An eye for figures

Recent statistics may make for a depressing read, but for some designers 2004 has been a great year. So don't be dismayed by the doom and gloom, says Jason Arber.

According to the latest British Design Initiative (BDI) report, everything went pear-shaped for British design during 2004, with turnover dropping by £1.4 billion from the previous year, a startling dip of 26 per cent. Fee income is down, overseas income is down, regional agency turnover is down... It makes for depressing reading.

But don't despair. It's worth remembering that the numbers only tell part of the story. Yes, they reveal underlying trends in the UK design industry, but what about European design agencies? US agencies? How is design in China faring? The report tentatively suggests that the USA is the top country for exporting services, but how? By sheer turnover, per capita, or what?

Reports such as this can be intensely frustrating, their doom-and-gloom sentiment tailor-made for sensationalist headlines. So you could be forgiven for thinking it's time to hang up your mouse and become a wicker-bottom chair repairer. But hold on there, Sparky. There's plenty more to this than just big, bold type.

Statistical skew

For a start, the 2003/2004 Valuation Survey used an industry base of just 4,000 commercial design agencies, of which only 1,600 completed the survey in full. So there's every chance that the results were skewed in some way. Perhaps agencies that aren't doing very well have the time to answer all the questions? And what of the 2,400 agencies who didn't answer all the questions in full? Which questions did they leave out? And why? Additionally, no distinction was made between different types of design. Engineering design might be bringing the average down, for instance, while other areas, such as branding or design management, might be soaring.

Admittedly, you could level such criticisms at any survey (exit polls during general elections demonstrate this admirably), so I'm not having a pop at the BDI. It's just that these figures shouldn't be taken as the end of the story.

My own experience doesn't necessarily chime with the report. The company I work for is doing rather well and expanding nicely. The company my wife works for is also taking on more staff at the moment, and a quick straw-poll among my designer friends revealed that everything appears to be on the up for them, too.

Tentative conclusions

So what conclusions can we draw from this? On one hand, we have an official report, belching fire and brimstone, and on the other an unprofessional litmus test suggesting that it's too early to put on your best pair of Nikes and climb under the purple sheet.

Many will argue, and I agree with them, that such a survey provides little to go on - it's an interesting yet limited snapshot of what's really happening, the relevance of which will depend largely on your own circumstances. If your company is handing out redundancy notices or the accountant has to wear an oxygen mask, then it's a chilling vindication of something rotten at the heart of UK design. If you're burning the midnight oil and sleeping under your desk because your company has too much work, then you can chuckle to yourself and file the report safely in the recycling bin.

I'm not suggesting that we ignore such findings, or that they're a waste of space, but they are just one of many ways to measure the health of the UK design industry. Boards of directors, government ministers and those charged with shaping company policies and tactics should ignore the other indicators at their peril.