As the purse strings tighten in the UK, studios are looking further afield: Digital Arts brings you the lowdown on working overseas.


The recession is starting to bite in earnest, and design studios all over the country are forced to hunt for new work in an ever-tightening market. As existing clients run into problems of their own, budgets are being slashed and projects are going on hold.

For many studios, faced with a shrinking demand in the UK, the solution is obvious: look to the rest of the world. There are many advantages for British creatives in securing work for foreign clients, particularly right now.

British design is held in high esteem internationally, giving UK studios a strong brand before they’ve even shown their work to potential clients. The relatively weak pound has made UK studios competitive again, putting them within reach of clients who might not have been able to afford UK talent even a year ago.

Broadband Internet means it’s now simple to stay in close contact with clients, even if they’re thousands of miles away. Then there’s the opportunity to travel and the challenge of creating designs that work for very different audiences.

More prosaically, when there’s less work available in the UK, for some studios it’s simply the best remaining option.

Of course, many studios are already working internationally: according to a 2007 survey by the Design Council, over half of UK design businesses were working for overseas clients, although the survey also points out that these are usually larger, more established studios.

For a small studio looking beyond the UK for the first time, getting started is daunting. Faced with the entire globe, how do you identify the right clients for your studio – or even the right countries to look in? And then, how do you make contact with potential clients?

“I don’t tend to view the world geographically, particularly in graphics,” says Christine Losecaat, founder of Little Dipper (www.littledipper.net), which specializes in promoting British creative industries overseas.

“Unless a company owner has cultural ties to a particular country, I think countries are less important than sector specialisms. So if your specialism is banking you’d go to financial centres and look at how Hong Kong measures up against Frankfurt, for example, or if it’s packaging, you’d go to where the food and drinks companies are – we’re living in a globalized universe now.”

Maxine Horn, head of design association British Design Innovation (BDI, www.britishdesigninnovation.org), agrees: “Because design is a horizontal, cross-sector discipline, there’s no one country that yields greater results purely due to its location.”

Losecaat says that it’s crucial that studios think carefully about how to present themselves to foreign clients. “Identify the markets according to your unique selling points,” she advises.

“You have to know how to differentiate yourself in the UK – and you have to be doubly clever to work outside the UK. What doesn’t work is a scattergun approach to the whole world, going. ‘I can do everything for everyone’. It’s not a strategic approach and nobody wins business like that.”

Both Horn and Losecaat recommend that studios wanting to branch out into international work take a good look at their existing business first – both at their designers and at their client base.

Where do the designers come from? Foreign staff, or those with family links to another country, may have contacts that could help identify opportunities, or simply an understanding of certain markets that could be hugely useful in convincing a potential client that you have the know-how to pull off a successful project for them.

Existing clients, too, can be highly useful – after all, if they’re already impressed with your work then they may be happy to recommend you. Identify which clients work overseas – or better still, whether any have offices overseas.

“It can be as simple as asking a client for an overseas introduction,” says Losecaat. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with clients that found me,” says Steve Price, of one-man studio Plan B (www.plan-bstudio.com).

“Rockport Publishing, in Boston, emailed me after they saw a book I designed for their UK sister company, Rotovision. Billboard’s then creative director emailed me after my work for Diesel-U-Music was launched in 2006, and I worked with them on the magazine to proposals for entire North American advertising campaigns. Other work from clients abroad has often come from word of mouth. Trying to secure new work is the same anywhere: it’s a full-time occupation.”

Bristol-based designers Taxi Studio (www.taxistudio.co.uk) first started working internationally by winning a pitch for Coca-Cola, which resulted in a pan-European packaging job.

“Coca-Cola has networks of offices all around the world, and we’ve taken on jobs that are based in the London office, Brussels, Paris, Germany and the USA. That paved the way to us working on European and global projects for a variety of projects,” says co-founder Spencer Buck.

Like Taxi Studio, interactive agency Type3 (www.type3digital.com) found that work for a multinational company led to other international projects. “Early on we got some great clients like Motorola, and through a third-party agency we worked on projects for several other US tech companies,” says co-founder Matthew Iliffe.

“As our client base grew, so did referrals for our business within our existing clients. Eventually our name was passed to our clients’ European offices, and then further overseas.”

The government is keen to promote creative exports: UK Trade & Investment’s site (www.uktradeinvest.gov.uk) is a valuable resource for researching potential markets – although it covers a huge range of disciplines beyond graphics and digital.

Its extensive country reports, which brief on the current state of countries’ creative industries and the types of opportunities that exist, are especially worth trawling through. in the early stages of research.

Get your passport

UK Trade & Investment also offers support to those just starting to work abroad, including its Passport to Export programme, which offers mentoring from international trade specialists, and help in developing an international business plan.

There’s also a business-to-business matchmaking service, and grants and other support to help studios attend overseas trade shows – another crucial way to make contacts.

“People should contact their local UK Trade & Industry international trade advisor,” recommends Christine Losecaat. “Once you’ve got your Passport to Export, there’s the Overseas Market Introduction Service (OMIS): using that service you can give any British embassy a brief – this could be anything from, ‘Please give me a market overview’ to, ‘OK, China looks interesting, can you identify all the regional authorities that are trying to rebrand cities to attract tourism,’ and they will then set up a programme of meetings for you, do the cold-calling, help with follow-up, and once you’ve delivered a piece of work they’ll even help you with PR.”

She continues: “You have to pay for the service but it’s government subsidized and it’s not a lot of money – prices range from £250 to £1,000, but if you get to meet half-a-dozen major potential clients that’s worth far more.”

Little Dipper, BDI and the British Council work closely with UK Trade & Investment to run themed export events across the UK, and carrying out missions such as the China Design TASK Force, which took designers from all disciplines to Beijing last year to promote British design and connect with potential clients during the Olympics.

However, it’s important to research your markets thoroughly before embarking on a mission like this: Steve Price of Plan B went to Tokyo on a UK Trade & Investment trip with the British Council, but came back empty-handed.

“I realized quickly that trying to sell graphic design services in that way is almost redundant,” he says. “Going to Tokyo was incredible, and I met some fantastic people, but those particular trade missions can only really cater for industrial, interior or product designers their choice for graphic design is almost as saturated as it is here. Going on those trips for me was really just an excuse to go to Japan, drink, socialize and pretend it was work.”

“What does tend to happen is that people forget about international alphabets – they go to Japan expecting to do Japanese work, without speaking Japanese,” says Christine Losecaat. “If a company’s working internationally and needs English materials then great, but if you’re going to try and work for a Japanese company’s domestic materials then how are you going to do that?”

Securing the work is only half the process, of course: working with foreign clients presents practical and creative challenges. The joy of winning a contract on the west coast of America or in Australia might be quickly tempered by realizing the time gap will mean late night or early-morning phone calls, and negotiating the details of a design can be tricky when contact is limited.

Matthew Iliffe’s studio, Type 3, has recently opened an office in San Francisco to help it push further into the US market. “I feel that business is about personal relationships and teamwork: when we work for our clients, we care as much as they do that the campaign or project is going to work,” he says.

“There is no substitute for being there and being present in our clients’ day-to-day lives.”

“Dealing with multiple cultures, languages and markets is not an easy thing to get your head around,” says Spencer Buck. “The travel also gets tiring and loses its exotic appeal the first time your flight gets cancelled and you get diverted to Southampton to get on a grotty coach back to Bristol at 3am.”

Getting the job done

The creative challenges are also significant. Last year Steve Price of Plan B spent time in Malaysia helping an agency shape their design direction:

“Working there was not that different to London, except the food, climate and potential were far more exciting. However, the budgets and expectations of the work and clients were far lower and a bit demoralizing.

"I was going to say that they’re years behind our design standards and conceptual approach, but that’s unfair. It’s a completely different market; one that’s still heavily influenced by religion – so the whole social structure, attitude and the things you can and can’t do in a design is different to here.”

On the same trip, he was invited to Cambodia to meet a potential client, the biggest casino in Phnom Penh. “It was an eye-opener: armed guards at the casino entrance, and a client that wanted something so tacky that I nearly vomited in his office.”

Even in less extreme circumstances, creatives need a solid knowledge of cultures and consumer behaviours. “One must be mindful that what might work in a UK market won’t always work in the UK – we have a strong sense of wit and sarcasm that very rarely translates abroad,” says Price.

“You can’t rely on UK-centric ideologies or witticisms in the slightest,” agrees Taxi Studio’s Spencer Buck. “Take the drinks market: in the UK, we go out to get shitfaced. It would be considered strange to go out socializing with friends on an evening to simply talk and eat, punctuated by the odd glass of wine.

"In France, the opposite is true. In Finland, friends will club together to buy a bottle of vodka in a bar, which they’ll casually share throughout the evening. In the UK, each person would buy a bottle of vodka and compete to finish it first.”

Corporate cultures, too, can be very different. Price recalls his surprise at how formal meetings can be in Japan, while his own mannerisms surprised others in Malaysia: “I swear like a trooper, which scared the shit out of the team in Kuala Lumpur.”

Matthew Iliffe of Type3 points out that there can be administrative and financial hurdles, too: “We’ve found that working with a US company requires our UK business to be registered with the US IRS, otherwise 30 per cent of an invoice is retained for potential tax fraud. Before entering a market, it’s worth seeking local financial advice.”

Christine Losecaat adds: “You’ve got to have an understanding of industry payment terms: in China now it’s quite acceptable to invoice 50 per cent in advance – but if you don’t know that, you could get caught out.”

Iliffe adds that differences in payment terms can work in UK studios’ favour, too: “One thing that has surprised me in San Francisco is the levels of salaries and billling rates – in many cases they’re double London’s at the current exchange rate. So this is a good time to use our currency crisis and get in there while we can be competitive on price.”

One thing is certain: in an increasingly international world, there’s plenty of opportunity overseas, which few studios can studios can afford to ignore.

Dan Douglas of web consultancy De-Construct (www.de-construct.com) – which has offices in London and Amsterdam and works with clients all over the world – points out that international projects can offer hidden benefits, such as “access to a wider talent pool and the opportunity to keep staff by offering them the ability to work in multiple offices.”

“You get to meet a wider network of people, which results in more possibilities,” says Spencer Buck. “And it’s seen as specialist to be able to work on European and global projects.”

“We see foreign work as a good way to even out the bumps in an uncertain economy,” says Matthew Iliffe. “There’s just more opportunity if you start looking outside of our tiny little island. Britain is exceptionally well connected, well respected and has a great brand overseas. I think our general work ethic and can-do culture appeals to foreign businesses: they come to us as they see the quality of work to be far superior to anywhere else in the world.”

Tips for working overseas

Do your homework: Look into the administrative and financial aspects of working in particular countries, including payment terms and currency conversions. What sounds like a vast sum of money in Vietnamese Dong might translate into a pittance in Sterling.

Get the word out: Potential clients are more likely to find your work if you’re popping up on blogs, awards shortlists and articles.

Work your contacts: Ask satisfied international clients for introductions, stay in touch when projects are completed and don’t be shy to ask for more work.

Stay in touch: Clients who are thousands of miles away require the same level of contact, updates and reassurance – sometimes more.

Keep the costs down: Expenses such as foreign trips and phone bills can quickly mount up: use tools such as Skype, and ask that clients share or cover any travel costs.

Buddy up

When trying to navigate a new market, many studios prefer to find an international partner – whether it’s a studio that’s local to the country, or a larger agency.

Type3 has worked in Brazil, Turkey, Morocco and South Africa through partners, often international advertising agencies. De-Construct, meanwhile, is owned by a larger network, which it carries out integrated projects with.

Export expert Christine Losecaat says that partners are more useful in some markets than in others. “It depends on the countries. Broadly speaking, in Europe or an English-speaking region you don’t need to partner with somebody,” she says.

“If you’ve never worked with a client in China then it would be sensible, particularly when it comes to implementing the design – that’s normally where UK designers fall down.

"So in graphics, what tends to happen is that companies use an international designer to raise their brand and the standard of their communications, but for implementing the design in their own countries they’ll turn to local studios.”

She continues: “What’s always been difficult in local partnering is defining the fee split, who takes the lead and how it’s presented to clients. A good way of handling this is to do the strategic design here and then implement it overseas – particularly in markets where the culture is quite different, such as Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam.”

Where they are looking now

The global recession is rocking the boat internationally, but canny studios are planning ahead, either by widening their net or by focusing on key markets. Type3 is pinning its hopes on the US: “We think the US will be the first out of this doom and gloom, and a good place to build up our presence,” says founder Matthew Iliffe.

Meanwhile, De-Construct is looking to some of Europe’s more buoyant economies, but ruling nothing out. “Germany remains an interesting market to us – but then, there are a lot of interesting markets from a talent and client perspective,” says the company’s Dan Douglas.

“We’re not looking to open offices overseas: I think we’ll always remain a small agency (10-20 people) in one location, as it’s the only way we can be sure of the quality of our output. And none of us is interested in building an empire – it seems too stressful to bother with,” says Taxi Studio’s Spencer Buck. “Rather, we’ll look to work on projects that extend beyond Europe.”

Where UK designers are working

Western Europe 61%
North America 44%
Asia 17%
Global 13%
Australasia 10%
Eastern Europe 9%
Middle East 7%
Africa 2%
Central & South America 1%

How UK designers found work

Don’t know 34%
Approaching new clients 18%
Marketing/Advertising 18%
Going on trade missions 13%
Existing clients 85%
Pitching for projects 7%
Nothing 7%
Promoting business for overseas 7%
Attending trade shows 3%
Speaking at conferences 2%
Networking 2%

Problem areas with working abroad

No difficulties 32%
Language or translation issues 24%
Cultural differences 17%
Practical communication problems 14%
Currency (value of £/€ changing) 11%
Legal or tax issues 7%
Lack of proximity 7%
Travel costs 5%
Payment problems 5%
Technology differences 2%
Client relationship difficulties 2%
Differing business practices 2%
Understanding overseas market 1%
Don’t know 1%

Source: All survey results from the Design Council report, Working Overseas, 2007. To read the full report visit tinyurl.com/c3psh5.

Illustration Neil Duerden