets and the credit crunch will have a ‘noticeable impact on the economy’, adding, ‘The central projection is for growth to slow sharply in the near term’.

Not sure why we should take seriously the words of a man who has presided over a period of banking lunacy when the nation’s bankers have been on a bonus feeding-frenzy while behaving with all the prudence of a gang of bandits in a Sam Peckinpah film.

Bankers asking the Treasury to bail them out is perhaps the most nauseating spectacle since John Major lectured us on ‘family values’ while conducting an affair with egg queen Edwina Curry.

But this is a design magazine, what has all this got to do with design? Well, if Mr King’s pronouncement is correct, then design might be in for a downturn.

Old hands will know that we have been here before/ major recessions in 1981, 1992 and 2001 hit the design world hard. But talking to designers, I have not detected any major signs of a drop in business activity yet. If anything, studios are as busy as they have been throughout the ‘nice decade’.

And yet, if, as has been reported, 4000 estate agents have been made redundant and 300 City jobs are going each week, then it might just be a question of time before designers are wondering why their phones have stopped ringing.

I conducted my own highly sophisticated straw poll. I called up three friends who run middle-sized studios, each with between six and 18 people. All three were busy. One had just lost a substantial monthly retainer from a recruitment company which had experienced a drop in business, but had already compensated for this loss by winning new business.

Another studio boss I spoke to said that he was ‘worrying about the future but still had work coming in’. He said that he had not had to do any ‘touting around’ for more than a year and a half, but added, ‘I might have to soon’.

The third studio head I spoke to said that she had noticed no drop in business. ‘Quite the opposite. We’ve got lots of work lined up. Plus, I’m not so sure a downturn is such a bad thing. Maybe we need it to remind everyone to do the right things and not get complacent.’ All very encouraging, except we know that the situation can change in an instant. I remember the slump of 1992. I had set up my first studio three years previously and had found it surprisingly easy to get work and make money. But in February 1992 the phone stopped ringing. Literally. And I did not have a clue what to do about it. Thanks to a business-savvy partner, we got through it. But it was close. And frightening.

Maybe design will avoid the coming storm. The world has changed since 1992. Back then, clients just stopped spending. Today, that is less likely to happen. Clients can cut back, they can trim budgets, and they can shop around, but they can’t stop commissioning.

And just so long as designers make themselves available, and just so long as they have the flexibility (ie low overheards), they will survive. But please, spare a thought for the bankers. Those bonuses might not be so mind-bogglingly generous next year.

Latest articles