WE NEED TO BREAK RANK
UK Studio Rankings panellist Craig Oldham questions the design industry’s definition of ‘studio’.
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