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Brexit Is Official. Here’s What That Means For Designers

Designers consider their role in the U.K.’s transition out of the EU.

Brexit Is Official. Here’s What That Means For Designers
[Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

On March 29, British Prime Minister Theresa May signed a six-page letter initiating Article 50, making the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union–aka Brexit–official. What follows is a two-year negotiation period during which the EU and U.K. will determine how the two entities will disentangle and what their future relationship will be.

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When the U.K. decided to leave the EU in a June 2016 vote, the creative industry feared a slew of negative consequences. Some of the designers we interviewed worried about hiring talent and losing business, and feared London’s design scene would become less exciting–and even less desirable to buy into. While some prominent designers like James Dyson and Zaha Hadid Architects’ Patrik Schumacher supported Brexit all along, the majority of creatives were overwhelmingly pessimistic about leaving the EU. Now, there’s a more nuanced view.

We went back to some of the designers featured in our Brexit story last summer to see how they’re preparing now. There’s still uncertainty, frustration, and anger–but also some reluctant optimism.

[Photo: Hugh Pinney/Getty Images]

There’s More Ire, But That Hasn’t Generated Clarity

The global creative agency Moving Brands–whose clients include Sony, Google, HP, and Netflix–is headquartered in East London. Mat Heinl, the company’s CEO, attributes his studio’s success to having a diverse team and being able to easily tap into a deep pool of talent. One of his main concerns about Brexit is employment–how hiring the right people could become extremely difficult.

“The big risk is that London’s access to excellent, diverse talents from the EU diminishes,” he says. “From what I can tell, this is still a very open question.”

He’s also troubled by the type of conversation and rhetoric that’s become normalized. “There have been countless conversations on this topic, but I think in general we’ve all managed to generate far more heat than light,” he says. “We have entered a period where the general sense of openness and stability that London has been world famous for is being questioned. That’s not an easy place to come back from. I think that has been exacerbated by a lack of decency shown by U.K. decision-makers who have essentially decided to use EU nationals currently residing in the U.K. as bargaining chips in the negotiations.” For example, there have been discussions about granting permanent residency to EU citizens who currently live in the U.K. Some politicians have argued that doing so might weaken the ability to negotiate on other terms of Brexit.

[Photo: Hugh Pinney/Getty Images]

Design Studios Are Weighing Where They’ll Expand

Brexit represented one of the first of many events to signal the global rise of populism–however that, paired with Trump’s election, troubles David Sheldon-Hicks, cofounder and executive creative director of Territory Studio, the visual effects designers behind the forthcoming Ghost in the Shell remake. Last year, he felt confident that the creative industries would find ways to work around any restrictions imposed by Brexit.

“I’m still optimistic that the creative community will find ways and means to overcome the challenges we face,” he says. “But the certainty of Brexit is disappointing and frustrating not least because of the potential impact on investment in creative projects here. With such an international focus as the territory has, we need to be able to work across borders and be free to hire the best international talent. And, as we have a lot of European designers and artists, the next two years of negotiations are critical and may influence our decision about where to open our next studio. But Brexit isn’t our only challenge; the U.S. elections also had a real impact on our business. But as we opened a studio in San Francisco last year, we’re better able to maintain close relationships with our U.S.-based clients.”

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[Photo: Hugh Pinney/Getty Images]

There’s Plenty of Bitterness

When we spoke last year, Adrian Shaughnessy–a Royal College of Art professor, cofounder of the publishing company Unit Editions, designer, and writer–lambasted the “scare-mongering, isolationism, and casual racism” of Brexit’s proponents. He’s even more frustrated today.

“Ever since last June’s referendum, I have felt miserable about the decision to leave the EU, and the invoking of Article 50 had made me feel even gloomier,” Shaughnessy says. “I’m aware of the populist anti-EU arguments: the non-metropolitan population feels left behind and threatened by mass immigration; the EU is far from perfect, and like most institutions, is in need of constant reform; and it is widely–though erroneously–believed to exert unreasonable powers over individual states. But none of this changes the fact that we were lied to by the Leave campaign leaders.

For example, the Leave campaign cited a false claim that Turkey would join the European Union by 2020. Additionally, propaganda leaflets stated that companies like Unilever, Airbus, and GE supported Brexit when those companies actually had a pro-Remain stance.

“However, none of this trumps–no pun intended–the fear that by cutting ourselves off from Europe, we are in danger of becoming a grubby little tax haven with exploitative labor practices and the supplanting of liberal ideas with British insularity,” he adds. Some politicians have suggested that changing the economic system to favor corporate interests, as opposed to the socially minded EU economic policies, might give the U.K. a competitive business edge against the EU. While this offers a hypothetical benefit for big businesses, smaller companies–businesses in the design field rarely, if ever approach the scale where tax havens are applicable–are unlikely to benefit from this type of approach.

“No one can say with any certainty that we will be better off outside of the EU,” Shaughnessy says.

Lawmakers Have An Opportunity To Do Better

Like Silicon Valley, London is a beacon for domestic and international entrepreneurs who are serious about technology. Pat Fahy, creative director of customer experience at the industrial design firm Seymourpowell, believes that the city’s reputation as Europe’s digital hub is due in part to a climate that encouraged startups and an open border policy. While he fears restrictive immigration policies, he argues that Brexit is an opportunity to reassess employment legislation. Lawmakers could improve policy so it balances the cultivation of local designers and welcomes international perspectives.

“Britain’s creative industry is built from an incredible entrepreneurial attitude, from film, fashion to product and architecture all the way through to digital and gaming,” Fahy says. “However for the U.K. to continue to be a world leader in creativity, we need to be proactive and encourage, support, and cultivate home-grown talent as well as invite and attract the very best young creatives from around globe. For this to work, it’s important the U.K. government and the EU ensure that new legislation is put in place that improves [immigration and employment] regulation rather than creates a red-tape nightmare [for people trying to work in the U.K.].”

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There’s a definite sense of urgency for lawmakers to come up with a solution. Brexit has already impacted employees at the London office of branding consultants Wolff Olins. “There have been a few negative implications–a few people have decided to go home to Europe–but it’s early days,” Ije Nwokorie, the company’s CEO, says. “In the medium to long-term, we’ll have to be woke and make sure we’re part of a more optimistic, imaginative role for creativity and design in Britain, Europe and the world. [Brexit has] certainly sharpened our focus, made us clearer and more determined to pursue a radical agenda: creating things that matter to the many, not the few.”

Brexit happened, and designers are upset. The actual legal implications of leaving have yet to be determined, and those regulations will ultimately impact immigration and trade policies, two areas that will affect the design industry significantly. Countless creatives dedicated their energy to squashing the Leave campaign through op-eds and artistic projects. After the vote, postmortems about the situation abounded. Now, in the critical time where new policies are being made, the creative industry has an important role to play in advocating the type of policy it wants to see. Redesigns are sometimes stronger than the initial design. When it comes to rewriting policy, the same notion can hold true.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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