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The Design Industry's New Reality Under Trump: Fear And Isolationism

Design agencies are globalists. The Western world is increasingly isolationist. How will that tension play out?

The Design Industry's New Reality Under Trump: Fear And Isolationism

[Photo: AleksandarNakic/Getty Images]

Donald Trump, who will become the 45th president of the United States on January 20, seems like a distinctly American phenomenon. Yet he's not.

From the U.K.'s vote to leave the European Union earlier this year, to elections in France and Austria this year where votes to keep far-right candidates from becoming heads of state ride the razor's edge, the world is dealing with a wave of isolationist kickback after almost two decades of globalist expansion.

It's a wave the design community, which is traditionally globalist, is going to have to weather. In America, this means that design firms are facing the prospect that their workforces, a huge percentage of which are made up of foreign-born talent, might face new scrutiny under the Trump administration. It also means that firms' values will be tested like never before.

Trump's Rhetoric On Immigration

So far, Trump hasn't laid out many concrete plans, which is causing an air of uncertainty in the design world. "We don’t know yet what President-elect Trump plans to do. We haven’t seen any specific proposals from him yet," says John Barratt, president and CEO at Teague, where 15% of the firm's 300-strong workforce is foreign-born. It's still mostly just rhetoric. But there are some guesses that can be made.

Trump's campaign promises for his first 100 days in office only specifically mention repealing Obama's executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which could see between 740,000 and 1.7 million people who came illegally to the United States as children deported. He has also promised to increase scrutiny of immigrants from "terror-prone" countries. What Trump means by this and what specific countries would be included in this list is anyone's guess, but obvious contenders include Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Indonesia, and other terrorist safe havens.

Neither of these plans is likely to significantly impact most American design agencies. But there's general anxiety among design agencies we spoke to that Trump's administration could make applying for H-1B nonimmigrant work visas more difficult, something Trump has repeatedly promised before and after the election.

These visas are the most common method of bringing creative professionals into the country to work legally, and design agencies depend upon them extensively. This anxiety is nothing new, but it's deepening in the face of a Trump presidency.

Design Firms Depend On Foreign Talent

Craig Dykers, founding partner and executive director of Snøhetta—where 20% of its U.S. workforce could be affected by more stringent immigration controls—points out that scrutiny of H-1B applicants has been getting tighter and tighter every year since 9/11, including under Obama. In 2001, 161,643 H-1B visas were approved by the State Department; 13 years later, the number of available visas had grown by just 3%, compared to a U.S. population growth of about 10%. So it's already pretty hard to get in. "The big question is: Will it get more stringent?" says Dykers. "And we don't know how to answer that yet, except to say, it's already plenty stringent."

If H-1B and similar visas become harder to get, design firms will likely find it more difficult to fill their ranks with top-quality talent. At Siegel+Gale, 10% of all U.S. employees are born abroad. These employees, says co-CEO and chief creative officer Howard Belk, are "impact players"—designers who count among Siegel+Gale's VIPs. "We simply would not bother going through all the hassle of trying to bring them to this country if they weren't worth the effort," Belk says, pointing out that every H1-B worker comes with an overhead in legal fees and paperwork. So even if only a small number of foreign-born professionals are denied entry or reentry into the country, a tougher policy could have an outsized impact on an agency.

[Photo: skynesher/Getty Images]

This raises a larger point. Like a particle accelerator, design only reliably creates new elements when it is blasting as many different atoms, molecules, and quarks off of each other as possible, except those particles are different creeds, cultures, and heritages. "Design agencies especially benefit from having an international staff," says Dan Harden, CEO of Whipsaw, where a full 40% of the team is foreign-born. "When you mix different cultures in a design process, you get creative alchemy. You’ll be challenged, surprised, and forced out of your own box, but you’ll innovate."

The Inherent Conflict Between Designers and Trump

So design is a global industry. Meanwhile, the platform that got Trump elected is isolationist at best (and, many would say, white nationalist at worst). Outside of the mere disruption of bringing foreign-born talent into the United States, there's an inherent conflict between these worldviews, which has both a downside and a surprising upside.

The downside? "On at least some level, the biggest concern the design community should have about a Trump presidency, and other isolationist movements like Brexit, is that it creates a perception that these nations are less open, inclusive, and diverse," says Ije Nwokorie, CEO of Wolff Olins, where 33% of the U.S. workers are foreign nationals. "That's kryptonite for the creative process, because creative people like to work in diverse environments. That's where they feel safe. A feeling of diversity is why London, New York, and San Francisco are such creative hubs." So even before you get into the hard issues of immigration policy, isolationist rhetoric like Trump's can make designers more fearful, and less likely to pursue jobs in America. Pentagram's Natasha Jen puts it bluntly: "What's worrisome is the anti-immigrant, if not white supremacist ideology that will make America a much less attractive, if not a scary, place to work and live."

But there's a surprising upside too, according to Nwokorie. "Just like in art and other forms of creativity, design often thrives when it has something to oppose, to fight for or against," he says. "Benign, unchallenging environments can also be kryptonite for the creative process. So if there's a silver lining in Trump's election and Brexit, it's this. At least in some degree, the design community is interpreting these events as an attack on what we stand for. I can already feel an awakening after the initial shock in the U.S. and the U.K. to double down on our efforts to create things for the many, not the few."

Calling Designers To Action

This feeling of having been called to action—creatively and otherwise—is one echoed by many design firms. At Snøhetta, employees are being openly encouraged to attend protests, and even having their travel fares to upcoming marches in Washington, D.C., subsidized. And after pointing out that some politically motivated companies like Patagonia even post bail for employees (provided they first complete complementary Ruckus Society training on the correct ways to protest nonviolently), Dykers said: "I wasn't thinking about that before, but I sure as hell am now."

Regardless, while the future may be uncertain, none of the design agencies we spoke to had any intention of changing the way they did business. Some were openly defiant about it, like Christof Mees, CEO of Ziba, where at least 25% of its employees working in America are foreign-born. A German with a green card himself, Mees is shocked by Trump's rhetoric against immigrants and foreigners on multiple levels. "We will not change our principles," Mees says. " We will not turn into an all-white male firm. We will double down on our efforts. We need to drive diversity, because it's right for Ziba, and it's right for our society."

Even if design firms wanted to change how they did business to cater to Trump's America, it's not entirely clear that they could. Design can't be done in a bubble; internationalism is just too intertwined in the way design firms do business, and the very process of design. Just look at some of the most prominent designers and designs of this century. Architects, like Bjarke Ingels and Norman Foster, routinely work outside of their home countries, and employ incredibly diverse staffs. Jonathan Ive, Apple's design chief and the closest thing design has to a household name, is British. Located in Washington, D.C., the new National Museum of African American History and Culture was designed by David Ajaye, a Ghanian-British architect, in collaboration with Philadelphia-born Philip Freelon.

If a Trump administration stops these sort of creative synergies from happening, the long view is that designers will simply go do their work in new places, where diversity is celebrated, not strangled. This, in turn, could lead to the rise of new creative hubs around the world—just not in the U.S.

No matter what, the firms we spoke with were adamant that nothing about Trump will ultimately change design's globalist ethos. As Wolff Olins' CEO Ije Nwokorie explained to me: "Trump the man is just too small a notion to change what we, as designers, stand for."

Suzanne LaBarre contributed reporting.

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