How to export your design skills

The international design market is booming. We investigate how to take your design skills global and win more overseas work.

Landing an international client announces your design business to the world stage. It can open new commercial doors and cement your reputation as a creative force. Yet undertaking any form of international business in a new and unfamiliar market can be a complex affair. From tax implications to IP rights to cultural sensitivities, working with international clients might signal the expansion of your design business, but it isn't without its risks.

It's therefore vital that you not only recognise which global markets are proving the most fertile and are most likely to offer new business, but also that you are equipped with the knowledge of how to undertake creative business in international markets. "There's definitely an increase in international client spend, from our experience. We're working with more international clients now than ever before," says Rose co-founder and creative partner Simon Elliott. "India in particular is currently yielding a lot of exciting opportunities for us."

Rose has produced work for a raft of international clients, and its experience is typical of a reputable UK agency in the current scene. Over the past 15 years, the studio has exported its design expertise to more than 20 countries. It has worked in markets around the world, including China, Brazil and India, and attracted clients as diverse as Japan's Hello Kitty, the Mauritian government and the economic board of development in Bahrain.

A UK reputation

"Like most of our domestic clients, we generally win our foreign business through recommendation and referral," explains Elliott. "But we've also recently been appointed to the inaugural UKTI Creative Sector Taskforce." This is a list of 100 leading creative agencies, specifically created with the aim of promoting UK creativity to more international markets. The government-based initiative aims to land £500 million of creative business from overseas clients this year. The upshot is that preparing for international business and the challenges it involves isn't just advisable for UK creatives - it's becoming critical.

Fundamentally, securing international business is not that different to doing so locally. The big three advertising agencies (Publicis, Interpublic and WPP) now have outposts in all of the major emerging markets - Brazil, Russia, India and China. This, coupled with the superior reputation of UK design, and initiatives like the UKTI Taskforce, means many international clients favour UK-based design businesses. and it shows. The UK creative industries are worth £36 billion a year to the UK economy, and account for around £1 in every £10 of the country's exports.

The UKTI's passport to Export programme offers a range of services to help UK creative businesses succeed overseas. as well as offering a capability assessment and specialist training from export professionals, the programme says it can: "help [businesses] understand the stages of export ... and develop a focused action plan. passport can also help with market selection, market research and support for visits to potential markets."

The opportunity to win new business through government-backed initiatives isn't an option for everyone though. Elliott stresses that Rose wins clients based on its strong creative strategy and reputation for flawless execution. For creatives in countries that don't have access to this kind of government-funded help, word-of-mouth recommendations and a strong portfolio of client work may be the only means of attracting new business.

Portfolio focus

This is the approach taken by Plenty, a Buenos Aires-based design and motion graphics agency founded by Pablo Alfieri and Mariano Farías. Plenty's clients include HBO, Fox and Discovery, and the team has worked on ad campaigns for brands including VW, Schweppes, Vodafone and Chandon - all for international markets. "The truth is we have been very fortunate, and international agencies and clients call us directly to give us work," Alfieri explains. "We haven't had to participate in many international pitches."

Alfieri says securing international work is no different to winning over local clients - it's about reading the brief carefully and delivering a focused pitch. Not being able to present in person, says Alfieri, isn't a drawback in the days of Skype.

While winning work might have become easier, exporting your design expertise to international markets comes with a range of extra demands and measures to be taken. Securing a firm contract is a must before any work is undertaken past pitch stage, and delivery deadlines and payment terms should be agreed beforehand - never assume new clients will pay you in your own currency. If you can, have a lawyer and accountant investigate your tax set-up - or for freelancers or those on a smaller budget, PayPal has an inbuilt currency converter for invoicing.

"Exchange rate fluctuations haven't generally proven a problem in the markets we've been working in," says Elliott, "However, bank charges can be an irritation when sending out multiple invoices, all of which get hit with an individual fee."

He goes on to point out that understanding the particular market you're working in and its export arrangement with your home country is vital. "The double tax treaty the UK has with India [for example] means that 20 per cent on all invoices issued is withheld by the client, in order to ensure tax is recovered by the Indian tax authorities for work being commissioned outside of India," Elliott explains. "Although that 20 per cent is reconciled on our books at the end of the tax year, it effectively means we're carrying a 20 per cent hit on every invoice until then, which can inevitably have an effect on cash flow if the initial invoices are large enough."

Lost in translation

Creatively, working with new international clients takes a little more effort. Your client's first language might not be the same as yours, and you might be asked to produce work that isn't in your native tongue, or perhaps even your native script. If you're working in English, does your client want their copy in US or UK English? What about dialects and regional variations? Thoroughly investigating the audience and the brief for a new international market is absolutely key.

"I try and ask all the questions and voice my concerns up-front. And I ask clients to tell me anything I need to know about," says Yuko Shimizu, a Japanese illustrator and designer based in New York, who works on editorial publications for international clients including Der Spiegel and Deloitte.

"There are definitely general differences in taste. For example, the American editorial illustration market is heavily centred on concept, while the Japanese prefer work that looks, and feels, nice and sweet - they don't care for conceptual work," says Shimizu. If you're hoping to expand into overseas markets, it's well worth taking time out to thoroughly research your new audience. One good way to start, Shimizu suggests, is by looking at jury-curated annuals from your countries of choice.

Agent representation

For many freelance creatives like Shimizu, it's far easier to gain work from the international marketplace than it is for a creative agency to win an overseas account. Illustrators, creative directors, designers and type designers can all gain self-employed work on the international scene through solid representation.

Siggi Eggertsson is one designer who regularly wins international work through his agent. "I've been living in Berlin for the past six years and for some reason I hardly get any commissions here. Almost all of my jobs come from outside of Germany, which is not a bad thing. Usually the people who commission me think what I do is fitting for whatever project they're doing."

Working under an agency sub-contract can have its benefits. For example, it protects you from the main financial exposures brought by working with international clients. However, it can also mean you are lumbered with presenting and responding to client amends.

"The time differences can be a bit annoying, because they can mean shifting into a different time zone and working late hours. But I'm fine with that every now and then," says Eggertsson. "Sometimes all the communication goes through my agent, and it is a bit strange to almost never see your clients face-to-face. However, this does allow me to stay in my creative bubble and focus on the actual work."

Setting up overseas

For agencies and studios on international client rosters, the answer to time zone challenges is obvious - set up an outpost, like Studio Output did in China. Opening a studio in a territory where you do a great deal of business is a huge advantage, and guarantees a degree of client service your business couldn't otherwise offer. For most smaller studios this is something of a pipe dream, but in the meantime, establishing a network of freelancers and contacts you can trust within a new territory can help you secure business.

Of course, no matter how effective your new business leads might be, the fact remains that international clients - like any other - are drawn to strong creative work and intelligent strategy. "Connecting with any audience requires research, understanding and the ability to stand in someone else's shoes in order to fully appreciate their needs and requirements. So working within completely different cultures, ethnicities and religious demographics can present a vertical learning curve," says Elliott. "That said, the clients that we work with internationally buy us for our branding experience and expertise, rather than our local knowledge."

Words: Tom Dennis Illustrations: Charlie Lewis

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 226.