London Mind the gap

Working from London

Just returned from our annual pilgrimage where we pack up our studio and work somewhere else in the world. This year it was London to continue my research into how designers view professional development.

I’ve been talking professional development with Australian designers for the past couple of months as part of the Strategy Masterclass I’m doing. The research is being used to tweak the DBC Design Business School’s offerings.

The beta version of the Design Business School is now 12 months old and has been thoroughly tested by five studios and over 20 designers around Australia. A bit of final tweaking and we will be ready to relaunch within weeks.

I was interested to hear whether the views of Australian designers compared to those in London.

Working in London was easy.

We’re well versed in finding the right accommodation now. On previous trips to London we’ve stayed in a walk-up in Paddington and a flat in Kensington. Both oozed character and chintz with big comfy couches and bulging bookcases but alas, they did not ooze wifi. It was dreadful in both places.

This time we stayed in an eco-sensitive, (in their words) design-led aparthotel in East London. It’s set up exactly for our purpose. The apartment is small but well designed. The kitchen includes a washer/dryer, so we just travel with hand luggage.

The dining room table is just large enough to fit two laptops. The TV doubles as a large monitor. Power plugs take USB leads as well as power. The wifi is stable (and free) and there’s a great café on the ground floor. Added bonus: a tube station across the street. What more could you ask for? It was perfect and fairly inexpensive.

Designers we met.

Getting around London is easy. Miss a train on the underground? No problem, there’s another in 2 minutes. That is of course as long as it’s not hot and peak hour — then all bets are off and the underground becomes horrendous, small and over-stuffed.

We traveled out to the suburbs to meet some designers on their patch, and met others in the cafe of the Design Museum in Kensington.

This is the first time we’ve traveled to the Northern Hemisphere in July/August. The time was chosen for us – family illness meant we had to cancel a previously booked May date – and we probably wouldn’t go this time again. School holidays started while we were there so many of the designers on our list were on leave. It was much like trying to track down Australian designers in January!

However we were able to talk to a few casually at the Design Museum and via Skype after we came back.

 Professional development

Similar to Australian designers, Brits thought they should do professional development, but lacked the time to organise it and money to do it.

At best, PD is ad hoc. If they see something of interest, they may do it but it is not planned or scheduled in any way.

Part of the problem is they just don’t see the value in PD. The studio owners I spoke to lamented investing in designers only to see them leave and use their new-found skills elsewhere.

One insight that came through clearly when talking to Australian designers, was the problem of maintaining the initial enthusiasm of a course. The eagerness to try something new waned when designers returned to the studio. Client demands took over and life resumed to ‘business as usual’.

Interestingly some of the younger designers I spoke to said they thought ‘learning’ had finished once they left uni. They had assumed they would learn ‘on the job’. Of course, the problem with that is 1) it can be a slow (and expensive) way to learn and 2) you can only learn as much (or as little) as the people around you know. Apprentice to a master and the world is your oyster. On the other hand – as they say – it’s hard to soar like an eagle if you are surrounded by turkeys.

The cost of professional development

London designers have access to a variety of professional development avenues. They have the Chartered Society of Designers, the Design Council and the Design Business Association. And that’s not including the raft of private providers offering short courses.

The barrier to them all is the cost – both in money and time.

Design studio owners I talked to felt they have neither the cash flow nor the additional time needed to invest in themselves.

To quote one business owner: clients make me money, professional development costs me money.

And it’s hard to argue. I remember a time when we calculated how much it ‘cost’ the studio to have everyone sit down for an hour with a paper rep. Just an hour racked up a cost to the studio of just under $1,000. Do that once a month and it’s an overhead of at least $12K – eating the profit of one fairly substantial project.

Investing in yourself.

Interestingly, the designers that have invested in their own career are adamant that the investment has paid off. Most lament they have taken so long to do any PD and interestingly, once they start, they plan to continue by adding the cost to their budget (and schedule).

Our takeaway

It’s always interesting to talk to other designers. Doubly interesting when you are not competing in the same market, so there are no assumptions and no reason to hide.

We gained some valuable insights as to how the Design Business School can be improved.

Carol Mackay

Carol is the founder and creative director of Mackay Branson, a design studio currently celebrating 33 years in business.  Her expertise is in the use of design to make the complex simple. – package complicated content into bite-sized chunks of information that are easy to understand and digest. She does that with clients in the corporate, cultural, government and not-for-profit sectors. Connect in LinkedIn, or read more at
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