I went to Tent London yesterday, one of the largest trade fairs for designers. There were dozens of designers, nearly all displaying wonderful, highly creative stuff. But so many of the stall holders looked forlorn, so few people were taking an interest in their work, hardly any business seemed to be going on.
Exhibitions are always hit and miss affairs, it's hard for exhibitors to predict whether they will be rushed off their feet, or whether they will spend the whole event longing for some human contact. That's the case even when the economy is good; in the middle of a double-dip recession exhibiting is all the more likely to be unpredictable. That's why the decision to invest in exhibition space shouldn't be taken likely. But at Tent London I sensed a more fundamental problem.
The vast majority of exhibitors clearly enjoy their work, and are manufacturing or designing products that they love. But the fact you love your product doesn't mean you will sell it. Great design and commercial design are not necessarily the same thing.
Art and design colleges these days encourage their students to research and understand their markets. They don't just teach design theory and technique; they do train their students to go out into the real world. But in current trading conditions, understanding a market is not necessarily enough.
Most designers are hoping to sell to retailers, and most retailers are struggling at the moment. When they do buy, it tends to be in small quantities and often on onerous terms. The days are gone when a designer could hope to sell their wares simply by catching a retailer's eye. These days they need to be far more strategic than that.
The first thing for a designer to do is to identify which successful retailers are likely to want their products. This is the same whether they are designing for a niche market, or for general retail. Which stores are selling well at present, who are they most likely to sell to, and what sort of products and styles are they stocking? What can the designer produce that fits neatly into the niches these retailers occupy?
In other words, rather than designers making things they love and then hoping to excite the market, which is fine when money is flowing like water, in current trading conditions they need to niche their products into markets that they know are reasonably buoyant. When there is no market to follow, one has to follow the market.
This doesn't mean that they will be sacrificing their creativity on the altar of money. It means that they will be able to establish themselves in the market, and once established will be in a stronger position to introduce the designs and products that they really want to make. It may mean that their creative ambitions take longer to fulfil. But those designers who take a strategic attitude to their marketing will stand a greater chance of fulfilling their ambitions than those who are so wedded to their ideals that they are prepared to stand for hours on end at an exhibition, with no customers to talk to.