It's hardly been a vintage 12 months, and much of the creative industry will be glad to see the back of 2004. But what's around the corner? And what will you need to do to keep yourself ahead in 2005, asks Dom Hall
Admittedly, the design industry has pulled itself up by its trainer laces since the dot.com bust but it turns out that 2004 was a pretty shocking year financially too. Turnover in the UK commercial design sector fell by 26 per cent over 2003, average fees slipped by 13 per cent, we saw a wave of redundancies -and a worrying trend towards agencies of all sizes competing on price rather than ideas.
The good news? While such findings (collated from information supplied by 1,600 UK design agencies to trade association the British Design Initiative for its annual survey) certainly make depressing reading, those working at the sharp end of the design industry believe they can see light at the end of the tunnel.
"Things have to get better because they certainly can't get any worse," says Maxine Horn, chief executive of the British Design Initiative (BDI). "This slump has been driven by a number of things over the last three years, such as the dot.com crash and business confidence after 9/11, but people haven't re-built their confidence. They're stuck in a price war and haven't recovered."
While this may seem bad enough, Horn also points to recent research carried out by Remedy Brand Consultants into comparative hourly fees charged by different types of businesses during 2004. This, she believes, shows that the value placed on creative and design work is disappearing from the radar.
"Remedy found a freelance designer charges around £35 to £50 an hour and a design agency £65, while a hairdresser charges £70 to £200 for a cut and colour," Horn continues. "So it appears that a hairdressing salon can earn more for a service, the results of which may last two months, than a design consultancy creating products, trademarks and branding that could potentially last a lifetime."
If the BDI's findings are true - note that the survey only accounts for the experiences of part of the wider industry - things will need to change in 2005. But is it really time to switch off your computer and start thinking about a new career?
Time for a change
Stephen Gray, managing director at digital design group Stickee, believes not. He says business levels for his company have actually been good during 2004, but that it has been harder to win. He says clients are no longer willing to throw money into a project without some guarantee of a tangible return. If they are spending money on a website, they're less likely to be pleased with a straight-ahead online presence. Now they want to know exactly what the site is likely to produce for them.
"Although client spending has increased, expectations have become much higher," says Gray. "It's simply not enough to provide an amazingly creative solution to a brief, since marketing and business issues have to be addressed as well."
This is a trend echoed by others in the industry. The boardroom suits who had their fingers painfully burnt during the dot.com boom three or four years ago are older and wiser, and taking a greater interest in creative spending than ever before. With this likely to intensify over the next year, will creative freedom and innovative risk-taking design step into the firing line?
Despite the spending slowdown, for The Ronin's Rob Chiu clients have been able to trust their designers more in creative terms during 2004 and are transferring that trust into more open commissions, especially some of the bigger names.
"I think clients are starting to see things a bit better now and aren't as set in their ways as they were five years ago," says Chiu. "There's a lot more creative work coming out of the big-name brands such as Nike and Diesel. This has a knock-on effect and means smaller companies want to look similar," he continues.
But for others - including Ian Anderson at The Designers Republic - in the long run, creative freedom is something the industry will still have to fight for. It's unlikely to be top priority in any corporate commission during 2005.
"Creative freedom is there, but only if we take it. I don't see control being handed out on a plate in the current climate," he admits.
Another trend for 2005, according to Chris Hassell, new media director at web design agency DS.Emotion, will be the increasing importance of the role digital and interactive design agencies play in the mainstream marketing and advertising industries.
As the creative engine behind a number of high-profile brand websites, such as the hugely successful deodorant line Lynx, Hassell believes traditional advertising agencies will be forced to sit up and take notice during the next 12 months.
"Websites are becoming more integral, especially within youth brands and band websites. Digital agencies will get a lot more respect," he says.
But no matter what happens to creative commissions in 2005, the basic look and feel of design will - as ever - have to move forward. One of the big trends during 2004 was a move away from slick and homogenised computer graphics to a more handcrafted, personalised aesthetic. It placed importance on the skills of design, such as illustration, rather than simple software.
Danny Franzreb from Taobot believes this movement will gather pace over the coming year. "I saw lots of people drawing sketchy black and white characters over their designs and I'd say the hand-drawn style is still rising and will be big in 2005," he says.
"We're still moving away from the clean technological, hi-tech and little pixel font style we saw in 2002, although I guess we might witness a little revival, mixed with original hand-drawn illustrations and more vivid colours."
But whatever happens during 2005, it'll be worth remembering that, as Maxine Horn says, things have to get better.