UK design in trouble

Tony Blair may have dragged the UK into an illegal war, undermined faith in the democratic process and driven morale in many public services to rock bottom levels, but as he finally leaves office he does leave behind a legacy of spearheading Britain’s shift to a knowledge-based creative economy. Who says? Well, to be honest, mainly Blair himself together with his supporters such as Lord Puttnam who claimed that the UK was transformed from an “island of coal surrounded by fish” to “an island of creativity surrounded by a sea of understanding”.

The evidence, however, does not stack up, and in particular the UK’s design industry is beginning to exhibit some acute structural vulnerabilities. Those of us who have an interest in design education and the future of design in the UK need to carefully assess the implications of recent studies and commentaries that suggest a potentially bleak future for the UK’s creative industries if current problems are not addressed.

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In their book Fantasy Island, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson describe the state of Bullshit Britain – the country that has begun to believe the post-industrial hype that obscures its significant economic problems. “So what is Britain good at?” they ask, “where does the UK fit in this world of changing economic geography, in which nations will increasingly concentrate on the things they do best? The answer is simple. We count the money and we do the bullshit.”

An extract of their book is online at The Guardian website. Here is a section from it:

“In the days of Cool Britannia back in the late 90s, Blair called the UK the ‘design workshop of the world’, while three years later, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport noted that ‘Britain is a top exporter of design worldwide and many design consultancies earn a significant portion of income from work outside Britain’. Not, however, as much as they did. Overseas earnings from design fell from £1.4bn in 2001/2 to £699m in 2004/5, while the number of people employed in the design workshop of the world fell from 82,000 in 2000/1 to 71,000 four years later…. Some of the claims made for the new knowledge economy are nothing more than hype, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of the creative industries. There are three times as many people working in domestic service as there are in advertising, television, video games, film, the music business and design combined; the creative industries represent around one in 20 of the people working in Britain today.”

Recent data and research strengthens this case. The British Design Industry Valuation Survey 2005 to 2006 makes the following points:

  • Turnover for the industry has seen a 6% fall on last years figures, from £4.6bn to £4.3bn
  • Growth this year has been in the mid-sized companies, suggesting that smaller, newer companies and freelancers are struggling.
  • 2005/2006 employee numbers are down overall by 8.4%

The Government’s own Creative Industries Economic Estimates contains statistics on gross value added, exports, employment and numbers of businesses within the Creative Industries. This shows that whereas the creative industries accounted for 7.3% of Gross Value Added in 2004 (as compared to 7.8% in 2000), only 0.5% of that comes from the design industry (a 50% drop from 2000, when the contribution was 1%).

Nesta’s recent report Creating growth: How the UK can develop world-class creative businesses argues how “the UK’s creative industries are facing increasing international competition. In particular, creative businesses and policymakers need to appreciate the scale of the competitive challenges now facing these sectors in the UK.”

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One key factor that creates vulnerability in the smaller design firms are a lack of business and entrepreneurial skills. This is highlighted by the report Creating Entrepreneurship: entrepreneurship education for the creative industries published in May 2007 by the ADM-HEA Subject Centre. It argues as follows: “The creative industries account for more than seven per cent of the UK economy. But many are now struggling in the face of unprecedented overseas competition. Stronger entrepreneurship education is needed to equip graduates with the skills to create commercial opportunities for themselves – and to contribute to the growth of larger, more sustainable businesses.”

Last week in the House of Lords, Lord Patel raised this issue in a debate on the creative industries:

“Despite their growth, in the UK creative industries related to design remain a cottage industry dominated by small businesses that are also very young. The sector is unable to take up the new opportunities offered by sustainable design. Design graduates need business and financial planning skills, which they are not taught adequately because of the lack of resources. Postgraduate courses are needed, and Cox’s report recommended them in order to create design-literate managers and business-literate designers. It is important that the Government recognise that more funding is required at higher education levels and at universities if we are to see greater growth in the creative industries so that they can make a greater contribution to economic growth.”

I for one would not disagree that more funding for higher education would help in addressing this. But in addition we require actions on a number of levels. First, we should acknowledge the spin, hype and bullshit that has obscured the reality of the creative economy, and take a long hard look at the emerging data on its structural weaknesses. Second, we must address the requirements of management for design and design management for the small firms sector: this we must place more firmly on the educational agenda. And third we must explore more fully the business tools required by the design industry, as my colleagues Tom Inns and Emma Murphy are doing. We should also be doing this much more on a European level rather than limiting our perspectives to those of the UK.

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