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Editorial> Fueling the Design Engine
Study finds New York's design industry packs economic might.
Courtesy Center for an Urban Future

Simply put, no other place has a higher concentration of design jobs than New York City. This is the conclusion of a revealing new study of the city’s design firms conducted by Center for an Urban Future, a New York-based think tank. In trying to assess the cumulative impact of design on New York City’s economy, the study claims that we have “far and away more designers than any other U.S. city” and this is “the unsung engine of New York’s creative economy.”

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Titled Growth by Design, the study looks at all the design fields—graphic, industrial, interior, fashion, and architecture—and estimates that there are 40,470 professional designers working in New York, up from 23,143 in 2000 (a 75 percent increase). One of the startling conclusions of the study is how New York compares to other U.S. cities. The Los Angeles metro area was next on the list with 23,170 designers, followed by Chicago (19,260), Boston (10,920), and San Francisco (7,940). New York, it points out, has only three percent of the nation’s total occupations, but eight percent of its graphic designers, and six percent of its industrial designers.

The Center for an Urban Future’s study makes the point that the design fields in this city do not really get the attention they deserve as members of the “creative economy,” since there are actually more firms in the design sector (3,397) “than in any of the eight other sectors in the city’s creative core, if compared with publishing (1,028), film and video (1,855), music production (442), broadcasting (299) and the performing (1,048) and visual arts (805).”

There are for example 2,680 interior design firms in New York, far more than Los Angeles, which has 1,772. Architects in New York, this study finds grew from 6,410 in 2000 to 8,200 in 2009 (a 28 percent increase), and there are 40 percent more architecture firms here than next closest city (Los Angeles). While the vast majority of New York design firms are located in Manhattan the study finds that Brooklyn, “has exploded in recent years.” The number of Kings County-based design firms grew from 257 in 2001 to 433 in 2009, a 70 percent increase including the number of architectural firms, which nearly doubled, from 65 to 129.

The breadth of this survey of New York design is impressive but it may not reflect the actual changes that have taken place in the economy since most of the current data is taken from 2009 research. In addition, there is one important aspect of the New York design world it does not consider that is vital to the promotion and support of the design community: non-profits.

The study neglects to mention the number of non-profit institutions in this city that have for years supported and promoted design. This is disappointing, especially since the report states that the city economic development agencies have not devoted any meaningful attention to design industries and that the city has also done little to promote the city’s designers. It’s the non-profit institutions in this city that have for years supported and promoted design to the professional community and the city at large. This was pointed out to me by Rosalie Genevro, the executive director of the Architectural League of New York, who rightfully claims there is no other city in this country that has the number of design support groups like the Architectural League, the Van Alen Institute, the Design Trust for Public Space, Open House New York, the Institute for Urban Design, the AIA’s Center for Architecture, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture, not to mention museums like MoMA and the Guggenheim with full time architecture and design curators.

Chicago of course has its well funded Architecture Foundation, San Francisco its important Planning and Urban Research organization (SPUR), and L.A. it’s Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, but taken together all of these cities do not have the number and diversity of New York’s non-profit organizations devoted to the design arts. The depth and breadth of the design community in New York is unrivaled in the U.S., and perhaps the world, and that is only likely to grow and become more influential here and abroad. But while New York under Mayor Bloomberg has brought designers and planners into the decision making process like no other city in the country, it needs to do more to support and promote the design community as it supports other economic engines, like the financial and tourist sectors.

William Menking