Asking questions about design in the region

Love That Design, a Dubai-based B2B interior design platform, has just published a survey of the local design ecosystem. It offers qualitative as well as quantitive assessment of responses from a broad range of players in what looks like mostly interior design – clients, contractors, designers, manufacturers and educators – and it covered an equally wide range of inputs, from technology and education to geopolitics via the impact of the pandemic.

Given the small sample size (just over 100 respondents) its probably dangerous to give too much weight to the headline numbers. But then there is a shortage of any numbers at all, there hasn’t been a publicly accessible statistical assessment of the design industry in the region since the MENA Design Outlook back in 2015 and the MENA Design Education Report that followed a year later. They both came from the Dubai Design and Fashion Council, now effectively disbanded as it was folded into in5.

There is some real-world statistical data from DSC, but not specifically for the design industry – it’s part of the much wider ‘creative economy’ and the reporting is intended to support the overarching Dubai Creative Economy Strategy.

So maybe we have to be thankful for small mercies. At the very least Love That Design has leveraged the conversations it’s been having with industry stakeholders to “reflect the true sentiment of the industry”; and it has come up with a nicely produced report with enough talking points to keep the industry happy for months (until the 2023 survey perhaps).

It’s not all good news, of course. For example, close to 85 percent of respondents said Western Europe holds the most influence in the world of design, which probably reflects the education and background of most of the people in the industry. The West is where most of the design and architecture schools are, of course, and historically it’s been the place where clients have been most open to ideas.

But 60 percent “believed the UAE, and Dubai in particular, is rising up the challenge”. We’re not sure what that actually means, since the original questionnaire is not part of the report. But to us it suggests that those polled feel the local ecosystem is not providing the same levels of design inspiration and confidence – even in the year of Expo 2020 Dubai, which has surely been a massive vote for local quality.

The report also says the Middle East scores 6.9 out of 10 as “the average client rating for inspirational design [projects]”. This represents an improvement on the 6.1 scored in the first version of the Love That Design report a year ago, so things seem to be getting better … except that the 2022 report admits that “perceptions … are arguably subjective”. Arguably? There appears to be an improvement in design quality, so let’s hang on to that.

In terms of which markets are driving the undoubted (but unstated) growth in the design business, clearly corporate spaces and hospitality lead the way. There’s more disagreement about what the future holds, particularly with smaller and more flexible working spaces seen as a driver by some respondents. Others point to sustained economic growth fuelling the need for commercial spaces which will have to be designed and fitted out. The two aren’t incompatible, of course, and assuming the hospitality sector holds up there will always be a need for accommodation and eateries that tend to follow the same templates.

It’s a shame that we don’t see the balance of opinions here given some statistical solidity, if only to indicate what kind of futures the different groups of industry players are investing in. There is an interesting graphic on challenges and opportunities seen for 2025 – competition, current economic conditions made worse by covid-19, and political uncertainty are the three top negatives: regional expansion, emerging technologies and specialisation represent the principal opportunities.

The economic conclusions apparently predict continued growth. As the report puts it, “the UAE and KSA’s efforts to develop a strong non-oil based economy will pay off well for the design industry. Opportunities outside of the usual corporate design projects will emerge, drawing more talent into the region. Designs are becoming bolder, more experiential, and grander…. With the relaxation of rules and changes in policies, a lot of room for opportunity and growth has opened up.”

These are subjective views from an industry observer rather than statistically supported predictions, but they are all good topics for discussion; and that’s probably the best use of the Love That design report. Here are four more such remarks from it:

  • A buoyant market and a low barrier to entry have “led to low quality projects and unrealistic expectations from existing players”. There’s no definition of ‘quality’, but the region’s identikit offices, retail outlets and coffee shops all suggest a focus on (a) cost and (b) not rocking the boat
  • The design-and-build model common in the West seems unloved by industry insiders here. Specifically, “the nature of procurement results in costs, schedule, and other key decisions being made too early with and with too many unknowns”. But one inevitable result of that is a proliferation of third parties, devolved responsibilities and buck-passing.
  • Environmental sustainability rates behind environmental considerations and cultural sensitivity when conceptualising a space – though 1 in 5 projects are getting some kind of environmentally certification, a major improvement on the 1 in 10 reported around five years ago. It’s still not enough, though.
  • And of course there’s the contentious issue of intellectual property rights: “there’s a consensus among the design community that design IP is taken far too casually in the MEA market”. Indeed.

You can download a copy of the report here.

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