Off-shoring design

Data-input bureaux and call-centres have already largely moved out of the UK to cheaper climes - will the same thing happen to design?

Issue 101 of Digit takes an in-depth look at this in an interview with Paul Priestman of Priestman-Goode and the Design Council's Keep British Design Alive campaign, but I would quickly like to share my thoughts with you here and now.

At a time when respect for design seems to be at a high-point, do not be fooled into thinking that design is such a rarefied job or complex field that it cannot be off-shored.

The possibility of work moving overseas to low-wage economies is a real one. It has already started to happen in journalism, at least with what I might call unscrupulous companies which usually have no background in the industry. One company advertises for writers on Craigslist and pays £20 per 1,000 word feature, plus copyright assignation - significantly less than the NUJ minimum rate.

Bloggers, meanwhile are causing similar downward pressure on professional writers. One well-known UK blog company is reputed to pay around £3 per article.

As a journalist, I am actually fairly ambivalent about blogs. They're not a bad way to kill some time, as a reader or a writer, but they are no replacement for real journalism. For me personally, blogs offer an opportunity to tentatively explore ideas, write about things that are too obscure for a newspaper or magazine to cover, make use of odd statistics and facts that get thrown-up in the course of researching other things - or even to pick the occasional fight.

None of the blogs which I write here, or, for that matter, in another place, see anything like the amount of research that goes into a normal feature article or news story.

For example, one recent piece I that wrote on architecture took a solid week of (massively irritating) work. The only other things that I completed during that time were a blog entry at Comment is Free and a regular column that I write elsewhere. My gross income for that week will be €350 and I will probably have to wait about three months to get paid. That said, I do try to approach blogs in a similar fashion to my other writing - a little bit more personal perhaps, a little bit more opinionated, but nonetheless, hopefully well-written and worth reading.

Research, however, is not the only issue. There is also the issue of editing. I do significantly less self-editing on a blog and they are also subject to less scrutiny by Digit's professional staff who edit, fact-check and generally improve the writing that you read in the magazine. If you see a literal or misplaced punctuation mark here, it's mine and mine alone.

All of the same is true in design. There's a lot more to it than meets the eye. But what if the client doesn't care? What if all they're interested in is a reasonably competent design that costs as little as possible?

What if a client doesn't care about the rationale behind your work or isn't interested in critical thought? Worse still, what if your expertly-designed grids and immaculate typography are well-regarded, but not considered worth the extra cost?

Of course, the top-end of design isn't going anywhere. Today's design superstars are unlikely to find themselves in the dole queue, but not everyone has such status. The fact is that most designers slave away for the entire duration of their careers, producing good work but receiving no recognition. No matter where they are from and where they work, not everyone can be David Carson or Neville Brody - no matter how good their work is, there are other factors involved.

I do not wish to sound like a self-appointed Cassandra, or claim that the sky is falling. Certainly it's not. Britain has a thriving design industry that punches well above the country's weight in comparison to other industries. However, it is worth keeping in mind that accountants in search of fatter margins may well begin casting glances abroad when they look at design budgets.

Clearly, non-material jobs like design are easier to off-shore than ones which rely on the movement of large quantities of goods. Despite this, the print industries in the UK and Ireland have been rocked by the entry into the marketplace of printers in Eastern Europe and, in the case of books, the Far East. That alone does not auger well.

The only possible answer can be to refuse to engage in a race to the bottom; to continue to produce the best work you can using quality as the selling-point, not price.

Welcome to the post-material economy.

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