The value of design

In a spare 5 minutes yesterday, I got round to reading those emails that had been sitting filed under ‘Read / Review’ for months, and one of them really got my attention. It was a newsletter from the BDI (British Design Innovation) about the effect the ‘Credit Crunch’ may be having on the design industry.

The email’s first paragraph touched briefly on what we in the industry all know so far – projects are stalling, being postponed or canned, coupled with news of agencies going into liquidation or making redundancies across the UK.

But what really interested me about the email was that it went on to propose that the woes of the design sector are being exacerbated by what the BDI described as inappropriate competition from universities, along with devaluing practices from RDAs, Business Link and even the Design Council itself – an organisation set up to champion the value of design to businesses.

The BDI highlights the fact that universities are setting up design studios and utilising public sector funds to offer subsidised, and some would say, under-par design services to SMEs in their region. The knock-on effect of this, they claim, is that it is equally affecting the careers of their paying design students, as more agencies, for reasons of confidentiality, are refusing to offer work placements to students where their university is now potentially in direct competition with them.

The BDI’s issue with the RDAs and Business Link lies with subsidised schemes these organisations are offering for design services that are setting a value of around £500 per day, regardless of discipline, sector, experience, IP or any other criteria.

Marketing material, they say, comes out of government funded organisations with selling points such as “gain 5 days design consultancy worth up to £2500.” The perception promoted therefore, they say, is that design is a commodity service worth these prices and these prices alone, and this is a complete contradiction to the message the government is trying to promote: that design thinking and design itself are integral to innovation in the UK’s SME’s and should be invested in at the appropriate fee.

The RDAs have also launched Innovation Vouchers inviting SMEs to spend £3k on services. The BDI claims that some universities are promoting Innovation Vouchers via marketing materials stating to industry that they ‘don’t need to use expensive third party services’ – meaning do not engage with private sector design companies.

Ultimately, the point of the BDI’s email is that design firms are literally being starved out of the market and at the same time have to listen to politicians talking about design thinking and design’s value to business.

The BDI states that the design industry needs to consider the following in an effort to strengthen it’s position:

  • The private design sector needs to make itself and it’s skill base more visible and accessible;
  • Stand up and be counted – don’t just express frustration in private, down the pub or solely between peers;
  • Take note of what is happening in the name of the industry and join forces to conclude a professional practice position of balanced benefit to itself, government and industry;
  • Take control over it’s intellectual property position and understand that in many cases, the value design brings to industry is in the IP it generates for business;
  • Recognise that much of what is happening is not based on bad intent by these organisations, but is a consequence of the design industry not working to a professional framework or the chartered status many other professionals work to.

Okay, so it concluded in a sales pitch for BDI membership, but how many of us out there have seen much, if not all, of the practices the BDI’s email outlines?

I wholeheartedly agree that much of the blame lies with us, the industry’s practitioners. For years now there has been an influx of anyone who can work a computer and understand Dreamweaver / Photoshop / Quark / delete as applicable, setting up stall as a web / graphic / branding designer or whatever. The dot com crash of a few years ago weeded out some of the men from the boys when it came to digital, but the low cost of setting up in business as a freelancer / agency, redundancies and frustration with the agency working environment, has driven more and more people into the business side of design. Would professional accreditation weed out the £500 websites and companies offering free logo design?

I look at much of what is happening in this current financial madness and I question how many businesses that seem to be failing to survive this economic crisis could still be around if they fully understood my favourite word, innovation? And I fully believe we, as an industry, are one of the most guilty of failing to understand innovation within our own practices – hence why there are so many ‘me too’ agencies out there – yet we’re brilliant at solving our client’s business problems in some truly ingenious ways…

Is coupling innovation with a more professional approach how we can take on these organisations the BDI is claiming are entering into unfair competition with us? Will it help to ensure that clients understand the value of design and continue to buy the services of those of us who practice it professionally at a price that is right?

…what do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *