Exploring the State of Design in Europe and North America

As someone who trained as an Industrial Designer in Europe, but has spent most of their career so far in a North American context (Toronto, specifically), I have often wondered what’s different about practicing design across the pond.

I connected with six designers, ranging from UX, experience and service designers, all with experience of working in both Europe and North America, about their experiences. Interestingly, the perspectives were quite diverse, but had some common threads. Here’s what emerged.

Origins and History of Design Practice

Several designers mentioned the roots of design practice in each geography as influencing what it’s like to practice today. Europe can be seen as having a much longer history of design which is intimately connected to the arts and crafts movement. In tandem with this, a legacy of industrial design dating back to the Bauhaus movement means a rich history of products, where design, engineering and manufacturing were happening in one place, for example Germany.

A really interesting perspective I heard from Matt Nesbitt, a UX design and strategy leader, was that in general, European consumers have higher expectations for the design of their products. Smaller homes mean that, “there is more pressure on items that come into people’s homes needing to solve problems really well and in little space.” This is something I have experienced first hand, the ingenuity and good design of European homes to use space efficiently. The cupboard above the sink in an AirBnB I stayed in on a visit to Helsinki had the dish rack built into it!

In contrast, US design is rooted in practices from the likes of Raymond Loewe and consultancies like Teague, coming out of World War II and the ad world. Think Mad Men! Jamie Nicholson, a senior design strategist, sees this as very much rooting design in the commercial world and bringing a business perspective to it. This focus has continued with companies like IDEO, headquartered in the US, bringing business innovation to how design thinking is sold as an approach. One designer also mentioned that in North America, digital design is also rooted in ad agencies, with a marketing focus.

The Impact of Policy

An instructive place to look at the design landscape is whether broader policy or governmental support exists for design. Europe seems to lead the way in this regard, as Christina Sadek, a service designer puts it, “In Europe, design is promoted.” Markus Grupp, an experience design leader, similarly mentioned organizations such as the Design Council in the UK, which drives big initiatives around design. The Design Council is an independent body (actually a charity) set-up to demonstrate the value of design, and is the UK government’s advisor on design. Their mission is to “advance new design thinking, encourage debate and inform government policy.” The European Commission, an EU body tasked with proposing legislation and implementing decisions within the EU, has also identified design as a key driver for innovation policy.

There seems to be less of a focus on design as a policy agenda in North America, and a more private sector and technology driven evolution of design and design practice.

The Role of Technology, Innovation and Startups

Building on the policy discussion, Ryan Rumsey, a director of experience design, identified that “in North America, designers work in environments where fewer policies or laws exist, so have more freedom in solving problems. In Europe, there are more stringent laws around privacy and security, so designers are more limited in what solutions can be provided.” Jamie Nicholson also mentioned the contrast in where people believe the core value lies – “in the US it’s all about innovation, whereas in Europe it’s more about service design digital experience.” This has the effect of shifting the language and framing around design projects, as well as overall skills and capabilities needed.

The sense that North America really focuses on and drives innovation, particularly in terms of technology came through as a theme. Matt Nesbitt mentioned a “perception that innovation happens in the US, and America is seen as the place where the ‘best’ talent goes.” This is coupled with growing investment in design in the startup and technology space. Matt identified technologies being developed in the US, such as voice interfaces and VR, providing cutting edge design opportunities. As a counterpoint, Daniel Harvey, a designer currently based in London but with 15 years experience in NYC, points out that Europe got a headstart on the design of the Internet of Things. This was due to the efforts of people such as Alex Deschamps Sonsino and BERG. In addition, Cambridge is leading world-class AI efforts.

The Varying Maturity of Industries

Several designers mentioned the stage or maturity of certain design industries. Markus Grupp, currently based in Toronto, mentioned that around 2005 in Canada there were few communities around UX and digital design, whereas his experience in the UK at that time was that there was an explosion of events and communities. This has evolved a lot in recent years, and I experienced a wealth of meetups, interest groups and events around UX and digital in particular when I got to Toronto in 2012, and this has continued to grow and evolve.

In contrast, Ryan Rumsey, mentioned how “those with pure digital design backgrounds are fewer and far between in a European context, in comparison to North America, where UX design is a well established career path with many designers having only digital backgrounds.” It may be the case that the digital industry in North America started later, but evolved and matured more rapidly due to growing demand.

The Expectations of Speed

An unexpected theme that emerged in the research was that of speed of practice. As Daniel Harvey, a chief creative officer, put it, “NYC and SF design cultures are ever so slightly predicated around a “move fast and break things” and “always be shipping” mantra more than the UK. Here design thinking, research, and an ever so slight academic dogmatism is more present.” This echoed Matt Nesbitt’s take that, “the startup squeeze for a home run unicorn, combined with the American Puritanical hard work hangover pushes more options out faster.” Ryan Rumsey made similar comments that “the work in Europe is more methodical and less focused on speed.” Interestingly, this was one of the few areas where there seemed to be unanimous agreement among the designers I connected with, with Markus Grupp also mentioning his sense that design in Europe has less of a squeezing of timelines and process, as there is a more accepted sense of design as a craft with a rigorous process.

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Contrasting perspectives and opinions on the differences between design in Europe and North America are certainly influenced by personal experience, particular industries, and geographies. The topic is of course very broad with many nuances. The designers I surveyed all demonstrated an appreciation for design on both sides of the pond. Ryan Rumsey mentioned the “very passionate and talented designers in both North America and in Europe.” Matt Nesbitt mentioned a universal “individual commitment to craft and caring about the work.” Some of the values of design are truly cross-cultural. It’s an exciting time (and place) to be a designer!