UK\US design culture

Recently I have become increasingly frustrated with the design culture at my current consultancy (UK based) and I have begun to question whether or not this is more of a ‘UK design culture’ problem than a company specific issue.

Spending time on the weekends trapsing the blogs, reading articles looking at concept work I seem to find one thing in common… They are generally all US companies. Lunar, NDD,Nike,IDEO, Teague, Frog, Astro, Smart, Fuse all seem to be pumping out thoughtful ramblings, inspired concepts and generally portraying a real sense of a nutured internal design community. You certainly get the sense of “fun” and “play”. Is this simply a clever marketing exercise? Or is this more organic and real? More importantly is this a handfull of designers at each company working long into the night? Or is it everybody being allowed some “play” time during the working week to keep the creative juices stimulated?

Are there people on the boards who have done the UK-US or US-UK jump? Have they found a difference in a country’s attitude to design? Or is it really down to the company?

Any insight into this would be marvelous!

I think this is a very interesting observation and am actually also very interested in the thoughts from the forum regarding this.

In order to create the opportunity for companies to allocated time and resources to “play”, I’d imagine that there needs to be backing and encouragement from the client, at least in some respects.
I believe it is true that the American based firms do have a more playful and fun image. Whether this is true or not might not really matter in the first instance but comes into play when large corporate clients select their design partners.
Obviously a client looking for lots of “out of the box” work will select a firm that fits their profile and has successfully done work like this before.

I believe that in the end, it has to do with resources and whether the firm is willing to allocate designers on staff to work conceptually where bringing a product to market might not be the main objective and necessary for the firms survival.

All these inspired concepts may be a way to disinform rival companies’ interests and steer them towards completely inappropriate. What goes on inside those studios may be completely different. Big studios can use their influence and power to an unfair advantage.

For the OP: I’d say stick with your consultancy. Do your best to take the company where you work further than spend time finding a better place to work in.

Why so negative? I think these exercises are essential and vital to the creative nature and development of a company.

Personally, I don’t see a conspiracy here and welcome blue sky concepts.

@ experiMental

But I digress. Having worked at a few places in the US, I’d say the environments encourage people to experiment, and to do concept work to stay fresh and explore when there is down time. Sometimes there is time allotted for this, often it is a few passionate people putting in extra hours because they want to do it.

The concept motorcycles I worked at when I was on frog were just that. The SF bike started as a dinner conversation between myself and the CCO, turned into a sketch, which evolved into a series of renderings, which got other people excited and who started adding ideas and refinements, which turned into getting some time put aside to do CAD, which spilled over into a bunch of weekends… we do it for the love. Maybe Americans just have an odd sense of free time?

I can’t comment on any differences in Europe, but over the years Seymourpowell have certainly put out some sweet motorcycle concepts.

To the OP, I’d say if you are not happy where you are, move on if you can find a place that feels like it will provide the right kind of environment for you to be the best you can. An organizations culture largely comes from the top down, even if at times it appears to come from the bottom up (that is a top down decision you see). Life is too short at the wrong place for you. It doesn’t mean one is better or worse, just about the best fit for you at this time.

More comments later, but remember most of the “free time” isn’t really “free” I’d bet most of these fun projects are done not on weekends but during billable time, just billed internally as a marketing or development expense.

Not that there isn’t value in the projects for the firm and designers but there is a cost and the consultancy needs to be in a certain place financially to devote the $ to marketing as it is.

More of a large vs small consultancy thing I would guess than us vs uk.


I think Richard is on to something with regards to size. I remember talking to guys in 2-4 person firms…not a lot of unbillable concept work over there! This is with regards to firms in Arizona and Boston in the US and Montreal in Canada.

I’ve done the US to UK jump, and while things are a little different, there still seems to be plenty of inhouse projects happening in studios here, very similar to what I had seen in the US…

Some designers do work in their own time that makes it on the company website or blogs. Other times at consultancies everyone isn’t on client work and internal projects come about, especially if there are some industries where the company wants to build experience or get blogsposure.

Here are some examples:

Internationally well known and larger - Seymour Powell seems to do plenty of fun projects, probably to promote themselves. Remember the floating airship? From what I read on the website, that internal project got them some work with Samsung

A smaller (I think under 5 people) UK company, Matter studios in Bath, did some internal projects for an inclusive design comepetion (they won and its well highlighted on their site)

Larger-sized and my employer, Kinneir Dufort does an internal project or two every year which some are shown, some are not. This is one done a couple years ago was inspired by work done with an electronics refubishing company, Regenisys. It was a fun exploration about adding emotional connections to mobile phone and making them less disposable/wasteful. That and some internal work last year opened doors for us

That leather backed phone is sweet! Travis, did you work on that?

I missed that airship from SP, nice.

Similarly, when I was at Evo Design, 5-10 people, we did several concept projects per year in industries we wanted to do more work in. They were great for the team, almost like palette cleansers, where everyone could relax and have some fun on something that was fairly open. These are often made public quickly for PR purposes, and the younger designers who may not have anything in production yet seem to really appreciate having something publicly showable!

I think it has to do with the organization and what it places value on. If the org is just concerned about the next quarters profitability, you are not going to be doing many concept projects. If the org is concerned with the type of work they will be attracting in the next 5 years and how they are influencing the culture of design, there may be opportunities to do concept work to help shape that.

That one happened right before joining… I led another mobile exploration last year that’s unfortunately not public :frowning: hate it when that happens

Anyway, I think it’s good for a design team too. If designers have spare time, what better to work on than fun projects where they can have more freedom and polish skills, better yet if the company can use later. I’ve definitely seen company cultures where it’s all about concrete profit/loss and it’s stifling

Since we are sharing, two done at frog in the last 6 months:

Gadgets of 2025.jpg

They all start with a few interested people hanging out, tossing around some raw ideas and having fun. These images are from a workshop I co-lead on the fox news piece. That one was internally budgeted for in terms of time.
DiTullo Brainstorm.jpg
DiTullo Brainstorm 3.jpg


I only worked for one big UK corporation as a designer. In branded footwear they are probably the biggest employer in the UK.

I remember Yo saying he could do freelance on the side at when he worked for Nike, so long as it wasn’t conflicting with what he did at work. At the corporation I worked for this was forbidden and a sackable offense.

Infact I know someone who was sacked from there for moonlighting. He now runs a successful business of his own. I think that’s very sad. One of the reasons I went freelance was because I was bored designing the same category of athletic footwear week-in, week-out. You don’t learn very much either.

I don’t know if they still have this policy, but if they do, I think it’s a shame. Job satisfaction is not necessarily about money or working environment, it is more than that.

UK design is not dead! There’s good work happening, maybe without the same exposure as US stuff. UK design heritage is strong and something to be confident about

Its hard (for me) not to think about the differences between the UK and US having lived/worked in both, but it’s also hard not to generalize. Overall, I do think design is approached slightly differently.

From what I’ve seen, the hybrid designer-engineer seems to be more popular in UK than specialized designers (who have others to do light engineering for them). Dyson’s a good example. Seems to be fewer “Astro”-like exciting design houses too, or at least fewer with their success - maybe because US consumerism appetites or the amount of US CE companies? Packaging design seems more sophisticated here t00, my theory is the daily foot commute shopping vs. US car-t0-grocery style attracts customers differently. I also think the strong US design consultancies like frog design, IDEO, and others command higher fees and have have more budget for rationalization.

I know what you’re saying about European design chops - Pinafarina for example is known for emotionally powerful design and command massive budgets… and I’ve met talented UK and European designers here and in the US that could fit in any environment

Just some thoughts to be taken with a grain of salt

UK design is still strong, but I think the majority of UK consultancies just don’t have the budget for concept work. Most consultancies are <10 staff, and have to run a pretty efficient operation.

Travis, I definitely agree with your point about ‘hybrid’ designers. There are fewer dedicated IDers, but more ID / PD engineers.

to clarify: American designers are great on the engineering know-how and parametric programs just like the British - it just seems the proportion between responsibilities could be different

Travismo: I think Astro and other very blue sky places are in the minority even in North America. I think most practicing IDers in America have a pretty good engineering know-how. A very narrowly talented minority don’t.

My thoughts were that the proportions of engineering type activities felt higher, and that’s just my impression from a small sample of companies here, and even in those companies it wasn’t like the designers weren’t very talented in the standard design skills. It’s just that I’ve seen designers tasked to build up some very mechanical project work.

When I’ve worked in startups (in the US), there was a similar need to be both designer and engineer, though in later jobs in the US it seemed that those tasks were not expected of most designers. Other US jobs, we were expected to step in to model, draft, set up wall thicknesses, etc. only where the engineer wouldn’t have the finesse to keep the design intent - like logos on a drafted surface. So that was my impression.

There are a lot of design companies in both countries, especially in the USA. It’s really hard/unfair to generalize ( I don’t like it when people generalize about the US ) so take it all with a grain of salt - there are differences between design in the UK and US, though it’s not black and white different.

There is a different mentality towards product design in the US. And I think that comes from a bigger scene and more opportunities. The UK scene is a bit desperate and tends to be split 2 ways… mega play… as in RCA borderline art projects and virtually no play… ‘agencies’ as they call themselves designing the bare minimum to get by… ‘get the job out the door’ and get paid. And with a massive lack of interest in good design or skillsets, other than ‘can you use Solidworks?’. The UK angers me. The US… I can’t get a visa for, but have spent some time there.

I have a friend who’s applying for med schools in both the UK and the US right now, and she received the advice (from an admissions officer) that for US applications, you have to be much more self-assured, almost cocky, but for UK applications you have to be much more humble in your statements and let your resume speak for itself.
For those that have worked in both regions, do you think this applies to applications to design firms as well (maybe to a lesser degree)?