Reasons to be cheerful

You might be surprised that in times like these, when we supposedly face widespread economic retrenchment and a variety of social and environmental threats, graduating art and design students from the Royal College of Art should be offered optimistic advice. Yet this is what came out of a discussion on 3 June 2010, entitled ‘Fasten Your Seatbelts: Innovation and the Future’.

Four expert panellists in forecasting, design and procurement all agreed that the present moment, with all its difficulties and challenges, should not be considered as exceptional. Rather, it was, in the words of Melanie Howard, co-founder of the Future Foundation, the ‘new normal’. ‘Things are always uncertain,’ agreed Sarah Weir, Head of Arts and Cultural Strategy for the Olympic Delivery Authority.

Their optimism stemmed from personal experience, as survivors and thrivers. Product designer Paul Priestman of Priestmangoode, for instance, graduated during the recession of the 1970s, starting his professional career working out of his bedroom. But each panellist also noted significant trends in the way that art and design are commissioned. These suggested that opportunities for work were not so much drying up as changing their face.

Priestman observed a shift to in-house design, inspired by the example of Apple – although Roger Mavity, chief executive of the Conran Group, felt that any such shift might be reversed if companies found themselves needing to cut permanent costs. Along with this was a move for companies to procure design not in isolation but as part of major infrastructure improvements.

Boundaries between design with engineering and other disciplines have dissolved, with exciting consequences, and many other disciplinary boundaries, especially into the social sciences, remain to be tackled for design to be fully engaged with users’ interests. Melanie Howard hoped to see advances in socially inclusive design and more broadly in social innovations and enterprise involving communities.

These shifts give designers a chance to show how their work can be more relevant than ever in straitened circumstances. Priestman noted a worrying sign, though, that environmental concerns seem to have been pushed down the agenda – perhaps leaving it up to designers to ensure they are not forgotten altogether.

The designer’s role now shouldn’t be just to help us get by, but to help us ‘thrive on less’. The political context may not be unhelpful either. The coalition parties’ manifestoes hinted at policies to streamline the research and innovation framework. It is well known that the creative sector grew substantially faster than the overall economy over the last decade, and, with the difficulties in the financial sector, it is likely to continue to grow disproportionately fast.

So while jobs on a plate in art and design might be hard to find, there is still great opportunity – even if it is perhaps up to the designer to find and state that opportunity. Some areas do prosper in hard times – essential products that solve real problems better, whether they are toothbrushes or high-speed trains. ‘There will be areas that need creative solutions more than ever,’ said Sarah Weir. The public sector, healthcare industry and the growing elderly population were all mentioned as areas in need of such attention.

The exhortation was for graduates to get on with it. ‘You can waste time worrying about things you can’t change,’ said Roger Mavity. ‘Focus your energies where you can change things.’ As long as they are practical and affordable, clients may well be more willing to look at ‘brave, iconoclastic solutions under the pressure of reality’. Graduates must have no illusions about what they really are: ‘Bright young people work harder and are cheaper because they’ve got a point to prove.’ You may think you are selling your services cheaply, but in doing so you are potentially gaining a friend, influence, contacts and of course enlarging your portfolio of completed projects. Other panellists echoed the importance of hard work, self-belief and a certain ruthlessness in developing contacts and going after work, even to the point of risking coming across as ‘unreasonable’. It’s not about innate talent, it’s about drive. ‘If you want it more, you’ll probably get it more,’ as Mavity concluded.