Designer Breakfasts

Designer Breakfasts (Theme for 2011: ‘Telling the truth’)

Sue Evans writes: Early last year John Simmons and I met Designer Breakfasts organisers Amanda Tatham and Mike Abrahams to discuss a joint project with writers from 26. Designer Breakfasts have been running since 2004 and provide a forum where people from the creative industries can share inspirational stories and insights into best practice.

The upshot was a 26 member would attend each of the 2011 breakfasts and write a response to what was said, with the intention of continuing to spark debate after the event. The result is a collection of varied pieces by ten writers to the 2011 discussions series, based on “telling the truth”. The theme came from entrepreneur and then Design Council member Bonnie Dean speaking at a breakfast in 2010, where she remarked that in her experience designers tell the truth. The talks held at BBH were a mix of panel discussions and individual presentations by industry luminaries such as Wally Olins and Richard Seymour.

I went to the first event in January 2011, responding to a panel discussion by speakers on the business outlook for the year. Would my words make me a hostage to fortune I wondered? Sue Evans


Designer Breakfasts, January 27 2011: Is 2010 your worst year on record, or surprisingly upbeat? What’s your outlook for 2011?

Chair: Simon Sholl, brand strategist. Speakers: Simon Rucker, head of strategy, seymourpowell; Amalia Brightley-Hodges, Brightley-Hodges Associates; Jamie Ellul, Magpie Studio; Heidi Lightfoot, creative director, Together Design.

No special pleading here, thanks!

At the first Designer Breakfast of 2011 we heard tales of survival, rebirth, adroitness and nerve from four speakers running creative businesses in difficult times. As breakfast co-founder Mike Abrahams reminded us, latest UK figures showed a fall in economic growth to 0.3 per cent and VAT had risen to 20 per cent. A double-dip recession or period of stagflation could still be on the cards. But despite the gloomy outlook, resolution was undimmed as January drew to a close.

Barely a month earlier the mood was markedly different at another breakfast event I attended at the headquarters of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in London’s Belgrave Square. There, representatives from a wide gamut of creative industries, including advertising, design, music, film, video games and digital arts, as well as Higher Education, gathered for the launch of a report by The Work Foundation[i]. The report gave a bleak warning that the UK creative industries – defined as engaging in acts of origination and expressive value – were facing a creative block and without Government support could falter, potentially holding back growth, innovation and economic recovery.

Listening to the four panellists at January’s breakfast it was clear some had fared better than others in 2010 but they all showed an impressive determination to get on with the job. There was no special pleading, no help requested from the public purse nor was it considered an option. Rather than Government providing a springboard, we heard public sector cuts had already put a dampener on revenues. Simon Drucker from Seymourpowell described how another Loewy Group member dependent on Government department contracts saw two thirds of its income disappear in one week. Together Design’s Heidi Lightfoot brandishing a diagram (in an otherwise Powerpoint-free zone) illustrated how clients from the arts, who had typically accounted for 20 per cent of the agency’s business, had all but vanished by the end of last year.

I am not an economist but understand the principle of allocating scarce resources between competing ends, and the opposing models of free markets and central planning that determine what is made, for whom and at what price. With its many small businesses and one-man bands, the UK design industry has always struck me as a close approximation of a perfectly competitive market. Economist and FT columnist John Kay in his book The Truth about Markets[ii] gives us a definition: “there are many potential buyers and sellers of each commodity, such as apples. All apples are the same. Or perhaps all Granny Smith apples are the same.” Protagonists, whether buying or selling, are deemed to be “materialistic and self-regarding”. Drawing a parallel between design businesses and competitive markets is predicated on design being akin to a commodity which I imagine won’t go down well everywhere, despite Kay’s suggestion that homogeneity even among apples is difficult to achieve.

Let’s revisit what people said. For Simon Drucker the design side of Seymourpowell suffers from what he termed “Eastern globalisation” – the things they did very well when the company was founded in 1984 are now done by people in East Asia “almost as well for a tenth of the price.” The consultancy set up their strategic arm Foresight, currently run by Simon, about 10 years ago to head off this trend and get closer to decision makers in client businesses. Looking back at the now defunct design company Still Waters Run Deep, Amalia Brightley-Hodges recalled design was a struggling part of the business and what clients really wanted was marketing advice, which they were usually given for free as part of the design package. Now reborn as Brightley-Hodges Associates, the company offers family businesses strategic consultancy services, including marketing, internal communications and PR, where design is in effect a bi-product.

Going back to John Kay, he also says “The competitive market economy selects for the distinctive capabilities of its firms[iii],” acknowledging modern market economies cannot be perfectly competitive in the real world. Instead he suggests a form of “disciplined pluralism” exists where rival firms pursue differentiated strategies, which have to be innovative and responsive to customer needs in order to succeed. If Seymourpowell’s and Brightley-Hodges Associates’ means of differentiating themselves is via an in-depth consultancy offering, then Magpie Studio has a focus on craft, and Together Design builds enduring client relationships alongside producing well targeted work.

Where does that leave telling the truth? Chair Simon Sholl suggested designers are “jesters in the court”, privileged to tell the truth as they see it. Here’s a round up of what we were privy to on the day. Jamie Ellul and Heidi Lightfoot shared commercially sensitive information about new business wins and client dependencies. Amalia Brightley-Hodges spoke about the trauma of her mother Anita’s former company going into voluntary liquidation and then starting again from scratch. Simon Rucker criticised designers’ inability to engage with client problems at a deep enough level using the analogy: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail”.

I wondered about Simon Rucker’s assertion that design is solely a commercial activity and not art. There are companies (I would count Apple[iv] among them) who are searching for the elusive quality art can contribute to their reputation by signalling a certain detachment from the commercial arena. Whether this is true or not is another matter. Continuing with the economics approach, I suggest Magpie’s pro bono work has taken them on a detour from the market economy to the gift economy. There they have found the freedom to develop their ideas and create interesting work which has benefitted their clients, and been picked up by companies such as Apple via industry blogs and award wins.

Another economist Hans Abbing, also an artist, sums up the dilemma of art per se coming to Apple’s (or any company’s) aid: “In order to maintain their high status the arts reject commercial values and deny the economy[v].” Gone are the days when artists like Salvador Dali designed logos for consumables such as Chupa Chups lollipops. Instead it’s talented designers like Jamie Ellul who are more able than artists to cross the art/design divide. To suggest design is just the formulaic outcome of understanding a client’s business objectives is missing something, I think.

Back at the IPA in December we were told the creative industries account for more than seven per cent of the UK economy, a greater proportion than in any other country, and reminded of the structural risk inherent in the sector since many companies tend to be small businesses. Rather than funding tax breaks, maybe the Government should abandon its proposed removal of teaching subsidies for arts and humanities in Higher Education. Otherwise the creative industries stand to face a skills shortage (as is already happening in video games[vi]) with not enough high calibre graduates joining the workforce. We also heard the plea to organise and speak with one voice. John Kay has something to say on this as well: “co-ordination without a co-ordinator is the extraordinary genius of market economies[vii].” For Kay markets work because, “there is never a single voice.[viii]

January’s speakers told us about the need to remain flexible, to be able to downsize temporarily if necessary, and their reliance on a contingent of freelancers “always paid promptly” willing to work on short-term contracts or become “permalancers”. If we imagine an aerial view, we can see the flux almost like watching a quadrille: the coming together of people in creative endeavours and the many small allegiances formed. Design epitomises a collective spirit and an unselfish goodwill between individuals, firms and clients. We probably wouldn’t want it any other way.


You can watch the video of this Designer Breakfast here.

By Sue Evans

[i] Reid B., Albert A. and Hopkins L., A Creative Block? The Future of the UK Creative Industries. London, The Work Foundation, 2010.

[ii] Kay J., The Truth About Markets. Their Genius, Their Limits, Their Follies. London, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 2003.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Apple with an upper case ‘A’ as opposed to the fruit mentioned earlier. Interestingly, when Apple started in 1976 they wanted to sell computers as if they were everyday commodities such as apples.

[v] Abbing H., Why are artists poor? The exceptional economy of the arts. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2002.

[vi] Livingstone I. and Hope A., Next Gen. Transforming the UK into the world’s leading talent hub for the video games and visual effects industries. London, NESTA, 2011.

[vii] Kay, op.cit.

[viii] Ibid.

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