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How Designers are Grappling with the Recession

Like every other sector of the economy, the design industry is being whipsawed by the recession. But in curious ways: shelter design–furniture, interiors and whatnot–appears to be in remarkably dire straits, while design and design thinking appears to be enjoying a boom, as designers place themselves at the center of mainstream business practice. Two things illustrate this dichotomy: A die off in shelter magazines, and the launch of a new magazine dedicated to the business of design.

Like every other sector of the economy, the design industry is being whipsawed by the recession. But in curious ways: shelter design–furniture, interiors and whatnot–appears to be in remarkably dire straits, while design and design thinking appears to be enjoying a boom, as designers place themselves at the center of mainstream business practice. Two things illustrate this dichotomy: A die off in shelter magazines, and the launch of a new magazine dedicated to the business of design.

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dbr

Let’s start with the business of design. Chris Papasadero, the young principal of the multi-talented graphic design firm FWIS, explains the particular niche they identified for the new Design Business Review:

Designers are in the business of doing business; their clients rely on them to make smart, market-savvy decisions and yet there is no resource to provide the necessary knowledge to make these decisions wisely. DBR is simple, pragmatic advice on the business of creativity. Our readers will gain a strategic advantage in their profession by learning how to get a job, win clients, and survive the recession.

They have a point: Having worked at and worked for several design magazines, the so-called “business issue” is a ubiquitous annual feature. (Likewise, at business magazines, the “design issue” is just as common.) But those publications are usually long on news stories and short on practical advice–the nuts and bolts of doing business, and the wisdom accrued in the process. The inaugural issue of the DBR features pieces penned by Michael Beirut, one of the most influential partners at Pentagram, explaining how the firm is weathering the recession; another by Duffy & Partners on how they pitch clients; and Mucca Design on the design opportunities in a downturn. And, perhaps the best part: The magazine, available for $13.50, is print-on-demand. Check it out here.

On to first trend I described: Shelter magazines are dying. Quickly. As Women’s Wear Daily reports, ad pages at Architectural Digest–the granddaddy of the design magazines, and certainly one of the most profitable–were down 50% in the year long period through April; House Beautiful, Met Home, and Elle Decor each posted losses in that period of around 25%, which is dispiriting. And, of course, a number of magazines–most notably Domino–have folded. The reason seems obvious enough: As credit tightens, consumers aren’t looking to fill new houses with furniture and carpeting, or dream up the ideal home; advertisers have responded accordingly, since their own businesses are suffering as a result.

All of which makes you wonder: Where does the soul of design live? In the logo you see on your cup of coffee, the ergonomics or your car’s dashboard, or the $20,000 couch you see at the Milan furniture fair (coming up next week)? Maybe that’s an unanswerable question–in fact designers have been arguing the point furiously, spurred by our own Michael Cannell’s article in The New York Times. But there’s no arguing that luxury interiors have commanded an outsize share of the attention in the last couple of years–just look at the focus of most design blogs. As the recession shifts our economy, so too will it shift the ways that designers conceive of what they do and its relevance to the world–as Design Business Review illustrates.

Related: Tom Dixon: What Design in a Recession Looks Like
Related: How Much Does a Decent Designer Make?
Related: Crowdsourced Healthcare: What Britain’s Doctors Ordered?

UPDATE: Check out Alison Arieff–founding editor of Dwellpondering the same issue in The New York Times. Her slant, similar to that of Michael Cannell’s, is that design–and design coverage–is tilting towards green solutions, in wake of the vacuum left by design’s short-lived boom. 

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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