In his last few weeks as Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair turned his attention to revisiting what he saw as the success stories of his decade in office. Among the visits to Sierra Leone and NHS Trusts, the retiring PM took time to address the UK's creative industries and thank them personally for enabling, what he termed, a quiet revolution.
In truth, the UK's creative revolution has been anything but quiet. Within the last decade, Britain's creative industries have grown in both stature and reputation. A report from global think-tank The Work Foundation earlier this year spelt out these achievements in a white paper entitled Staying Ahead: The Economic Performance of the UK's Creative Industries. This report declared them a great, unsung success story of the British economy.
Tie this to the globally recognised kings of contemporary design and the UK's reputation as both innovator and money-maker, and the picture becomes even clearer. The likes of Jonathan Ive have revolutionised product design. Neville Brody redefined the printed page. The multi-faceted Jamie Hewlett has turned his golden touch to everything from comic books to pop-opera.
While such revolutionary creatives keep the UK design flag flying high, the country's advertising sector continues to be the most in-demand and most laudable in the world. If further evidence were needed, then the proof is in the numbers: in 2005 the value of Britain's exported cultural goods totalled £8.6bn, while the advertising industry alone contributed as much to the UK's GDP as the colossal financial services sector. By now the picture should be crystal clear: UK design is arguably the best in the world.
For a more objective take on the UK's distinct strengths, we don't have to look far from home. Great Britain has been a member state of the European Union since 1973 and has enjoyed unrivalled economic success, helped enormously by the strength of its creative industries.
"If you look at various different countries within Europe, you see that they all have some sort of a self-concept," reasons Robert Klanten, founder and publisher at Die Gestalten Verlag, the specialist publishers of cutting-edge visual culture books and design magazines based in Germany.
"They all have an identity, let's say of film, fashion or food in France, or cars and beer in Germany. The UK has a very, very strong identity in pop culture and music. It very much appreciates anything that is leftfield," says Klanten.
But that's not to say UK design is bereft of commercial instinct. Klanten sees the balance of experimental design with a restrained entrepreneurial quality as the key strings to UK design. He maintains that you only have to look at the thin line between artistic and corporate design for proof. "The UK scene is very interesting because there is, on one side, such an intense pop scene and lifestyle, and a lot of need for visual codes," he says. "On the other side, you have very strong editorial design, you have very strong brands and you have a lot of money. That mix fuels creativity."
In response, the UK's clients - who, after all, fund such creativity - appear far more receptive to radical design and advertising. And while this kind of corporate adoption of new designs undoubtedly contributes towards the UK's short-lived tolerance of trends, it's also one of the most significant factors in Britain's reputation.
"The graphic art and design scene in the UK is a reference of all that's great, cool and powerful in contemporary design," says Sergio del Puerto, founder and art director of Spain's bohemian outfit, Serial Cut. "I think any project in a UK studio can be more risky and innovative than in Spain, because UK designers and, importantly, their clients are more open-minded."
While design outfits on the continent see a divide between design as art and design as a revenue earner, UK studios can comfortably straddle the two and maintain credibility. Sergio points out that graphic artists on the continent inhabit the same sphere as fine artists; their work is not a trade, but an art form. For British designers, he says that the divide between creativity and business is far smaller.
Across the pond
The outlook in the United States is quite different, however. The US is, after all, the home of the logo. Branding doesn't come bigger, flashier or bolder than in North America, and here the comparison to UK design is more about commerce than art.
"The US style definitely leans more towards a directness in our design approach, while most of Europe has a more abstracted taste," says Garrett Nantz, associate creative director at US web design supremos Big Spaceship, who've worked on blockbuster movie websites for the likes of Miramax, Paramount and Sony. Nantz believes the UK is unmatched in its ability for picking up on idiosyncratic influences and shaping them into its own, and sees UK design using its strong creative rules and principles as a starting block from which more experimental design grows.
"The UK has ingrained into its youth a stronger design discipline than here in the States," says Nantz. "Its guiding principles are proportion, balance, typography and injecting humour. This leads to cleaner and more insane designs. Most people in the US think great design is the graphics they see in a televised sporting event. Just ask my dad!"
It's possible, then, to cite the influences of UK design at three distinct points: public perception of graphic design is more in-tune, clients are therefore more open minded and this, in turn, promotes more experimental design.
In South America art and design takes a significantly different form than in the UK. Adhemas Batista, the celebrated Brazilian designer behind advertising campaigns for global companies such as Nike, Coca-Cola and MSN, says that the UK's distinct design strengths of both innovation and money-making are the envy of Latin America.
"Argentina is very good within advertising and Brazil has many talents within the advertising field and graphic and art scenario," explains Batista. "But South America is still very young within the design industry, and while there are a lot of creative people, there's simply no money for them."
Financial support seems crucial in fostering good, business-savvy designers. Batista believes that the multitude of design schools and universities within the UK, US and Europe have a vital role in nurturing successful design and developing the skills of many talented young designers. But although Latin America may lag behind in the economic stakes, Batista maintains that its creative spark is just as bright as Britain's.
However, the division between economic turnover and good design is less evident when compared to other emerging marketplaces. The UK may have the largest advertising, art and design turnover in the world, but that title is unlikely to be poached by the United States, Europe or even Latin America. In fact, our biggest design rivals are emerging from Eastern countries, most prominently China.
"The boom in Chinese design is very important to the entire industry," says Chris Ng, producer at Hong Kong-based design magazine IdN, which specialises in profiling Asian-Pacific art and design. "Not only designers but professionals and entrepreneurs in China are accepting new creative business."
This is a belief echoed by one of China's leading illustrative talents. Zhang Jing, aka Mazakii, is a 22-year-old illustrator who has already made a name for herself both within China and overseas. For her, the UK is the pinnacle of international design - not just for its commercial success, but because of its open-minded attitude towards creativity. "The emergence of graphic design here in China is mostly induced by a commercial opportunity; for the needs of markets," she says. "Something useful is always noticed before something beautiful."
The British design scene is lucky in this respect, argues Zhang Jing, who says the utilitarian view of art and design is one of the major limiting factors that is preventing Chinese design from truly blooming. In fact, she reasons, Chinese graphic designers are currently getting more work from Western companies determined to crack the difficult Chinese marketplace than they are from home-grown clients.
But China is only one country within the vast Asia-Pacific market and, while Australia has a very particular street-art culture in places such as Melbourne and the Gold Coast, its commercial design is very much in-tune with the UK.
By comparison, the emerging economies within Africa - and in particular South Africa - help define what it is that makes UK design so successful. In a continent where literacy is understandably lower, the onus on clear visual messaging is of the utmost importance. This factor has been a rock around African design's neck, but creative work is beginning to take off - drawing its influence from the UK's distinct style.
"The industry in South Africa is not nearly as big as it is in the UK," admits Martin Fisher, head of South Africa's Themartist animation and design studio. "Budgets are not as high locally, so we tend to look to the UK for work. The strength of the pound is very luring for South African studios, so we normally come in pretty cheap for British clients." With such financial incentives for tapping into the UK market, says Fisher, it's very hard for South African design to build an identity of its own.
Heritage and the future
It's clear that the UK influences international design, while at the same time merging continental art tradition and North American business acumen. Look at the UK's graphic and advertising heritage for further evidence: Alan Fletcher's Pentagram took Swiss and German graphic design to new levels, while today AKQA holds the Agency of the Year title on both sides of the Atlantic, and UK studios such as Airside, The Designers Republic and Non-Format manage to balance huge accounts without ever sacrificing their unique way of doing things.
"The UK has blended the best of all styles," maintains Garrett Nantz from Big Spaceship. "Perhaps the UK knows how to embrace new ideas and make them its own? Just look at how it saw the potential in African-American rhythm and blues music and created some of the best rock music ever."
Nantz is right of course, but he's also acutely aware that inertia kills creativity, emphasising that the UK must maintain momentum. "As much as I think that the UK has created some beautiful design, saying that it deserves its reputation will only lead to creative laziness," says Nantz. And therein lies the warning.