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.

The View From Here

The View From Here

The View From Here was developed over a nine month period using a mixture of smaller projects, online dialogue and workshops to engage performance design students from all over the UK with the Prague Quadrennial 2015 themes of Music, Weather and Politics.

In creating UK Performance Design Border Control the student designers taking part wanted to explore and celebrate what diversity means for their practice through the prism of a very prevalent political theme in the run up to a general election and beyond. Perturbed by the implications of a new government’s immigration policy, The View From Here became a durational, cumulative and performative installation at PQ activated by 14 student performers and curators.

Around 2 500 visitors from all over the world passed through our border control to be welcomed into the space beyond where they contributed their stories and personal artefacts to the exhibit.

The View From Here was developed as a partnership project between the Association of Courses in Theatre Design (ACTD) and the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD).

In My Father’s Words, New York

Photos : Carol Rosegg

Fiona Watt (Designer) has manifest the bare bones of a clearly, hand-built home with terrific originality.

Alix Cohen, Woman Around Town

Fiona Watt’s set, which renders Don’s house as a piece of driftwood, sharply bisecting the stage, is striking….

‘ Light and Sound America Online ‘

With such an intimate story, the stage’s design remarks this intimacy beautifully. From Fiona Watt’s inspired wooden set, complete with a gigantic trunk that raises it and Don’s bedroom to the ceiling. On the ground is an eye-opening amount of discord that represents Don’s deteriorating mind. Louis cannot stand his childhood home to be in its disarray and he meticulously moves through the clutter. Amidst the dirty dishes and piles of “askew-eth” papers are also several means of light. Privy to real cabin decor, warm lighting is used lovingly in this production; but lamps and open refrigerators are also used as signals and passages to unspoken thoughts. Grant Anderson’s lighting sets a calming tone in this lonely fort, but also invigorates our realism with some beautifully surrealist moments…

Though it tackles heavy issues like the study of dead languages, limiting Canadian locations, and dementia, this play is warm, unexpectedly charming, and powerful. The Scottish actors’ portrayals are very satisfying, the set design is fresh, and direction by Phillip Howard is tighter than a ship captain’s. This little show takes on many epics — the Odyssey and Gaelic language, for example — with real curiosity, depositing old tales into the blood of this play. And soon In My Father’s Words itself reads like an epic with something new to say about discovering inward and out.

Jerron Herman, Theatre is Easy

A person without language is a person without a soul. When memory is consigned to oblivion, it can put up a fight in mysterious ways. In My Father’s Words, a play written by Justin Young and directed by Philip Howard, tells the story of Don (Angus Peter Campbell), an old man who lives on the edge of Lake Ontario in the early 1990s. Don’s home, all stark simplicity and wooden surroundings, is reminiscent of a run-down boat – adrift and disoriented.

In My Father’s Words

In My Father’s Words’ first incarnation was in June 2014 funded as part of the cultural programme for the Commonwealth Games.

A beautiful story of a near mythical migration that is perhaps at the core of more everyday family histories than we think, it brought the Gaelic language to the heart of events in the centre of Glasgow at the Tron Theatre before transferring back to Dundee Rep where the commission originated.

As a designer, my first response is almost always made via the rhythm of the language, scribing key words and phrases into my sketchbook which become the DNA of the final environment.

There are few clues in written Gaelic as to how it might sound to someone entirely unfamiliar with hearing it but the phrases that Justin Young ( writer) and Iain Finlay MacLeod chose to translate have deep resonances for all of us and I scribed them on my studio walls in order to immerse myself in them.

Primarily, for me, the play is about our sense of home be that a family, a place, a language or a combination of all these things and more.

With this unexpected opportunity to transfer the show to 59E59 Theatres, Off Broadway we are bringing the show to a city built on migration.

In transferring to an entirely different size and shape of theatre space, I have embraced the opportunity to radically redesign the piece to create a sculptural response to this collision of emotions between a father and son briefly finding ‘home’ after such a long time as strangers.

Downloadable PDF biog

One year on from the Prague Quadrennial in June 2011…

One year on from the Prague Quadrennial in June 2011 and one year closer to World Stage Design in September 2013 seemed like an appropriate time to start this blog.

SIX ACTS at Scenofest, PQ 2011 saw the culmination of a six month online research project with students and emerging practitioners from around the world. ACT 6 Wayfinding drew inspiration from the hawkers and street traders of Eugène Atget’s petit métiers series, to discover a contemporary scenographic and performance language with which to create 6 micro-street actions/exchanges that led the audiences to the acts and the acts to the audiences. Keen to use this opportunity to experiment with portable digital technologies we used Livescribe pens and Pogo portable printers to document these interactions.


From the micro to the macro, Open Stages has been running for just over a year, delivering skills exchange workshops for around 3 000 members of community and amateur theatre companies throughout the country . Instigated by Artistic Director, Michael Boyd as part of the RSC’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, the project has moved and astonished us all. Most of these companies operate without anyone in the role of designer so it has been an enormous privilege to unlock our mysterious design process in 1.5 hour sessions that see people of all ages and no previous experience produce model boxes and storyboards that have regularly offered profound and revealing insights into texts I believed I was already very familiar with.

Particular thanks go to the amazing National Theatre of Scotland who chose to take this process one stage further by bringing representatives of all the Scottish community and amateur companies in Scotland together for a weekend of workshops on Macbeth in Glasgow. NTS moved 140 people around the city to different theatre and workshop spaces without losing anyone and really did engender a belief in the power of collective response by creating one of the most extraordinary chorus improvisations I have ever seen. This call to arms from Graham McLaren, Associate Director, to a group of people aged 11 to 80 to make ‘your national theatre’ as a result became tangible in the Open Space session that followed.


Creative Connections is the Royal Opera House’s intensive professional development programme for experienced artists from across a range of disciplines to harness their skills in working with communities and young people in the Thames Gateway. Based at their new Production Park facility in Purfleet, Essex, this process allowed us time and space to look at not just how we deliver but how we absorb new learning.

The project culminated in a series of triad collaborations between artists, teachers and members of staff from the Royal Opera House to create a new piece of work in a school.
Using the Grays Convent School building as site and instrument, our triad worked with Year 10 Fine Art students to inspire new stories and retell existing ones through open access to all areas of the building. The project culminated in an installation inspired by their photos and Sister Rita and Sister Rita, the founding nuns, who still live in the school grounds and who they met for the first time during the project.


Though I have designed all over the UK and worked in Europe, opportunities to produce theatre in the area surrounding my studio are rare. This year’s FUSE Medway Festival provided an opportunity to bring live performance to the communities I have worked with here and for me to observe and reinterpret some of our local traditions within the design of WHATEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT which toured to community parks and gardens as part of Lighting the Fuse.

Coming Home


Local traditions, customs and folklore are just one of the strands we are considering exploring as we start to put plans in place to bring practitioners from around the world together for World Stage Design in Cardiff in September 2013. Sustainability is one of the core themes for the event so I am curious to see what creative solutions we can find to sharing what we discover and discuss in Cardiff with practitioners who through reasons of cost and distance can not be physically present.

UK SCENOGRAPHY COMMISSIONER for OISTAT (International Organisation of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians)

I was delighted to be appointed to this role in December 2011. OISTAT is an incredible, amorphous and inspiring organisation and I hope through the work I do on WSD and through SBTD I can raise awareness of what it has to offer, particularly for emerging practitioners whose involvement is key to its future sustainability.