Last year, I had the opportunity to spend a semester at North Carolina State University as a designer in residence in the Graphic Design department. The Raleigh-Durham area is well known for its Research Triangle, developed nearly five decades ago as a partnership between the state’s government, industry, and academia to attract investment and employment in the technology and science sectors. Nearly 40,000 full-time employees work in the Research Triangle today in companies like IBM, Lenovo, Cisco, Red Hat, and BASF.
During my stay in Raleigh I had the opportunity to do a presentation to the Masters students in graphic design about the influence of design in cities. It took me six months to articulate some of those ideas a little better, which I’d like to share with you. In my presentation, we talked about how designers tend to concentrate in economically prosperous areas and how some cities develop a specialized work-force in design, while other cities tend to have a diverse design workforce. I mentioned the example of the Lombardy region in Italy, where various product and lighting manufacturers like Alessi, Kartel, Flos, and Artimede are concentrated. In contrast, other cities like Toronto, Canada, have a more diversified design workforce. I showed them the maps by Yale University professor William Nordhaus, who has paired economic activity with geographic areas. It was evident that the design powerhouses in Canada and Italy were located in the prosperous regions of both countries’ biggest urban regions (see Figures 1 and 2).
Figs. 1 and 2. Geographically based Economic data (G-Econ) maps for Canada and Italy. Peaks highlight the economic predominance of Toronto and Lombardy. Maps by Prof. William Nordhaus, Yale University.
Figure 1. Economic activity in Italy.
Figure 2. Economic activity in Canada.Governments have become big promoters of design and creativity.
Gordon Brown, Britain’s Prime Minister, recently asked the Design Council to find ways for Britain to enhance the country’s business competitiveness through its creative talents. A few years ago, India drafted its first national design policy, following other Asian countries. This year, the city of Turin was designated as the first World Design Capital. The city is proud of its diverse economy hosting a variety of industries, from aerospace to wineries. Seoul has already been designated as 2010’s design capital, riding on the success of its global brands like LG, Samsung, and Daewoo.
Design’s love affair with government perhaps began in the 90s. The Creative City book was released, following a 1995 article by Charles Landry and Franco Bianchini. Demos, the British think-tank began advising policy-makers to look at creativity as an enabler of regional economic prosperity in face of globalization. In 1998, Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization also built the foundation to what Richard Florida would later dub the “creative class,” a term that includes designers, as well as workers in IT, science, financial sectors, among others.
I have not seen how these design policies are drafted, but they lead me to believe that they are based on theories regarding the diversity of design activities in urban regions and their connection to regional economic drivers. As designers, we lack economic tools to draft these theories, so it is very likely that design policies are drafted largely by non-designers. Regional economic theories for design that include designers’ perspectives are needed.
I can only speculate on the content of design policies by doing some reverse engineering. To draft such policies, I would start by quantifying the contributions of all the design industries in the local economy such as graphic design, product design, and so on, and do an inventory of the local economic output. I would look at the design workforce, based on designers’ supply and demand, the annual number of design students graduating each year from local universities and new hires. If the number of design students exceeds the number of local design jobs, a city is likely to experience a “brain drain” of designers.
Based on an economic theory of design diversification and specialization cities could also invest in the development of new design areas and diversify their design economies. Concentration of graphic designers, for example, has a direct relation to the advancement of profession and the economic value that they create for a city. A desired concentration of designers, based on the number of institutions, organizations, companies, and gross domestic product (GDP) of a city could be calculated. I imagine the visual output of such estimate would look like slightly like a bell curve. (see figure 3).
Figure 3. Regional economic benefits of design are diminished as design workforce grows beyond demand. After a peak in optimal density has been passed, the addition of new graphic designers would not greatly benefit the economy of a city, nor the advancement of the profession. After the peak is passed, it would be recommendable for graphic designers to diversify their skills, or to specialize their skills even more, depending on the economic activities of the region. Graphic designers could focus on type design, or editorial design, for example. Designers could develop a new specialization, such as gene sequencing visualizations.
A city like Raleigh already has most of the criteria found in the “creative economy” principles. Raleigh-Durham is the sixth city with most “creative” workers in the U.S. according to Richard Florida’s Creativity Index (2002). It also has a highly educated population. Masters and PhD programs in design are available at NC State University, for example. There is a large number of companies with large Research & Development budgets, as well as connections to global markets. I don’t know if the region will become a creative economy driven by design, like the ones I mentioned earlier, but if Raleigh-Durham does draft a design policy for the region, I wonder how involved designers will be. Can design organizations drive such change?