Business of design: Western Australia

Apr 7, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor

*Rebecca Eggleston*
*Industry Development Manager for FORM*
*Western Australia*

Nurturing our design sector has never been Western Australia’s strong point. But with a renewed momentum surging through the local as well as national design scene, Western Australian design seems to be entering a phase of great creativity, growth and dynamism.

While I begin on this heartening note it is important to be aware of the pitfalls that have littered the local design sector’s recent history and the challenges that remain today. Having suffered a great talent drain for many years, the design sector is in a fairly anaemic state to begin with.

Funding and investment in design is relatively new and not yet well established, with design still positioned within arts portfolios, where it has customarily been somewhat sidelined in favour of more traditional arts media. Design sits awkwardly therefore between arts and industry portfolios, not fully adopted by either. Even with the emphasis on innovation that has gradually gained ground in government policy over recent years, design and the creative industries come in a distant last place in relation to the sciences, defence and biotechnology. Design has not yet been embraced through integration with areas such as business, planning and urban agendas.

There are also a number of established and emerging contextual conditions that affect on the design sector. The rise and rise of the resources industry, which is the mainstay of the Western Australian economy, is generating another type of drain. It is drawing into its whirlpool the entirety of the limited manufacturing, construction and material suppliers sector, dominating with the ability to accommodate exorbitant prices.

Education is likewise suffering. Design education has for some time experienced a growing disjoint between industry and tertiary sectors, and a design focus that does not equip students with the other skills that are required in the business world. The nature of the design sector, littered with small practices, independent consultants or practitioners, often requires professionals to be negotiators, accountants, marketers, manufacturers and the like in addition to being outstanding designers in a highly competitive field. It is a frightening prospect that now the education sector generally is not likely to improve with the current drain of resources and weakening of education sectors that is accompanying the resources boom time.

In the professional sphere, this lack of business skills is one of the barriers that hinders practitioners. Generally, the design sector may be characterised as small, with very little access to manufacturing, low demand that stems from the low population base, and low levels of collaboration traditionally. A greater entrepreneurialism is needed to counter these challenges.

Many of these facets of the design sector are changing, however, with designers by nature a creative lot determined to find new solutions to old problems. My hope is that Western Australia will start to recognise the flipside of many of these challenges also, which may present fantastic opportunities for the industry.
Let’s return to the mining industry for instance. While this presents the difficulties discussed, conversely the vastly increasing wealth stimulates greater interest and expenditure in design, both products and services.

The growth of China and its manufacturing dominance that has presented such a menacing adversary for many a local designer, also brings with it a burgeoning marketplace with a population whose wealth is on the increase and is likely to develop a greater taste for international product and established services. Beyond China, globalisation and heightened international trade around the world is also seeing a return to a pride in and desire for cultural exchange alongside the financial and this cultural diplomacy offers advantages for design reflective of regional identities.

Perhaps one of the greatest assets we have in Western Australian design and the creative industries broadly is accidental. One of the side effects of skeletal funding structures is that, contrary to those well-fed states where there is an established base of designers, recognition and funding for design, in Western Australia there is an energy, a questioning, a desire to stimulate change and along with it the growth of the sector. There is a substantially greater focus on industry development and a higher level of programming and debate to address the pressing difficulties facing local design. As a result of this momentum that is generating a character of its own, Western Australia may yet overtake those other states that have had the opportunity to rest on their laurels. There is certainly a great deal of talent and conviction about the contribution design can make, and with this energy and drive we have behind us the momentum to take us to extraordinary places.

The increasing cohesion of the design sector will offer significant benefits into the future for establishing a profile as well as accelerating development and assisting with retention of our talent pool. Western Australian design has already been gaining a reputation for immense talent in areas such as fashion, architecture and furniture, and there are many more creative fields with enormous potential that are still blossoming. The rise of new design stores and outlets in Perth and an increasing general awareness of design are promising signs of changes to some of the conditions that have traditionally defined the sector and market.

Of course this is all relative. What is it that we should compare to? In the eastern states such as Victoria and Queensland, one sees far greater investment and policy orientation towards recognising, supporting and growing design and the creative industries. The impact is echoed in the urban environment, the cultural programming, levels of activity and vibrancy, and creative output. In an ideal world Western Australia will be working towards these states of being and beyond, building on its own unique strengths and characteristics to develop a distinctive design scene that is capable of sustaining and growing itself, rather than purely replicating models from elsewhere irrespective of the different local conditions and context.

The biggest challenge of all that still remains is to integrate design thinking across all manner of sectors as an integral tool for problem-solving through creative thinking – finding new solutions to the problems of contemporary life. This is a challenge yet to be conquered, but one that offers enormous rewards.

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