The Value of Design: Who Are The Storytellers Now?

It has been a total delight to partner with Footprint Scenery on behalf of the Society of British Theatre Designers  to create a series of events exploring the value of design.

Performance design/scenography regularly sits within the silo of ‘the creative team’, an established, hierarchical tradition that remains within the UK and elsewhere despite the diversity of practices that we now regularly undertake.

With these events both myself and Footprint wanted to embrace the excitement of what the future might look like. We wanted to explore how we might situate ourselves as designers and makers within a wider interdisciplinary context that acknowledges the blurring boundaries between theatre, film, architecture, heritage, retail and product design to name but a few.

Visual rather than verbal/aural content predominates in a global promotion and sales market while audiences/consumers increasingly expect a full sensory experience when they interact with something in the real rather than the virtual world.

Tupac Martir, Jim Whyte and Marcus Romer stimulated debate around Who are the storytellers now? in our first Footprint Xchange at the Lyric Hammersmith in March, followed by our exploration of how process might be valued in The Value of Design 2: Left Brain, Right Brain? in which, amongst other things we considered the advantages of dyslexia and neuro-diversity in the design process. Again hosted at the Lyric studio, our guest speakers were Stephen Miller (Research and Evaluation Manager for The Design Council).

Pippa Nissen (Nissan Richards Studio), Jim Rokos (award winning product designer) and Ab Rogers (Ab Rogers Studio). The balance in this group of speakers between interdisciplinarity across the contemporary scenographic nature of architectural, museum and exhibition design with the purity of Jim’s process in often mischievously and anarchically characterizing beautiful objects, such as his wine decanter that will co-exist by tilting with your drunkenness as your night progresses, made for an inspiring evening.

‘Understanding design can sometimes feel like quantum mechanics. Much like the dark matter and energy which drives the expansion of the universe, good design and the process behind it can be invisible. I would argue that more is unknown than is known about how design creates the impact it does, and I’m not alone in saying this. Dan Hill, Associate Director at Arup, has also drawn comparisons between design and dark matter, arguing that there are invisible but essential forces – such as national policy or business model or organisational culture – involved in the design and delivery of every product or service. He argues that “without addressing [the] dark matter [of design], and without attempting to reshape it, we are simply producing interventions or installations or popups that attempt to skirt around the system.” ‘

Stephen Miller, The Design Economy Report, Design Council

Stephen’s is one of a series of in depth reports published recently within the Creative Industries sector. With very similar themes emerging in the Creative Industries Federation Industrial Strategy and Freelancers reports and all of these reports aligning in terms of key priorities that could make a significant shift in the sustainability of careers in our field if advocated for and acted upon we seem to be at an important moment in time.

It seems fitting that our next Value of Design on 15th September 2017 should take the theme of Global/Local?

Situating ourselves in the heart of urban regeneration in The Bussey Building as part of the Peckham Festival, we will explore this precarious yet dynamic global/local relationship with guest speakers including Merlin Entertainments and internationally renowned graffiti artist Remi Rough.

The events themselves have generated a warm and convivial environment in which our naturally reticent species (designers) can meet one another and continue conversations in the bar.

For me personally, the meetings and exchanges via email, phone and face to face that have taken place with speakers and my wonderful colleagues at Footprint as I have prepared to facilitate each event have been incredibly inspiring in shaping my own thinking, my teaching and the work that I do on behalf of the Society of British Theatre Designers.

Immense thanks to Danny, Agnes, Cat, Ed and Rachel at Footprint and Laura Sampson at The Designers Formation.
You can find my guest blog and a summary of each Footprint Xchange here.

Full articles by myself and Jim Whyte will appear in the Autumn 2017 issue of Blue Pages, the print journal for the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD).

OISTAT World Congress: World Stage Design July 2017: Taipei

For the first time since 2011, I attended one of these international events pre-dominantly as a participant rather than as a curator/facilitator of a project.
That said, my roles as UK Performance Design Commissioner for OISTAT and Honorary Secretary of SBTD were therefore much more to the fore than at WSD 2013 and PQ 2011 and 2015.

It is often at these events that the most significant conversations with colleagues and friends from home occur as we allow ourselves time to observe and consider where our own practice might sit amongst this exciting international cacophony of stimulus.

Travelling to such an event in peak season comes with some considerable costs attached even though as a voting delegate at World Congress, both OISTAT and SBTD offer some nominal support.

Fortunately, I was included in a first application to Arts Council England by The Designers Formation to support a group of us from the agency to attend. To our surprise and delight, our application was successful.

It is too early to say how this trip will directly impact on my practice but my pre-occupation with hawkers, street traders and markets continues and as with my trip to the E-scapes conference in Brazil back in 2014, it was fascinating to explore a city at a time when the impact of global travel and economics has yet to impact enough to push the ‘petit-metiérs’ completely out of the regenerating city centre.
The gentle friction of these co-existing architectural contrasts is a fragile eco-system I can’t help but feel won’t exist for much longer as Starbucks and their ilk begin to establish themselves for an aspirant middle class.

Within this frame of reference it felt appropriate that we have finally been able to constitute the Space Design Sub-commission to sit alongside sub-commissions in Costume, Lighting and Sound under the umbrella of the Performance Design Commission. As Co-chair with my colleague Rob Eastman-Mullins (USA), we hope to welcome colleagues from around the world to help us to shape this group into a body of people that actively seek to explore intersections between performance design, architecture, the public realm and many other disciplines.

You can find more information about OISTAT’s new structure here and keep informed about Space Design activities by following us on Facebook.