Reflections on Brexit design: how will it function in and out of Europe?

Twenty-five years ago, I ran a series of talks at the Leeds City Art Gallery called ‘Design into Europe’. 1992 was the watershed year of the Maastricht Treaty that would lead to the creation of the Euro. And on 1 January 1993 the single market and its four freedoms were established: the free movement of goods, services, people and money.

All four of these would set the scene for UK design which was and is very much an export-oriented service industry. For my part, around the time I was also busy springboarding off my first book, New Spanish Design (now available on eBay for £2.80!) in helping UK design consultancies and other creative industries exponents to find their way into the Iberian marketplace. New markets and relationships were promised. And a new aesthetic palette of Europeaneity was coming to hand.

Now, with Brexit, it seems that some designers – but not all – are staring into the abyss of living and working without those taken-for-granted pillars…. and without a certain European ‘look’.

Transition is always painful. It involves processes of grieving and loss that are characterised by those oft-cited five-stages of denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. All five were at work in the Salon and at times it felt more like a group therapy session.

View from the Chair, l. to r.: Franco Bianchini, Alastair Donald, Michael Thomson, Sarah Mann, Robert Mull

View from the Chair, l. to r.: Franco Bianchini, Alastair Donald, Michael Thomson, Sarah Mann, Robert Mull

Franco Bianchini usefully sketched out a cultural history of the UK creative class for us that helped to contexualise the discussion going forwards. He noted how the ‘creative class’ of the 1970s was engaged in trying to look out how cultural practice could address the growing crises of the autonomous working class. Deindustrialisation and economic recession (yes, folks, they’ve been around for quite a while!) were dismantling traditional workerist roles. Then, under New Labour from 1997, the creative industries became instrumentalised as a disciplining system, Franco suggested. Be creative, or face the doldrums was/is the message. The City of Hull, Franco’s adopted home-town, now faces the contradictions and opportunities of both these options, made even more urgent by the vacuum of austerity. As City of Culture for 2017, Hull has the possibility of re-forming itself as an international centre of architecture, design and the arts. Meanwhile, the Brexit Referendum had 68% of its population vote Leave.

Alastair Donald reminded us that Brexit is really happening. The Salon took place just two days after Parliament had voted to allow the government to get Brexit negotiations underway. So, the challenge for design and architecture is to understand how to minimize its worst impacts and maximize the advantages of leaving the EU. Alastair claimed that the malaise of the creative industries sectors in particular, and the UK in general, had gone unnoticed. He argued that Fortress Europe had produced a tick-box approach to the approval of design and planning and that this had also led to a slow down in innovation. His view was decidedly upbeat: Brexit would allow for some radical re-thinking on the role of creativity and open up opportunities for it to reach into new audiences. It seemed that those ambitions of the 1970s, as Franco had sketched out, might have their day still.

Sarah Mann reminded us that her organization, the British Council, pre-dates the EU by a long way. Founded in 1934, its primary aim has always been to promote mutual understanding across borders. Art, craft and design provide ways of both presenting a positive national image and reaching out internationally. With the decline of making and hand-skills, nonetheless other opportunities are available for creative thinking and practice to be active. For example, design in ageing, the circular economy and open source are just three areas for radical re-framing not just of design, but of economic processes. At the same time, these are quite dependent on the free movement of ideas, expertise and people to flourish. Will Brexit close these down? And, more broadly, how does the UK project itself as a creative economy in the new circumstances – whatever these may be?

Speaking from an educator’s perspective, Robert Mull noted how Brexit had already put a brake on applications from European students to come to the UK to study. One result of this would be a loss of diversity amongst the student population. After decades of openness, design education was at risk at falling into a ‘Little Britain’ mentality, losing its outward-orientation. From a personal point of view, Robert was concerned about the impact of Brexit leading to a decreased sense of the social value of design. The scrabble for global market share may dominate the discourse for years to come at the expense of humanitarian values that have built up over decades.

Michael Thomson saw the Brexit vote as a failure of imagination on the part of the Remain camp. Brexit supporters had a very powerful brand strategy. (Even the word ‘Brexit’ is on a par with Persil as a memorable sound.) The Remain campaign had nothing approaching such a strong brand. (Note: this could have been a great student design brief!) In preparation for the Salon, Michael had phoned some of his counterparts in the Bureau of European Design Associations. It seemed that there was very much a ‘wait and see’ attitude in mainland Europe. Panic or, even, planning for post-Brext didn’t seem to be coursing through these countries. The design industry has a long history of dodging and weaving, of adapting to and even thriving in new circumstances. So on both sides of the English Channel, the Irish Sea and the North Sea there will be adjustments. But that is as it ever was.

The rise of design since the 1980s has run in parallel with the steady move towards managerial politics in Europe. Decision-making has become about pragmatic moves to ensure economic growth and social cohesion rather than being driven by explicit ideological programmes. Another way of saying this is that the neoliberal marketplace has come to dominate. (For more on this relationship with design, see my new book Economies of Design.) Design has benefitted in some ways and not in others. The opportunity, at least for Alastair Donald, here is in forging a new narrative for design that is liberated from its service-to-the-market mode.

Not all panelists or audience participants could rise to such optimism, though. One characterization of post-Brexit design and society was that they could be like Berlin after the fall of the wall. There would be a cultural release as new possibilities arise. Another was that they could be more like Eastern Berlin before the wall was taken apart. Isolation and the rise of petty nationalism may close down not just physical borders but also imaginative ones.

Business parlance in past decades has told us to get used to uncertainty. The current uncertainty in the UK was matched by the uncertainty of panelists and participants.

To get psychoanalytic about this and return to group-therapy mode, it seems necessary, in dealing with this uncertainty, to invoke the Freudian trio of the superego, the ego and the id. The superego is that big societal narrative of reason. The design industry’s institutional apparatus seems to be asking us to be grown-up and mature – speak with one voice, show its strong resolve. Meanwhile, the id – the unconscious force of our desire to be creative, violent, angry and many other things – is in a state of rage. Design practitioners want to do stuff but are bewildered as to where to direct this rage, however. Meanwhile, design’s ego is stuck in the middle, trying to mediate between these.

It’s a classic service-role that the ego of British design has been so good at. For a long time. Most crises come to resolution. But it’ll take a lot more honest talk for us to get there.



This entry was posted in design education, design practice, economies, Europe, recession. Bookmark the permalink.

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