WE NEED TO BREAK RANK

UK Stu­dio Rank­ings pan­el­list Craig Old­ham ques­tions the de­sign in­dus­try’s def­i­ni­tion of ‘stu­dio’.

Computer Arts - - Contents -

When asked by the lovely Com­puter Arts to vote for its an­nual UK Stu­dio Rank­ings I was, at first, happy to oblige. Only when I ac­tu­ally started to give it some se­ri­ous thought did a seem­ingly sim­ple ex­er­cise be­come a strug­gle.

The panel was asked to pick our top five stu­dios in ascending or­der, with bonus points for our fave out­side Lon­don – to even things up, as I un­der­stood. But when think­ing a bit more on my picks, I found it an in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult thing to do. If pluck­ing five names out of my re­cent mem­ory wasn’t tricky enough, think­ing ahead to whether I might gen­uinely be­lieve the over­all re­sults from this col­lec­tive process, well that was down­right crip­pling.

Af­ter fur­ther in­tro­spec­tion, and a bit of naval gaz­ing, I con­cluded that I was strug­gling for many rea­sons. Mainly, there was one thing: an ad­mis­sion that I re­ally don’t know what con­sti­tutes a stu­dio any­more. And I’m not sure the in­dus­try does ei­ther.

The de­sign in­dus­try has al­ways been bereft of ter­mi­nol­ogy. It suf­fers tremen­dously from abused ad­jec­tives and de­fi­cient def­i­ni­tions, all of which hold us back in the way we prac­tice and de­velop. And I started to ask, what ac­tu­ally con­sti­tutes a stu­dio? What’s the dif­fer­ence between a stu­dio and, say, an agency? Or a de­sign con­sul­tancy, or de­sign prac­tice? Hell, even a de­sign com­pany? The flip­pant smart-arse in me in­stantly coughed the ri­poste: “Just dif­fer­ent nouns that fol­low the word ‘de­sign’.” But is there re­ally a dif­fer­ence? And does it re­ally mat­ter?

An af­ter­noon straw-poll on Twit­ter seemed to pitch the dif­fer­ences on three main vari­ances: size, struc­ture and fees. It seems that per­cep­tion puts the stu­dio as a small op­er­a­tion, do­ing more of a sin­gu­lar thing – it’s more crafty and be­spoke. The agency is ap­par­ently big­ger, and it pulls in tal­ent (some­times even stu­dios) to do its bid­ding on what­ever big­ger task is at hand. The con­sul­tancy, prac­tice, or com­pany, ap­pears to be a more un­known quan­tity, but is seem­ingly much more se­ri­ous. Per­haps that’s be­cause you might or­der the afore­men­tioned list in the same way when it comes to the amount they bill – the stu­dio be­ing rel­a­tively cheap com­pared to the con­sul­tant’s price tag, which is more con­sid­er­able.

Th­ese per­cep­tions played on me when I was think­ing through my list, and I started to use them al­most as a yard stick for the ex­er­cise. I dis­counted many be­cause they didn’t fit my newly set bill for what a ‘stu­dio’ was, and dis­carded some great work be­cause it was done by one de­signer, or a big net­work, or an agency, or some other en­tity. And just as th­ese def­i­ni­tions be­came a hin­drance to my list mak­ing, I’m al­most cer­tain they fur­ther stran­gu­late us as an in­dus­try, un­con­sciously or oth­er­wise.

I won­der if some of the truly great things hap­pen­ing (work in­cluded) are ac­tu­ally be­ing done out­side of th­ese recog­nised mod­els we de­fault to. Many of the stu­dios and agen­cies on the Stu­dio Rank­ings in past years are the same usual sus­pects, which re­ally did start to worry me to be hon­est. It feels like a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of where the in­dus­try is, what’s go­ing on within it and, more im­por­tantly, where it’s mov­ing. It’s al­most as if we’re an in­dus­try in de­nial, want­ing to per­pet­u­ate a myth that only cer­tain or es­tab­lished mod­els can, and are, do­ing good work and gar­ner­ing rep­u­ta­tion amongst peers. All the while, the mod­els of op­er­a­tion – large, multi­na­tional net­work agency at one end, then ev­ery­thing down to the small one-per­son-band at the other, with in-house set­ups not even get­ting a look-in – are stretch­ing fur­ther apart. It isn’t, I feel, fully rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the in­dus­try at present.

If you look at 90 per cent of stu­dio, agency or com­pany web­sites in our game, they’re all keen to de­fine them­selves as ‘more than just a de­sign [what­ever]’. But what does that ac­tu­ally mean? Cou­ple this with the end­less stu­dio rank­ings, cre­ative sur­veys, top 100s and most-awarded lists, and a hid­den in­se­cu­rity in our in­dus­try starts to emerge. We are all su­perbly in­se­cure in our­selves, and our roles.

The size of a cre­ative op­er­a­tion, how it’s set up and what it bills, should have no bear­ing on its cre­ative po­ten­tial, or its im­pact and recog­ni­tion by the in­dus­try. Big­ger is not al­ways bet­ter. That goes for num­ber of peo­ple, of­fices, or noughts on the bank bal­ance. Nor does great cre­ative work have to come from an au­tho­rised cre­ative area. More and more, I am see­ing in­ter­est­ing and imag­i­na­tive things hap­pen out­side the es­tab­lished mod­els. I can only view our in­sis­tence on re­tain­ing and con­grat­u­lat­ing our­selves on our well-set si­los as fu­tile and counter-pro­duc­tive.

I am more than aware of my own bias – you’re prob­a­bly think­ing I sound like some­one who isn’t on the list, so wants a self-jus­ti­fy­ing moan. But for an in­dus­try rid­dled with problems of gen­der, di­ver­sity, pay, so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, we can’t con­tinue with set minds and set ways. Per­pet­u­at­ing our own myths and pre­tend­ing that our problems will sort them­selves out won’t cut it. We have to find new of­fers and newer ways of do­ing things, be­cause we all de­pend on that. And if not for your in­dus­try, do it for your rank­ing.

Is our def­i­ni­tion of ‘stu­dio’ hold­ing us back? Tweet your thoughts to @Com­put­erArts us­ing #De­signMat­ters

The size of a cre­ative op­er­a­tion, how it’s set up and what it bills should have no bear­ing on its cre­ative po­ten­tial, or its im­pact and recog­ni­tion by the in­dus­try. Big­ger is not al­ways bet­ter

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