The recent recession has made the search for new markets keener than ever, and British design is well-respected abroad. But being successful globally isn’t served up on a plate, says Anna King
We seem to have arrived at an international crossroads of what it means for a business to be global. The recent recession and fragile economy is a stark reminder of how global the world of business has become and how intertwined financial systems of different countries are.
To many observers this has been a lesson in how ‘not to do it’. It conjures up visions of greedy multinational corporations chasing vulnerable nations for their own shareholders’ gain, and giving nothing back.
In recent times, advancements in technology and cheaper travel have enabled many small and medium-sized businesses (a category that many design businesses fall into) to venture into new international markets. The potent allure of glamour and culture associated with international business is undeniable, but the business need to spread risk and explore opportunities overseas is ultimately a financial decision.
Another view that has gathered pace through the recession is of the dangers of global warming and the need to be more ‘local’ in our approach to building sustainable societies, though this needn’t be a barrier to international growth.
It is a combination of all these factors that has paved the way for a fresh way of thinking, whereby we can all take part on the international stage without damaging local markets and still benefit at the same time.
Arguably, the design sector is especially well placed to demonstrate this in action. The UK has a long history of investing in and appreciating design – as a consequence we have always enjoyed a demand for our ideas, creativity and innovation, and this shows no sign of abating.
Gill Parker, joint managing director of BDGworkfutures, explains: ‘Our international client base is split into two categories: clients that have a need for international standards which are sympathetic to local environments and culture, and new business from emerging economies that want to work with and partner with the UK, specifically in recognition of our design credentials.’
This last point is echoed by Max Eaglen, director of Platform design group, for which international work comprises approximately a third of its business: ‘The UK is considered to be a bank of creative capital, comprising quality and excellence and this is highly valued abroad.’
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the process is easy. Eaglen continues: ‘The challenge is that some emerging markets are not ready for the desired level of creativity that the enlightened client wants, therefore new concepts need to be introduced gradually in a considered manner.’
The non-invasive nature of the design process allows for an international presence to be achieved in a subtle manner. The term ‘glomad’ seems to lend itself easily to the design community – travelling light, connected to the world via iPad, roaming, seeking and taking inspiration from their surroundings... If only! This may be true of the concept stage of design, but when it comes to implementation then far more consideration needs to be given to technical details and local policy and laws.
Partnering with local businesses is a popular way to work that guarantees local knowledge. This has been a very successful way of operating for BDGworkfutures, which has successfully completed a number of award-winning workplace projects in Russia with this arrangement in place.
‘Partnering works for us as it is a way of drawing on international experience and extending our reach, yet remaining true and sympathetic to local culture, ensuring that we operate within the appropriate technical standards,’ says Parker.
Design-led products are a different proposition in terms of organizing a supply chain, though the factors for success are broadly similar.
When approaching new markets having a respect and appreciation of local culture is essential to success. A veteran of the international market, with subsidiaries in five countries and a distribution network that extends further, is the British brand Bisley. Richard Blackwell, Bisely’s sales and marketing director, believes that showing long-term commitment to chosen marketplaces is key to success.
‘There is no short cut to international success; your plans have to be sustainable from the beginning and then you have spend a lot of time listening and understanding,’ he says.
It is equally important to demonstrate that you are not there just for the good times. Blackwell continues: ‘The essence of Bisley is to establish long-term relationships of mutual benefit; we are not interested in one-night stands! We offer our unwavering commitment and support and it takes time, effort and patience, but this approach pays dividends in the long term.’
Testament to this approach can be seen in the German market, where ‘Bisley’ is frequently used as the generic term for storage, but perhaps the best example (and certainly the most entertaining) of Bisley’s integration overseas is its Japanese partner Simpatico, which has built an entire retail proposition around a range of branded Bisley products totally unrelated to steel storage, from bags to bikes.
The USA is one of the hardest markets to crack, yet a number of UK designers are doing well – particularly firms such as Christopher Farr, Tom Dixon and Samuel Heath. Beth Dickstein of PR and marketing business Beth Dickstein Enterprises explains why: ‘These firms have taken hold by understanding the American market and providing products that are easily understood, sophisticated and provide distinctive designs.
‘Furthermore, they have done American trade shows, promoted their names and products to our editors and in general understand their target audience.
‘While not household names, these firms are highly respected with the well-versed design intelligentsia.’
Whether we are referring to interior design of a workplace, hotel or shop, or the design of a light, a storage cabinet or perhaps a chair, the core of design is about making things better. Offering and improving the status quo in terms of aesthetics, ease of use, saving resources and enriching lives are just a few incentives for change and evolution, of which design is an intrinsic part.
When it comes to making a positive statement there is no better communication tool than design, which leaves the UK industry perfectly placed for the new world understanding of what it means to be global.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.