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Thu Jun 15 2017

Brexit: What Does It Mean For British Design?

With the outcome of last week’s election still fresh in our minds – not to mention the referendum of last year – we thought it might be a pertinent time to revisit one of the highlights from last month’s Clerkenwell Design Week.

One of the best-attended talks of the week and certainly a highlight for us was ‘Brexit: What Does it Mean for British Design?’, hosted by Design Week editor Tom Banks. With a panel that included Paul Smyth, co-founder of Makerversity and Something & Sons and director and founding partner of Shedkm Hazel Rounding, the panel picked apart the possible implications for the design industry – good and bad – for when Britain does, finally, exit the EU.

Needless to say, the considerations for the design industry are numerous - and the most worrying aspect about Brexit is that nobody really knows how it’s going to pan out yet.

The so-called ‘brain drain’ was of huge concern for the panel and audience alike. Presently, Britain benefits from architects and designers coming to work here from all over Europe – but with immigration controls yet to be made clear by authorities, it’s hard to say how the UK design industry will fare if the doors are pulled even tighter on immigration. Points systems have been mooted by the government in the past, but as Paul Smyth cited – how can you or your business prove your creative worth?

Historically, the UK has become a collaborative base for designers from across Europe. With collaboration between business, brands and individuals potentially going to be a lot tougher, the design industry must look at ways around this. Design, the panel stated, is, by its nature, a collaborative process, and in the UK we’ve always looked to Europe for inspiration. Now that door is shut, how will our creative output fare on a world stage? Design education is a key export for the UK, and we should be careful not to neglect this aspect of our industry either.

Switching to practical issues, the challenges faced by businesses in terms of manufacture and supply will also have to be managed carefully by government. For example, the recent pressures on sterling have hit margins hard for many interiors brands – and if the post-Brexit slump in the pound doesn’t improve, this could have long-term implications on the design industry. With new tariffs to negotiate, the day-to-day admin will take more time away from product innovation, and there’s a viable argument that the UK will become a less attractive place to invest in. Furthermore, architecture and building could be affected in the UK if building materials – many of which are sourced from across the EU - are subject to tariff changes.

The design industry also needs clarification from government on whether industry standards – many of which were implemented from EU directives over the years – could change. Whilst the panel expected that these would remain consistent to current and future EU product standards, the panel warned that any variation would affect the UK market’s competitiveness and sales across the globe.

But whilst the panel remained concerned about the uncertainties, there were some reasons to remain hopeful. With the design industry now positioned as the ninth biggest employer in the UK and contributing billions of pounds to the economy, the government will want to do as much as possible to protect it. Our ‘soft power’ as a cultural force remains strong, so it’s unlikely that creatives across the world will now turn their backs on us in droves – as some have claimed.

The panel also argued that some of the most dynamic cultural and design movements come about through periods of flux – and with Brexit providing one of the most seismic shifts in British politics for a generation, it will be interesting to see how the movement affects our creative output, (which it undoubtedly will). Perhaps, argued Paul Smyth, there’s an argument that greater cohesion throughout the EU led to a degree of monotony in design. Maybe, with Brexit, we will see more innovation and independence in the British design narrative from now on? UK design will always look to Europe for inspiration and collaboration – what we must navigate now, the panel said, was how we put our new relationship with the EU into practice.

As one audience member stated: problems, for designers, are opportunities. What opportunities Brexit might offer UK design, however, remains to be seen.

Lorcan O'Donoghue