It was a canny move by Royal College of Art rector Christopher Frayling to host last week’s Design Focus seminar at the RCA. Coinciding with the college’s design and communications degree show, the event inevitably put civil servants and other people of influence face to face with the graduates’ work, showing the range of areas design can cover.
Frayling was acting in his role of chairman of the Design Industry Consultative Group for Exports and the focus of the session was just that. With an audience comprising largely civil servants working on the foreign desks at the Department of Trade and Industry, eminent design industry speakers did a great job of packaging UK design as a powerful export – something successive governments have tried to push.
Trade minister Brian Wilson spoke glowingly of the 80 per cent of design groups which export their skills and the £12bn the industry is worth to the UK economy. Design Council figures show that design exports represent a quarter of the total for UK consultancy services. But export is surely best when it is built on a thriving national industry, and that isn’t true for all sectors of design.
According to Red or Dead founder Wayne Hemingway, the UK “fails miserably” to export UK fashion products, largely because the fashion industry doesn’t know how to be competitive. We produce great fashion designers like John Galliano and Stella McCartney, whose value is better appreciated abroad. British creativity is, he says, an international brand that isn’t reaching its potential.
As for product design, six years ago Seymour Powell was selling 100 per cent of its expertise abroad. Now it exports a mere 70 per cent. But if you consider that its fee-income for 1998 was £1.5m (DW 26 March), it doesn’t amount to much investment by UK manufacturers in one of the country’s best creative resources.
The other side of it is that smaller groups such as Johnson Banks which don’t push exports, might not want to service jobs abroad. It would change their culture radically. But they might benefit from a high-profile campaign to UK businesses to use design to boost performance.
The Government has various initiatives to promote design – not least Jane Priestman’s work with Civil Service procurement folk. But the balance between pushing design as an export and building UK confidence in it is out of kilter in some sectors. A comprehensive strategy is called for, before we sell off all our design assets to overseas competitors.