I Wish Vancouver Supported the Design Industry

Mark Busse – 13 Comments


IMPORTANT UPDATE – See amendment below for some good news.

I love living in Vancouver for a myriad of reasons. The more I travel, the more I realize how good we have it here. But I have to say, as a creative professional who makes his living in the communication design field, my city’s lack of support for creative industries leaves me frustrated. I feel a personal rant coming on.

Vancouver has a real opportunity to emerge as THE next significant creativity and innovation centre in Canada, yet City Council seems uninterested in supporting efforts to that end. Content, it seems, to leave that role to other cities like Montreal and Toronto—both of which have wonderful design centres. Vancouver has none and it’s our turn. There is exciting stuff happening in this city, but no one knows much about it on the other side of them hills.

When the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC), in partnership with Icograda, presented an appeal to the City’s Mayor and Council seeking support for the Design Week Vancouver international design conference, their polite response was that this globally-promoted event “does not meet criteria as set by City Council,” specifically quoting a policy that states:

“That Council not consider financial support, in the form of hospitality grants or otherwise, to conventions being held in Vancouver, sports teams holding championships in Vancouver or to other events of this nature, except in the event that senior City staff, in their professional capacity, are directly involved in the event, and the topic is particularly relevant to the business of the City.”

I’m sorry, what? Excuse me, but are they saying that the burgeoning design community coming into its own in Metro Vancouver is not “particularly relevant to the business of the City”? Uh, aren’t Electronic Arts, Rainmaker and Bardel major employers in Vancouver? Didn’t Disney just set up a Pixar studio here? Aren’t some of Canada’s most successful advertising studios such as Cossette, DDB and Rethink located in Vancouver? Or brand design firms Identica, Karacters, Fleming, or Karo? Hasn’t ACM SIGGRAPH Vancouver been selected to host SIGGRAPH’s massive international computer graphics conference in 2011—the first time ever outside of the US? Is New Media BC wrong in estimating there to be over 1,100 digital media design companies currently in BC? Aren’t schools such as VFS, Capilano, VCC, Emily Carr, SFU, Kwantlen, BCIT, Langara, AI, and Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina) all enjoying tremendous growth in their design programs? All true.

I can assure you Mr. Mayor, that the various facets of design, including branding, communications, advertising, web, product, interior, architectural, and game design, are indeed relevant to this region’s culture and economy. Very relevant. In fact, the secret to achieving your goal of making Vancouver the greenest city on Earth may very well lie within the design industry itself.

Tourism Vancouver seems to see the relevancy, having been a key supporter of Design Week, helping GDC/BC win the original bid last year. BC’s Ministry of Housing and Social Development also seem to understand the importance of this event, recently awarding significant funding in support of Design Week. And the BC Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts calls Design Week “an important international cultural and business event, creating an international profile for British Columbia, bringing the global community of designers to Vancouver and reinforcing BC as the international hub for design.”

In 2008, former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan wrote a glowing letter of support during the Graphex national design awards, hosted by GDC/BC in Vancouver, saying, “Design is an important part of our everyday life and business, and Vancouver is fortunate to have a thriving creative community.” Even Premier Gordon Campbell, infamous for slashing arts & culture funding in BC, wrote “The Province of British Columbia is committed to excellence and innovation in visual arts, media arts and design” in a letter of support of GDC’s efforts. Well, Mr. Former Mayor and Mr. Premier, maybe you guys could talk to your buddies back at your old mayoral office and convince them to recognize the value and relevancy of supporting the design community before it’s too late. And it really is almost too late. Design Week Vancouver is less than five months away.

Vancouver is spending millions on the 2010 Olympics to lure potential business investors, but I believe they are short-sighted and not showcasing the best Vancouver has to offer. The “afterglow” of the Olympics everyone is counting on will have to be founded on something other that just our pretty geography, overpriced real estate, and fancy new sports facilities. What is Vancouver’s real “mojo”? Its great appeal? Could it not be our emerging dominance as a creative force so we can be more competitive with the country’s existing economic centres to the east?

If we truly want to convince companies and investors to shift their attention to Metro Vancouver, then we have to make sure we showcase what Vancouver really stands for post-Olympics. Having recently returned from Beijing, China, I saw first hand what is happening there and frankly it scared me. Many have accused China of overspending on the Olympics in unsustainable ways, but do you think they are sitting on their laurels, hoping the world shows up to do business with them while they’re in town touring the Bird’s Nest Stadium or Water Cube as a tourist? I assure you they are not.

In fact, Beijing just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hosting the Icograda World Design Congress and 1st Beijing Design Week. There were literally dozens of corporate sponsors, with one print sponsor alone donating $150,000 to be a sponsor of such a prestigious event. They even invited their respected friends from Canada to showcase the best designers at a Graphex 2008 exhibit at Tsinghua University’s prestigious Visual Arts Center Gallery—an initiative that GDC paid for out of its own coffers with no support from government or corporate sponsors, although thanks are due to Martin Charron, Senior Trade Commissioner in China from the Embassy of Canada, for generously hosting a packed opening reception.

The Beijing World Design Congress opening ceremonies were attended by 2,500 delegates from around the globe, and was held at The National Center for the Performing Arts. The opening of Beijing Design Week was held at the National Art Museum, with over 2,000 witnesses to one of the most impressive ceremonies I’ve ever attended—all part of their plan to change their reputation from one of “Made in China” to “Designed in China“.

They are very serious about this folks. Check out this review of their recent conference to get a sense of the scale of their commitment to their design community and its reputation. I spoke at four of the top universities in the country during my visit, and learned that there are hundreds of thousands of students (some say upwards of a million) currently enrolled in design programs across China, and new design studios are opening in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing every day. These will be our competitors very soon.

Now, I’m not saying that Vancouver is just like Beijing, but I do fear Vancouver may be putting all its eggs into the Olympics basket and forgetting to invest in an important industry that will help our fine city to flourish. I certainly don’t want to live in a city primarily known for hosting overrated, over-budget sports events.

BC’s economic base has begun shifting away from natural resources as our chief export, and tourism, real estate and finance aren’t rock solid economic foundations either—just ask Dubai how it’s going for them. Markets are now globalized and continue to evolve at break-neck speeds. In order to compete over the long haul, Vancouver needs to become an economy that values innovation—an economy based on the flow of ideas and imagination.

We already have a strong basis for that economy in place in Vancouver, one that’s ready to grow, mature and take its place on an international stage, but we cannot do it alone. Without the clear and present support from our municipal, provincial, and federal government, I fear we may be just spinning our wheels, destined to host a lovely little design conference and little more. A conference that will show off how pretty our city is, but also demonstrate how small-minded our City is in terms of supporting design thinking. I’m sure Brisbane and Madrid, the next two Icograda Design Week host cities, will do a terrific job of positioning themselves as world-class design communities thanks to the significant support they are receiving from their city councils and regional governments.

We’re living in the design age where long-term economic growth is based on creativity and innovation. Having spoken with Mayor Gregor Robertson about this in person, I thought he agreed with me on this point, yet his City Council friends with the purse strings still seem to think that a national design association hosted international design event featuring presentations from some of the most notable design experts on the planet isn’t “particularly relevant to the business of the City.” Disappointing to say the least.

Enough ranting for today. If you have any thoughts on this or any ideas what we can do about it, let me know in the comments below. Or if this bugs you as much as it does me, fire off an email to the Mayor’s office and City Council yourself and tell them your thoughts on the matter.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Since posting this personal rant (which is in no way the opinion of GDC or Icograda), The City of Vancouver’s economic development arm, appropriately called Vancouver Economic Development Commission (VEDC), has indicated they intend to financially supporting Design Week which is a positive sign indeed and I am encouraged. In no way am I claiming that this post had anything to do with this recent development, but I am happy to eat my words and and update this post to declare Vancouver DOES  support the design industry!