"A Graphic Design Agency That Takes The Status-Quo and Eats It."

Creative State

We regard ourselves in Cornwall as being a “creative hub” but a lot of people outside of London – and even Bristol – don’t see it that way. These people regard Cornwall as some poor, renegade state who constantly plays catch-up with technology and infrastructure. How can we change these perceptions and improve the creative culture in Cornwall?

29 February 2016
Josh Davidson

I started Snakeskin Studios as a Graphic Design graduate from Falmouth University, during which time, the institution started going through unrivalled growth. With that development came a greater creative scene in Falmouth – more shops with designed signage and branding, more graphic and web design agencies being set up in the town – heads really started turning to the seaside town.

I’m originally from Devon, which despite the occasional scowl I get from Cornish locals, it’s fairly similar. But Devon really lacks in the creative department, really. It’s part of the reason I never headed back homeward – the companies acting as “designers” were embarrassing to behold; most had evolved (sorry Darwin) from IT or signage businesses. The vast majority of my peers at Falmouth University felt this way about their original dwellings too – they were all heading to London. Even though it’s way too expensive for a debt-ridden graduate to manage, they saw no other way. Despite this harsh reality, the idea of staying in Cornwall was almost laughable to them: “There’s nothing here.” They would say.

We regard ourselves in Cornwall as being a “creative hub” but a lot of people outside of London – and even Bristol – don’t see it that way. These people regard Cornwall as some poor, renegade state who constantly plays catch-up with technology and infrastructure. Whilst that’s no longer entirely true, what with the efforts of Superfast Broadband, the perceptions that people have about us will take a long time to change. In the meantime, how are we supposed to be regarded as – say – great web developers or digital creatives if we’re seen this way? We don’t want to be some poor man’s alternative to London.

The London and Bristol agencies are able to piggyback off the city’s reputation and size, these larger agencies have something to their advantage most agencies here don’t – a larger workforce. It’s something in the region of 67% of businesses in Cornwall are Small or Medium in size. Most heads of the enterprise are working in the role, as well as plotting the course for the company.

In the creative industry here, most creatives will be running and working in the business – something that requires two different mind-sets. A creative here might be great at branding, but totally lack in business skills and strategy – whereas a more business minded person would be able to play the market, but be an awful designer. In both instances, a lack of quality job opportunity exists – a creative will forever be on their lonesome running the company with zero free time, whereas a more “business-first” agency might put-off creatives from joining because they feel they could make better quality work. Again, remember people at Falmouth University found the idea of staying here laughable – this would go far to explain why.

Of course, that doesn’t apply to every agency here – some have made a great name for themselves and have the work force to be creative, but in comparison to London? It’s very small scale. It isn’t helped by the fact that people here are effectively being forced to branch into totally new skill-sets because of the market saturation. A start-up will likely claim to do absolutely everything, even if it’s a sole-trader, because that’s their view on winning work – not saying no to someone. Even the more established agencies claim to do it, offering up marketing and PR and design etc. etc. neglecting the fact that those last two are in fact, an element of marketing. It might be all right, but it’ll never be ground breaking.

In London, Amsterdam and the like, they all collaborate. They recognise that their agency can’t perform all of these duties to an exceptional standard without having a huge workforce – one of the largest design agencies in the world only has in upward of 250 staff. Which means by working together, they can tap into each other’s award winning talents for branding, web design, website development, advertising and marketing strategy. The client gets a better overall package and the agencies share opportunities. The large design agency I referred to only designs packaging – so no, not even close to everything a Cornish marketing agency might claim to offer.

So that’s the position we have now in Cornwall: an up-and-coming creative culture (not just limited to design) a few flagship, unspecialised agencies and pool of talent not overly inclined to stay. There is a push to capitalise on the creative industry – potentially allocating funds from the next round of EU funding (whenever, perhaps if ever, we get it.) My worry is that there are going to be some biased and fairly short-sighted players involved in deciding how the funds are actually spent (assuming we do get them). There will be some obscenely irrelevant metrics tied to them, the method for measuring would be nonsense in this industry. Then lets take into account how the flagship agencies will have more of a weigh-in, even though they are stable, and probably just want to see more education for developing talent to work for them. And then any little companies chipping in, who will be asking for hand-outs with little interest in any other areas of development that doesn’t directly benefit them. It’s not an easy area to get a decent growth strategy in place that doesn’t involve having more start-ups and seeing who is left standing – much like an episode of Takeshi’s Castle.

To top this off, you then have the public’s view. There have been a multitude of developments more related to education and growing small businesses that Joe Public has little to do with. Of course they react sourly – take this Facebook “IN” campaign post:

Now the comments are very telling (and so is that use of text drop-shadow, ew.) That’s just very few posts, sharing the tone of many. Now I don’t want to discuss the complexities of a Brexit, honestly I’m not the right person to have a well formed argument over it, but what this shows is how little people have actually seen from Euro funding in Cornwall. Couple that with the basically commercial – not public orientated – nature of design and we produce a very difficult problem – the public will never see reason over how essential the creative industry here is becoming, meaning no one will agree on an effective way to spend these funds (if we do get them.) Instead we’ll continue to meander around the point. But if we don’t receive the European funding, it’ll be more of the same – that’s not good enough in the long term.

Before I weigh-in with my views for ways that could make the creative culture in Cornwall better, let’s look at the client-side of this and how the English people are latently primed for creativity. It’s not news to anyone that the creative industry is one of the fastest, and biggest industries in England. As a country we’ve always been at the forefront of innovation, the English constantly push boundaries; this applied ten-fold to the creative remit. But if you take another country somewhat famed for its design sensibilities, like Sweden, we don’t have even close to the same type of creative culture.

Take Christmas for example, the Swedish have this very intractable method of decorating – either there’s a set of candles in the window or a large star, never both. This applies to all commercial and domestic decorating – homes and stores. Interior design is something the Swedish are particularly good for, but when it gets to Christmas, a few lights and maybe a tree, but that’s it. The end result is overly consistent and fairly fool proof, but it’ll never take your breath away.

Contrast this to England, which makes a really big song and dance of the occasion. Even though the Christian population in this country is waning, people will construct nativity sets, use enough fairy lights to drain a nuclear power plant and decorate Christmas trees so heavily that it’s hard to distinguish the original colour of it. Sometimes the results are truly magnificent: one particular house in North Devon would have drivers effectively stop their cars (on a main road I might add) to bask in the glory of their nativity epic. But then the other extreme is some houses making a really ugly attempt – using those horrible foil-paper hanging ornaments that require enough sticky tape to hold an entire roof together. The fact of the matter is, it can seriously sway either way, but everyone at least makes an effort to do their own thing.

As an analogue for the creative industry – which it really is – the outcome of such an undertaking is somewhat of a gamble. Unlike our Scandinavian friends there is zero creative discipline in England; some designers make amazing work, whilst others produce truly awful “design” because they dabbled with an Adobe program once. That’s what makes the industry and absolute minefield for clients: it’s a total lottery either way. The client pool, for the most part, know design to be important, but the reasons why aren’t so forthcoming. Of course, that’s allowing the industry to find conveniently suitable reasons for clients to fork out for design work. Currently, the industry is hawking around responsive web design – or RWD – which isn’t a first priority for every business. Approaching a client head-on with such a narrow scope serves only to dilute a potentially brilliant design whilst essentially lying about priorities to a client for the sake of working with them. Not to mention that the conditions for having a RWD are nowhere near as stringent as people have been lead to believe.

People in bigger businesses just tend to except this reality, that the outcome of a design is anyone’s guess. Should an agency bugger it all up, the business can just move onto another firm and cut their loses – small business aren’t accustomed to such luxury. Once they have this new web design or brand, no matter how good or bad it may be, there’s nothing that can really be done about it. This applies heavily (but not exclusively) to Cornwall with its myriad of small enterprises – which still need convincing that graphic design is an essential part of their business strategy, let alone that the outcome will be decent.

Good design should be for everyone, not just for companies that can apathetically throw it at a marketing agency. The fact that so many of them are charging an arm and a leg for work that is – quite frankly – priced more randomly than a car-boot sale, is upsetting. Especially since a lot of these “brands” are made with relative indolence. It’s causing most start-ups and SMEs to go at it Han style – solo. Such attitudes can have disastrous effects; imagine trying to do your own accounts.

If we could focus our efforts and funding (again, if any actually comes in) on developing our creative forces in a way that levels the playing field as well as having a more reliable way of making clients feel their investments are a) safe, b) going to benefit them and c) affordable, but not cheap, we might begin to see ourselves surpass other creatives hubs. As we talked about in this week’s Business Hub radiobroadcast on Pirate 2, Cornwall has a penchant for doing things differently. Instead of playing catch-up, we could be a reference point for creating a more versatile and public creative culture whilst handling clients better – something that many established companies still struggle to get right.

My first suggestion would be collaborative working environments. I know we’ve spent a great deal of money on building innovation centres – this idea wouldn’t need such infrastructure. The innovations centres are great for more developed businesses – especially with a small workforce, but I find them to be a little too walled-off. Perhaps this idea suits small traders more, and there are still lots of them, but getting a bunch of different skill-sets in the same room: photographers, web designers, web developers, marketing consultants, project managers, illustrators – they would work together on just about everything and be a full service to a client. Instead of bedroom developers and isolated creatives working effectively against each other and never really growing, corporately speaking, we have a varied team of individuals all bringing that energy to the group – rather then having the enthusiasm sapped from them for not being “business-y” enough or concentrating enough about turnover.

The most important part of this element to me is that it should be public facing. To most people, the innovations centres are just more office blocks – less assistance for Joe Public and more money to all those “fat-cat” business people. It may not be the reality of the situation, but perception weighs far more heavily in the minds of the people than rationale does. We could take over one of the many empty shops in the high streets of Cornwall without having to succumb to yet another national chain. It means instead of constructing some epic, architectural masterpiece in the middle of nowhere, we could use the capital for rent and rates (money straight back into the economy) whilst these small, one-man/woman-bands get to grips with the world of business. They could be assigned a business development manager and after 1 to 2 years (although personally I’d recommend 3 for people to get serious about it) the “residents” would branch off into their own, new company with all the market exposure and press they could dream of. It’s fairly similar to the Alacrity program run by Falmouth University, but not just about video games. This cycle could repeat for as long as it works.

It means that the public get a real feel for what the creative industry in Cornwall is – businesses use the team for their creative needs and part of the money generated goes into funding the “office” and paying wages. They could even make money from selling designer prints, illustrated works, photographic portraits and the like – get those multiple revenue streams in early, the public would eat that up. This could really level the playing field – otherwise we’ll just have the same agencies doing the same things until then end of time. But if anyone thinks calling it the “______ HUB” is a good idea, I reserve the rights to perform open-heart surgery on them.

Part 2 of the three-pronged plan would be funded branding and design projects for clients, especially those smaller ones. Now a company known as Engine Room hasdabbled in this remit before, although it was never made particularly known. My issue with it was the tendering and selecting process, namely in the interest of appeasing funding bodies and not the clientele. Creatives made a written tender document that was marked ¬– a living embodiment of Hell for them – in order to enter the running. Much like your GCSEs – or O Levels for the older bunch – the examiner is looking for something particular already for the sake of ticking a box, there’s no room for innovation. It’s actually my problem with most of the funding programs – yes, I get the need for metrics – but when Outset Cornwall had you fill out forms for attending networking events, the point of it began escaping me.

The other irritating part to this was one, maybe two, agencies worked with these businesses – it didn’t feel like there was a degree of choice. They say beggars can’t be choosers, but companies in this scheme aren’t treated like charities – they’re expected to grow. So with that in mind, it makes total sense that they get to forge the best relationship possible with the creative(s) of choice. I also feel it should segregated into skill groups, have a branding, web designer and marketing person work together – not just one agency. Again, like London, we really need to push for collaboration, it may irritate some of the larger agencies, but they aren’t exactly struggling, are they? This will directly benefit businesses that aren’t just looking for hand-outs, they realise that they need these things but can’t normally afford it without their business taking a serious hit. There could be some small, investment-like aspect to it for the sake of return, but I’m just prosing the idea, it would hardly be a big loss without a return – it’s not like Heartlands earned any of their money back.

Part three takes the form of a different beast – accreditation. Degree education, which most designers have, isn’t particularly well suited to non-academics. Granted the alternatives are slim but post-graduate life, especially for those now in business, is very different and difficult to prepare for. The way I see it, something that helps to educate creatives on the best ways to communicate ideas that are relevant to a company and how to work better with these clients would be far more useful than another irrational system of marking design. The PR industry has just started an accreditation body, marketing already have the CIM – design and even web design don’t really have anything. I appreciate the complexities of this train of thought, but it would certainly help to make sure agencies are serious about their profession and have the skills to perform it. That way, clients have the extra level of assurance that a designer isn’t going to ruin their visual identity. Perhaps we don’t have to go as far as accreditation, but I feel some form of education is essential because right now, the industry likes to point and laugh at clients who don’t know what they’re doing and rinse them financially because of it – hardly a good relationship to have.

Fully aware that I said this was a three-point plan, the last element of this doesn’t directly relate to business – having somewhere for young people to live. Living alone is expensive, considering there are few apartments in Cornwall – all developments seem to be for families – having to rent an entire house is simply not feasible, especially straight-out of university. The reality is, most graduates would probably love to stay in Cornwall, but with the lack of relevant, immediately available jobs and funds, moving back with parents is one of few limited options. I was fortunate to be living with friends after university; house sharing is a good way to go for those who want to stay here. But it’s not without its kinks. A lot of the arrangements in university were by very greedy landlords – we all know about the scandals with housing deposits but probably not about costs – one (and this was averagely priced) house cost us each around £400pcm. Now that’s not a lot, not really – but considering there were four of us living there and that paid for essentially just rooms, it worked out the landlord earned around £2000pcm from us, which is extortionate.

The other issue comes from who you actually live with, for a lot of people who hop around between places, the choice of who you share with isn’t so great – mostly because it’s based on what they can afford, the location etc. Which of course then they are locked into an agreement with people who they grow to dislike and it can get very ugly. On the other side of the coin, a lot of people will couple up early into a relationship and move in together. Honestly – that’s usually to avoid high rent and living with idiots. It seems great on paper, but should anything go horribly wrong, both parties are kind of stranded – where do you go from that?

We’ve invested a fortune into infrastructure, but if we really want to keep incoming talent in the county, we need to come up with relevant schemes to do so. A safe, stable and flexible living area, something to the tune of university halls but with more privacy and no shared kitchens or bathrooms, would be a real pull for locals and graduates.

So there you have it: our Creative State. It’s not in great shape currently. People know how passionate and heartfelt I am about my profession; I truly feel we need to look outside of the box we’ve created for ourselves if we want to diversify the industry, help the client pool of Cornwall understand as well as afford such services and keep genuine talent here. A Brexit could make life difficult in the coming years for the creative scene in Cornwall. Leaving decisions to those with little interest or too much market control won’t fix areas in dire need of attention; we don’t need more internships putting money in the pockets of the flagship agencies and disempowering creatives. We don’t need more innovation centres and we shouldn’t keep the public in the dark about an industry that should be more celebrated. There’s a lot that could be done, if only the bureaucrats could allow themselves to see that.

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