Gaining an edge

Our research shows clients value design expertise above strategic input, so why – with increasingly strong foreign competition – is professional development still not being taken seriously in the UK? Lynda Relph-Knight looks at the facts behind the figure

The UK design community is apathetic about boosting its skills to meet the challenges from overseas competitors. At least, that was the picture before the ‘credit crunch’ shook its foundations, according to research carried out by Design Week and independent research organisation YouGov last autumn, and we have no reason to believe the scenario has changed over the past couple of months.

That said, most of the clients trawled put great stock by design rather than strategy in the future. Some 53 per cent said they saw the generation of visual work as the main activity for designers working in, or for, their business over the next three years, with only 31 per cent saying they’d be looking to designers to give strategic advice on brands or products. Interestingly, more than half of clients said they expected to see their design work being increasingly handled in-house.

Just under a third of clients value an integrated marketing services approach. But independent consultancies can take some joy from the fact that 66 per cent of clients said they prefer to work with a series of hand-picked specialists than the bigger one-stop-shop consultancies.

What clients are looking for primarily when they hire designers is creativity, with 78 per cent of clients saying it was very important to them. Sustainability is seen as important by more than half of respondents, with 74 per cent seeing service design, rather than purely visual work, as a growth area going forward.

Other attributes clients are increasingly looking to design groups to provide include business skills such as strategy, and, particularly, negotiation, which was deemed important or very important going forward by 82 per cent of client respondents. Technical skills are valued by 88 per cent of clients.

UK designers tend to think they are unbeatable worldwide. But that is not necessarily the case – and it is not just the global superstars that are picking up the international briefs. Of the clients questioned by YouGov, a third said they work with overseas design consultancies already. While location and cost-saving were inevitably cited by almost half of these, 45 per cent also gave the skill-base of overseas groups as a reason for shopping abroad.

Designers, however, seem loath to address this issue. Few of those questioned were able to talk about a training budget at all. Of those who could, 21 per cent said they spend less than £500 a head on training each year, 13 per cent spend £500 to £1000 a head and a mere 8 per cent spend £1000 to £1500. Just over half of respondents said they devoted between one and eight hours a month to training of any sort.

Ironically, though, 55 per cent of respondents said that on-going training forms part of their staff appraisal system.

There is a general lack of knowledge, too, about organisations that provide training in the creative industries, be it for business or craft skills, and not much respect for the quality of training provided by those that are identified.

In terms of business and marketing skills, some 80 per cent of consultancy respondents are unaware of the training offered by the Design Business Association, despite the high reputation of its formal courses among DBA members, the Chartered Society of Designers and British Design Innovation. A similar percentage is ignorant of training offered by recruitment consultancies specialising in design or institutions such as the London Business School or the Royal Institute of British Architects, and there was a general apathy about provisions for craft skills, too.

The outcome of the survey suggests we need a culture shift within design for professional development to be taken seriously. If UK design is to meet the challenge from overseas counterparts that Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Government-backed initiatives such as the UK Design Skills Alliance identify for the immediate future, it needs to tackle the issue head on.

Consultancy heads need to invest more in formal training for their teams or encourage staff to engage more in informal methods such as lectures, exhibitions and other events. The fact that a third of clients questioned already look abroad for creative work makes it all the more urgent.

There are huge opportunities for industry bodies such as the DBA and D&AD to push what are deemed excellent training programmes – by the few who have encountered them – beyond their memberships. Recruitment consultancies and others, meanwhile, need to communicate their training offers better to the design community at large.

Credit crunch notwithstanding, the industry needs a strategy through which to move forward. The likes of the Design Council and UK Design Skills Alliance are working hard to improve the standard of design education in schools, colleges and within the industry, but professional development should be largely in the hands of design practitioners. If clients see a need there, consultancies should, too.

What We Did:
Research organisation YouGov sent separate questionnaires to consultancies on Design Week’s circulation list and to clients from both Design Week’s and sister publication Marketing Week’s circulation lists. Though each was tailored for its audience, and differed in detail, the gist of both questionnaires was the strength of the current skill-base within UK design and what will be required within the next three years. We also asked both parties what they think of the professional development courses and events offered by various creative industry bodies. WHAT WE DID

Of the 836 respondents, some 50% work in UK design consultancies, 25% lead or work on in-house design teams and 25% are on the client side, commissioning design as part of their role. Though responses came from across the board of design disciplines, print, branding and interaction design were most strongly represented.

Key Findings:
• A third of clients already look abroad for design work. Of these, 45% cite skills as a reason
• Clients are looking mainly for creativity when buying design. Business skills are, however, seen as an attribute they might value more in the future
• Designers are largely ignorant of training open to them
• Designers have a relatively low regard for formal courses on offer to them

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  • Caroline Robinson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Please, please ask recruiters/companies to put their location of the post down…

    It saves a lot of time, scrolling through job offers only to find they are in Newcastle or Leeds (I’m in Falmouth, Cornwall).

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