Rewriting the rules

Downturns favour the brave, so perhaps we don’t have that much to worry about. Jeremy Myerson finds reassurance in a historical perspective

Ask the grizzled veterans of the design business about prospects in the downturn and two things will happen. First, the greybeards will growl that they’ve survived bad recessions before so they will damn well survive this one. Next, they’ll point out that a downturn can be a good platform for innovation because clients are more open to ideas than when they’re coining it without having to think. Or to quote a senior executive at Microsoft, ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.’

So there’s a mixture of defiance and optimism – stern wills and silver linings – in the response of our most senior players. Past recessions, however, don’t hold all the clues to how design will fare in this one. That is because Britain’s current economic paralysis is wrapped inside a global financial meltdown not seen since the early 1930s, and we all know how the 1930s ended. So what can previous busts tell us? Forget the blip of 2001 and go back to the early 1990s for the last real bout of sustained punishment. The 1980s party was over and the industry had just got the bill.

Headcounts were cut in half, design groups reinvented themselves as brand consultants and visual strategists (anything but the dreaded ‘D’ word), and gradually the sector pulled itself out of the mire using digital technology to service a rapidly globalised market. As for innovation, exhausted market leaders were swiftly routed by new players rewriting all the rules/ in low-cost airlines, Easyjet knocked British Airways off its perch; in domestic appliances, Dyson knocked the air out of Hoover.

A decade before, in the savage Thatcherite recession of the early 1980s with its strikes and social unrest, many designers found that their cosy public-sector jobs with local authorities had vanished overnight. Their solution was to be entrepreneurial, to get out there and sell their skills, to set up the new firms that now form the bedrock of the industry. And innovation was rife right across the media – from CNN, lampooned as Chicken Noodle News when it launched in 1980, to MTV – as soft markets yielded to new ways of doing things.

In the downturn of the mid-1970s generated by the oil crisis, designers saw their clients run out of money faster than you could say ‘Watergate’ or ‘Bay City Rollers’. What happened then was a back-to-craft approach. Small studios concentrated on producing excellent work. As for innovation, what a fertile period it was/ both Microsoft and Apple emerged from garages in 1975, for example. Firms like Fedex formed on the basis of chasing lucrative government contracts as the only show in town (in this case, the courier contract for the Federal Reserve in the US). Sounds familiar?

If you were a designer in the early 1930s, after the Wall Street crash, you’ll be fondling your telegram from the Queen now. Congratulations. It’s worth remembering that some enterprises, such as RKO Pictures, did incredibly well in that dustbowl recession, feeding off a public appetite for mindless escapism and glamour. Fortune magazine was launched in 1930, at a time when many bankers were throwing themselves off tall buildings. Now there’s foresight.

What all this tells us is that recessions favour the brave. Whether being brand-efficient, super-entrepreneurial or creatively excellent, designers have always picked themselves up off the floor. I’m banking on you to do it again.

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