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!


13 Responses to “I Wish Vancouver Supported the Design Industry”

  1. Bruce

    Hey Mark,

    You’re hitting the points all right. A couple of things stood out for me; what did you mean about Vancouver not being (thanks goodness) like Beijing? I would have thought the pure numbers comparison would be sufficient, without bringing in special pleading about qualitative comparisons. I think it weakens your argument. [thanks Bruce, I think you’re right and removed it] Also, I really think that design is one of the few professions that is least at risk of algorithmic obsolescence. How long will stock brokers be necessary, given the speed at which software replaces human judgment? Design doesn’t work like that, and hopefully never will.

    Good post.


  2. Boris Mann

    Great post. I totally agree with your premise — that we’re increasingly a knowledge worker economy.

    But, is it the *role* of governments to be underwriting this stuff? I could replace “Design” in the title with “Technology” or X, or Y, and it would probably still ring true.

    There are various tech programs — SRED, IRAP (both federal) that support tech development, and the province has Eligible Business Corporation (EBC) tax credits of 30% for investment dollars into tech companies. Both don’t support directly, but (theoretically) provide an environment where investment can happen.

    Design is hampered because it doesn’t qualify for either.

    More: no gaming industry tax credits (where design is most directly implemented) – and 30 – 40% credits in Manitoba or Ontario. Guess where new games HAVE TO get built to be cost competitive? Not here … but you don’t hear much about that.

    So where does the money come from for arts/design/creative? We are also a province of “branch offices”, and so marketing departments back east don’t think to spend corporate dollars locally. Those that are headquartered here do give (Vancity comes to mind) but can’t shoulder all of the burden.

    Can large numbers of small shops/individual consultants band together and fund/support design and creative in a similar fashion as big corporates?

    Anyway, no answers here, but agree that knowledge workers of all shapes and sizes should be banding together to help wake up / educate all levels of government.

  3. robert ouimet

    Doesn’t seem like a rant at all – but a well argued point from someone who’s passionate about his work AND his city.

    You obviously failed to work in 2 key elements into the pitch: Golf and Skiing. I know we’re blinded by the Olympic hoopla right now, but nothing fuels BC bureaucracy like the prospect of a well trimmed green or miles of powder (pick your poison – preferably both).
    I mean, what the heck is a budding politician going to do at a freakin’ design week ? You don’t want to be encouraging your constituents to be thinking about design – gawd.

    It’s a shame – it would be great to see this kind of event associated with our city. We’ve got an incredible city of talent hidden away – lets show them off.


    The only bone I’d pick is referencing Gordon Campbell as some sort of supporter of the arts, given the slash job his provincial liberals have done on arts funding in BC – a bleak bit of business with a long trickle-down effect. Nothing quite like kicking the little guys.


  4. Amanda

    Thanks for standing up on this issue as I couldn’t agree more. I think that this has been a long developing problem and a true shame to the city of Vancouver. I thought this city was supposed to stand for diversity, integrity, and lead the country (if not the world) into a better way of being. Instead it’s become a political sink-hole that only cares about how supporting the creative community (or anything for that matter) will benefit them. It’s time for the government get their heads outta their own asses and maintain what dignity this city has left. Until then, I’m movin to Toronto.

  5. Matt Politano

    Well argued, Mark. While I may be across the water on Vancouver Island, a lot of this hits home for me as well. I agree with Robert: no rant, just ugly truth. If our ‘leaders’ spent a fraction of the resources and energy they’re pouring into the Olympics into a more sustainable industry (like ours), the entire Province, and certainly Vancouver, could realize some significant long-term gains.

    Short-sighted, visionless, mmmbl mmbl [heads off on rant of his own]…

  6. Miles Harrison

    A great impassioned and well informed plea!
    I’d love to see the government get behind design in the same way they back sports for Olympics. Even if all that means is to implement an Arts Funding Scratch & Win ticket.
    In a much broader, bigger thinking capacity, perhaps the GDC would benefit from a well formulated marketing plan designed to target the government and the business industry. A series of eloquent, strategically placed presentations which invoke the importance and value of design in the economy (This is starting to sound an awful like Design Week 2010) — Each outlining specific opportunities and proposals the government can get behind. Really spell it out for them. Flood them with glossy proposals, some with short fuses, some with a longer shelf lives. I’m sure we can get together and think of dozens of great proposals in a matter of days and opportunities arise weekly. This allows them to generate interest within their spheres of influence. Sooner or later one of these proposals will find the right desk at the right time and it is sitting there as a nice neat package the official can simply pick up the phone and swing it into action.
    From their side of the desk they can’t see what we see and it is up us as professional communications specialists to bring our intentions and attention to these string pullers.
    I can even see something like the (ala Design Council Ads in the UK – type of campaign the dairy and cattle industries pummel us with daily in their cheese, egg and milk campaigns, someday.
    Design with it’s ROI backed argument is the government’s opportunity to address the shortfall of arts funding — The government’s opportunity to place the missing economic cog between the spinning tech and arts gears and jump-start a fledgling old school economy into the new economic age of knowledge-based and sustainable industry.

  7. Kara

    I sometimes wonder if the hesitancy has to do with how well an individual understands the scope of design (which I feel like other countries and cities seem to have a grasp on – and this get reflected when you see things like a design centre being built).

    Design is broad in scope – from industrial to communication to architecture (and then some) – and while we may understand the distinctions, I don’t know that everyone does. We’re often positioned as people who “make things pretty,” which becomes a difficult sell. From my take, designers aren’t artists but if we’re thought of as such, we are placed in a different category when it comes to perceived contributions. Arts contribute in a certain capacity and design has its own unique additions to this cityscape.

    I am excited for Design Week as I think it has the potential to stir this pot a bit more. While we may not have the support yet, I’m convinced that we won’t be stalled our convictions. Sometimes it seems you have to bring in external voices to remind those closest to you what it could look like. I personally look forward to collaborating on an envisioned future at a scale that is manageable. After all, that’s what design does best! I know it isn’t easy but the need for clarity in these complex times is prevalent. As designers, we can help make this more obvious and we’ll likely have to spend time being creative on how that delivery happens. There are lots of great cases of how this is emerging elsewhere and I think these front runners could help us navigate our own situation. Great discussion here!

  8. Davin Greenwell

    Hey Mark, great post. It is a special kind of irony that the City of Vancouver does not understand the importance of a conference about design value that could help them understand the importance of design.

    I have linked to this post from the GDC National Blog. Kudos on calling it as you see it.

  9. Mark Busse

    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!


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