Confidence and creative energy continue to rule the heavens, but will the gods of financial reward finally return in 2007? Mark Penfold talks to a bunch of busy designers about their predictions and gets a surprisingly positive response...
Although not a bumper year for the creative industry in terms of both business and profit, 2006 has been significant for other reasons - namely the emergence of several new graphic and illustrative looks and styles that are set to develop over the next 12 to 18 months.
Design, and the creative disciplines as a whole, is beginning to have a resurgence in popular estimation. Ad campaigns that might at one time have been purely live action are incorporating animation. Illustration is strong across editorial, advertising and TV. Even the internet is starting to make good some of its creative and fiscal promises. Capitalising on this could make 2007 a vintage year.
Illustrator Pietari Posti moved to Barcelona from his native Finland in 2005, so the last couple of years have been a time of great change for him. Illustration too has been on the turn. "Things are getting busier and generally illustration is finding its way into new avenues," he says. As always, though, this is a gradual process, and one that needs to be carefully managed. "Mainstream markets and big corporations are just warming up for illustration," says Posti. "There is still hesitation, but the general mood towards illustration is positive."
For Posti, an important breakthrough for illustration was the whole vector episode: "It's starting to lose its power now," he says, "but it formed an easy step between using photography and using illustration in advertising and publishing." Now that a path has been established away from more traditional visual approaches, the consuming public has shown itself eager for more and new experiences.
This has become a trend in itself, says Posti: "It almost feels like a trend to find new talents with new styles and to become the first to use them." But in a field as wide as illustration, what do those leafing through the portfolios think the new looks will be?
Will Little, design, advertising and editorial agent at Advocate Art, expects to see an increase in traditional skills. "I think artists will take a variety of traditional styles and mix them with new ideas to create something more progressive with a retrospective edge," he says. "Someone like Pablo Pasadas is heavily influenced by decoupage, but adds a contemporary twist by working it up using a variety of programs. There's also Owen Phillips, who works in a draughtsman storyboard style, then mixes it up with graffiti. This montage of styles and medias will be quite prolific in 2007."
This mixture of the old and new is something New York-based design house Vault49 has been developing for some time. Company founder Jonathan Kenyon believes this trend will intensify over the coming months.
"There's going to be a shift towards process-driven concepts and imagery that focuses on crafted creative origins, rather than scans and imitation," says Kenyon. "With so much style impersonation by anyone computer literate, it becomes more important to highlight skills away from the keyboard and mouse."
While this trend may well be on the rise in illustration and design, one area of the creative industry seems to have already exhausted the back-to-basics movement. Caroline Archer of typography organisation Type Events believes the trend for hand-created fonts has completely run its course. "We will see the end to the fashion for using type that looks like it's been created by a child with particularly bad handwriting, like the one Sainsbury's is using in its current publicity," she says. "It uses horrible characters, badly fitted, inexpertly used and totally inappropriate for the job!"
While illustration and typography have the creative space to move on, more straightforward graphic design is less driven by the vagaries of fashion and more by whoever's holding the chequebook. At Birmingham-based design agency Slingshot, creative director Matt Burhouse believes the trend for street-art inspired design and characters will become much more mainstream, as will a fascination for all aspects of 1980s design.
"I'd wager that we'll see some retro typefaces, some pink and grey and maybe a bit of neon," says Burhouse. "On the cutting-edge front, designers will be flexing their illustration and image-making muscles more in 2007. It seems that computers have made it possible for every man and his dog to be a 'designer', so to come up with something original the real designers will need to use their artistry more."
Design moving forward
It's in the field of motion graphics where things are really starting to shake a leg. London-based studio minivegas is among those poised to move things up a gear in 2007. For them, says Luc Schurgers, "2006 has been a bloody good year."
The members of minivegas used to work for larger production houses, but formed their own studio in 2005. "The first year was hard," Schurgers admits. "It's hard to get commissions and you have to work silly hours for no money. We were skint and looked like shit. There were times that we thought of giving up on the creative industry."
Nobody said it was going to be easy, and it looks like 2007 will be a better year. The studio is already working on an exciting project that finishes in summer 2007. "It's nice to have a long-term job that you can stick your teeth into," says Schurgers. minivegas seems to have turned a corner, something many of the smaller agencies are struggling to do. This phenomenon highlights the structure of the creative business, particularly in the UK, which in 2005 had some 47,400 freelance designers. That's a lot of talent, so no wonder it takes a while for the cream to rise to the top.
Over at design group Form, Paul West is concerned that this may be a long-term problem for the industry. "The overriding consensus of opinion is that there are too many small, breakaway design groups chasing the same client base," he says. This is both poison and cure, because it keeps things lean and mean, but, by the same token, argues West: "In a saturated marketplace, you can be judged on the merits of how cheap - rather than how good - you are."
This leads neatly into the ongoing problem of free pitching. "It sends out just one message," says West. "It says that design has no value, my ideas have no value, and you can have them for free." Sadly, most designers are coming around to the idea that free pitching may be a necessary evil.
Another inescapable fact for the creative industries is their involvement with technology. Whether it's CS3 or faster chips, there will always be creative individuals out there howling at the waxing moon of progress. But keeping up with these advances doesn't come cheap. "The standards are changing, too," says Posti, "so if you want to or need to follow the business standards - maybe because of your clients - you have to keep updating the software and hardware."
The truth, however, is much simpler: "People like me, who love to buy new gadgets and the latest software, will keep buying the latest of the latest anyway," says Posti. It's almost part of what it is to be a creative professional these days. And if you work in motion graphics or animation, the equation is even more obvious: faster machines equal quicker turnarounds. "Faster computers always make a difference," agrees Schurgers.
In many respects, these disciplines are driving the development forwards. "You'll always push your current hardware and software until it becomes unbearable, and then you'll need to junk it and upgrade again," says Schurgers. "In addition, some of the free or Open-Source creative applications are definitely usable, or at least starting to be. We're sure there will be a lot more on offer from this camp in the near future."
So, as you'd expect, the picture is complicated. Large numbers of creative people create an environment where something extraordinary becomes all the more likely. It also has the less desirable side effect of giving clients too many options - some of which are extremely cheap. Working in the graphics business means you have the luxury of working with visual culture.
This proximity to art means you don't have to be focused on the bottom line. In fact, if you're successful, the bottom line is probably being handled by someone else while you keep your eyes on the horizon. "Right now, I think everybody finds the climate really inspiring," says Posti. "But, luckily, so far no-one has asked me to draw deer heads, birds or diamonds just for the sake of it."
And as we move into 2007, the vibe will continue to be hand-made and unique. "One upcoming trend is line-work, purely pencil work, and another one is the painterly look," says Posti. "But at least we seem done with 45-degree diagonals and pluses."
From the field of animation, the buzzword is photorealism. "We would like to refine our character animation and photoreal rendering," says Schurgers. "Toon-shaded 3D and MTV graphics are so played out." Though the details may be hard to pin down, one thing that might have some influence is an influx of happening French animation directors.
If we must talk about the harsh realities of commerce, the people in the know do think things could be more positive business-wise next year. In 2007, says a report from the Design Business Association, 77 per cent of consultancies are looking forward to increased fees, 57 per cent expect to take on new staff, and salaries are due a five per cent rise.
Although these figures were pretty much identical this time last year, the feeling is better this time around. We're certainly in better creative shape. All that needs to happen now is that long-awaited upswing. A return to the days of military grade advertising budgets might be too much to hope for, but a financial shot in the arm wouldn't go amiss.