Staying ahead

In the 21st century, design is about more than clever solutions to difficult briefs. With mounting competition from the East, professional development is set to play an increasing role in the future success of the UK design industry, argues David Worthing

I want you to take an interest in improving your skills. I want you to read this supplement cover to cover. I want you to spend time and money becoming more competitive, and I want you to do this because I want our industry to continue to lead the world.

I accept that making the effort to become more skilled is not the most exciting thing to do. There are no new typefaces to consider, no wonderful images to design, no illuminating strategies. The time spent becoming better skilled will feel more akin to doing the housekeeping than facing the challenge of a new brief.

While there is no doubt that being more skilled is a jolly good thing to be, the whole subject comes across as worthy, well intended and, to some extent, a little out of date.

Say the word ‘skills’ to yourself and your brain’s thesaurus automatically generates words like artisan, crafts, trade, worker, apprentice – comforting words that suggest an ability to produce honest things in a recessionary world. No bad thing, but more akin to the fading world of art-worker and draughtsman, than the present reality of brand strategist and design manager.

Nonetheless, putting skills on your agenda will prove essential to your survival.

There are two reasons for this: first, the only way to work on more interesting (and better-paid) design projects is to be sharper than your competition; and second, if you don’t continuously improve your skills, then your consultancy (and your job) probably won’t exist in the future – your rivals will have taken it.

Today, ‘competitors’ largely means other UK design consultancies. Little wonder, since we probably have the best design industry in the world; the global design brands are nearly all British, our reputation is respected around the world and our work is vibrant and profitable – for us, and our clients.

The reach and the impact of UK designers are extraordinary; from icons like the iPod to an industry that exported £11.6bn in turnover, at the Design Council’s last count. There’s something in Britain’s water that will always ensure that the likes of Apple’s Jonathan Ive thrive, but there’s also something happening in Beijing and Mumbai that is dead set on ensuring that those cities get a slice of that action.

Girish Wagh, Nikhil Jadhav and Siva Aittili are not yet as well known as Ive, Tom Dixon and Ian Callum. But the engineer and two Indian-trained industrial designers work for Tata, which owns Jaguar Land Rover, and they’ve designed a small car called the Nano. It’s being built in India, will be for sale for a little more than £1000 and, at that price, there’ll be quite a lot of them, quite soon.

Have our new competitors Wagh, Jadhav and Aittili produced something comparable to Callum’s work at Aston Martin and Jaguar? No, but bearing in mind that Jadhav and Aittili were only 25 years old when the project started, it’s hardly surprising, and it’s an impressive first effort.

Today, the Nano’s design ethic is simply about being basic (and being built by workers who only earn £3800 a year). However, fast forward and view the same object with a different propulsion system, cleverer ideas and smarter materials, and the shift from just being incredibly cheap to being cheap and seminal is easy to imagine.

Nor would you regard the Nano car as beautiful. Cheerful, perhaps, but beautiful, no. But then who’s to say that current consumer aesthetics, which are dominated by Western taste, will stay that way? As economic power shifts East, so probably might the world’s notion of beauty, and with that comes the threat that a significant slice of our UK design industry will follow.

Consider some of the facts. China has an estimated 1400 design schools feeding more than 50 000 communication agencies, and India is proudly positioning the label ‘Designed in India’ as a marque of quality. Meanwhile, UK colleges are educating increasing numbers of overseas students – the figure grew by 32 per cent between 2002 and 2004 alone. How soon before the Design Week Top 100 includes Indian and Chinese consultancies, alongside those of British origin that have become Indian- and Chinese-owned? My guess is within the next five years.

This is not a xenophobic perspective. In fact, training overseas designers in ‘British’ design is a huge part of our revenue stream and reputation-building. Nevertheless, being aware of new global competitors, as well as long-standing local ones, will ensure that we learn from the lessons of the past.

UK design is not a nostalgic idea, and does not revolve around the 1966 World Cup football team, a once great car industry or inventions sold cheaply. Instead, we are a relevant and contemporary industry that is delivering enjoyment and benefit to ourselves and to UK plc, and, as long as we invest in the skills of our workforce, we shall continue to do so.

So, I urge you to read this publication, think about its messages, how to apply them to your working life and how to stay ahead of the game.

David Worthington is chairman of Media Square’s Design Division and vice-chairman of the UK Design Skills Alliance

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