Even a cursory look at design since World War II reveals developments that have altered the sector beyond recognition. It now includes hundreds of small consultancies as well as the larger, more established outfits. In addition, design work has become increasingly complex, with more and more designers perceiving themselves as brand strategists, capable of offering integrated solutions to identity problems rather than simply bolting on visuals.
The past ten years, in particular, have seen the industry mature, with a move away from the adolescent mid-Eighties “designer label” mentality to a more responsible and organised thirtysomething approach.
Amanda Connolly, managing director of Coley Porter Bell, says: “The industry now has to understand clients’ business and strategic issues, not simply present wacky creative solutions. Branding is approached in a holistic way.”
The Bamber Forsyth principal Philip Mann agrees: “The focus now is less on creating new identities and more on managing existing identities better. Most companies are experiencing increasing competition both within and outside their own sectors. In this environment it is not sufficient to own a name, logo and specific colours that ensure recognition. Companies are now coming to us for a whole visual language in which to communicate across the board and express a distinct personality. By using the power of the individual elements of their communication, they can move forward from simply informing to creating a relationship.”
Vicky Sargent was the first chief executive of the Design Business Association, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year. Now an independent marketing and business development consultant, Sargent sees a trend towards better run businesses: “After the boom and bust years of the Eighties, design companies now use systems to help them run their businesses. Tighter financial controls are kept and the whole approach is more sophisticated.”
Another expression of recession-driven maturity is the new awareness that design effectiveness can be measured. The Design Effectiveness Awards set up by the Design Business Association have become a watchword for creative quality and have done much to raise awareness of the measurable power of design.
Design & Art Direction director David Kester comments: “There is more linkage between creative excellence and business effectiveness than before. Even four or five years ago, no one would have thought D&AD would link up with the DBA to share exhibition space and produce literature, and so forth. We launched a new initiative at the end of November, called Twin Peaks, to show the connections between DBA and D&AD winners. This shows once and for all that creative design is more effective design.”
Client companies too show a far greater awareness of what design can do for them than they did in the past. Says Connolly: “Clients have a more holistic approach than they used to. Their brief is often about the communications mix for their brand. Though a solution may come down to a pack design in the end, a broader picture will be considered first. Ten years ago we were still in the days when a client might do some design if they found they didn’t have enough money for an advertisement. Now things are much more sophisticated.”
Kester adds: “The fact that all the big networks have bought in or set up design companies shows their acceptance of the strategic importance of the medium. We are seeing more and more design-led brand positioning and launches.”
John Sorrell, chairman of the agency Newell & Sorrell, which was recently awarded a highly publicised account by British Airways, says: “More and more companies are aware of how design can give them a competitive edge and be instrumental in building of new products and markets. They are aware of how potent this resource can be for them – how managing an effective identity can revitalise organisations, motivate staff and increase consumer understanding.”
The new level of client understanding can be seen in all areas of the industry, from literature and packs to corporate identity and interior design. Packaging, for example, is no longer seen as the label on a box or bottle. Clients expect designers to create a whole and integrated look, combining shape with colour and graphics and taking into account all aspects of a brand’s positioning and heritage.
Environmental considerations are also taken into account. Duracell now packages its batteries in cardboard “K” packs that can be recycled, rather than the blister packs as in previous years.
James Haggar was once a senior designer and creative director at Michael Peters and XMPR. In 1995 he set up his own business, Studio Haggar. “In the mid-Eighties clients often went for a very me-too approach, copying successful interiors like Next’s and hoping that it would work for them. But that’s like borrowing someone’s spectacles; it’s just not a tailored solution,” he says.
Despite clients’ improved perceptions, designers at the sharp end still say they regularly come across lack of understanding and scepticism. Many say that, despite design company efforts to appear simultaneously creative and businesslike, clients still make a distinction between the small, wacky creative hot-shots and safe larger outfits.
Haggar says: “Design is still not taken any more seriously than in the Eighties.”
Richard Williams recently left Design Bridge, the design consultancy he founded ten years ago. He believes designers have lost confidence and, with the exception of standards of service, which he thinks have improved, remains largely unimpressed with developments over the past decade. “During the recession, the bubble burst and design lost its way. Since then, self-confidence has been at a low ebb and now there are very few good marketers and a lot of bean counters. Twenty years ago big companies like Rodney Fitch, Wolff Olins and Allied International Designers were like the universities of the design business. But since Wickens Tutt Southgate no bright, exciting businesses have been set up. Good people are not coming into it.”
The lack of talent coming into the industry is certainly the problem most often cited by designers talking about recent changes.
Vicky Sargent, who set up numerous training schemes during her time at the DBA, sums up the situation: “Over the past ten years there has been a huge expansion in the number of design students at universities across the country, but, unfortunately, no parallel expansion of resources. There are far more students and simply not enough jobs for them; and those that do enter the industry do not seem to have sufficient skills.”
Perhaps the greatest changes have come through technological developments. The use of computers is now widespread and information technology can speed up the process of producing alternative looks and prototyping. But even the great advances have brought some problems with them.
Design Bridge creative director Tim Perkins says: “There is an assumption that technology can create things faster; but designers still need to think and thinking time hasn’t changed. Effectiveness may even be cut back as clients expect work to be done more quickly.”
Williams says: “Computers are marvellously powerful, but we are still not using their full potential. Designers are still tending to see them as a substitute for a drawing board.”
Despite negative soundings, most of those involved in the design industry believe the recession has forged a leaner, more effective and more mature business. John Sorrel is among those who think that UK designers are poised to make a huge contribution to the way the country is perceived. “The opportunities for designers to make the most of skill and experiences to help themselves and the country to be seen as innovative and exciting are in front of us. They should be grabbed with both hands,” he says.