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Garrett Stokes & Alex Milton


Garrett Stokes is Partner and Creative Director of Catalysto and a Past-President of ICAD and of The Art Directors Club of Europe.

Alex Milton is Programme Director of Irish Design 2015 and a visiting professor at Manchester School of Art, Aston University and at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, where he was previously Head of Design.

GS   Thank you for taking the time, Alex. You have been widely interviewed in the last eight to ten months and I’m hoping that today we can get to the contentious issues, the issues that really need to be tackled with some degree of urgency.

To begin, can you compare Ireland, or Dublin, to the major successful international design centres – the ones that come to mind are Helsinki, Copenhagen, London, Amsterdam, etc.

AM   I think Dublin has a really vibrant design scene but it’s still embryonic, it’s fair to say. There’s no doubt that places like Helsinki, Copenhagen and Rotterdam have benefitted from over a fifty or sixty year investment in design, but I think it’s really interesting what design can do on the fringe. Sometimes you can get really obsessed about being at the heart of things. I know certainly being born and bred in London, one was always indoctrinated to believe it’s the centre of the universe and then as soon as you leave the place you realise it’s not and life exists beyond Shoreditch. I think there is a really interesting opportunity at times when you’re on the edge of Europe – you can also be on the edge of disciplines and I think you’re able to reflect on design and contemporary design and that’s an opportunity that designers here can take.

GS   Is that the key issue – that these leading countries understood design 100 years ago? That they understood how to grow design companies over that 100 year period into the giants of the industry like Marimekko in Helsinki or Iittala or Fiskars or some of the jewellery companies in Copenhagen?

AM   I think design was recognised in these countries as being hugely important economically but also culturally. When you go to Helsinki, it’s a UNESCO City of Design and they really get it, it’s an inherent part of life. There’s no doubt that if you go into people’s homes they will have some ‘Tapio Wirkkala’ on the shelf and they will drink from that everyday, it won’t just be for special occasions. I think it’s fair to say that in Ireland we haven’t necessarily consumed or purchased Irish design or international design in large volumes.

I think Irish architecture and interior design has helped transform the public’s taste recently, but within an Irish context there is an opportunity for us to engage in the bigger picture, to understand what is required.

For me the big issue, starting from scratch, is education. That’s really where we need to start. If you go to Finland or Holland they will be teaching the essential fundamentals of design at primary school level – and we barely do it at third level.

GS   So education is where it begins … but what has to happen next? We now have a number of good design colleges and great designers and graduates coming from those colleges. What’s the next step?

AM   I think you’re right, I think third level is better than it was, it is broader, but it’s fair to say that we’re still teaching in silos. I don’t think we’re teaching across disciplines as much as we could or should be. If you go and do an MBA at Stanford or Yale or Harvard you’ll do modules in design thinking. I’d like to see Smurfit, Trinity and other leading academic institutions engage in what design can do, because I think design is as necessary as basic literacy or numeracy, it is an essential part of twenty-first century skill sets. We have to understand what design is and what those creative tools are. I think we need to broaden that remit at third level but we also need to be teaching design at primary school and secondary school. It’s a huge issue that we don’t do that in Ireland.

I think in Ireland people value music, we value the spoken word, we haven’t necessarily valued the visual or tactile and there’s a real opportunity for us to elevate design, architecture and the decorative arts to a different level.

GS   That requires everybody to buy into the concept that design makes life better and better design – of objects and products, homes and offices, even cities – improves the quality of life. That’s a very long-term objective, isn’t it – getting a society to change?

AM   Yes, I think often people realise the importance of design but they don’t necessarily have the vocabulary. One of the ambitions of Irish Design 2015 was to kick-start some of these discussions.

I think designers need to be better at explaining what design is. Sometimes, as designers, we’re very good at talking about design in often quite rarefied forms and it can all get quite deliberately exclusive but actually what design is really good at is, as you say, transforming people’s lives – we need to get much better at communicating that. Sometimes we are not necessarily communicating what we can do for clients. I think it’s about a conversation and a dialogue and we can’t just sit there and say the government doesn’t understand it, our clients don’t understand it, the general public doesn’t understand it, we have got to be better at communicating that, but we have also got to take them on that journey and it is a long journey. This isn’t something we can do within a year, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

GS   So one of the things you’re describing here is a disconnect between the Irish design community and its various stakeholders – and the opportunity for the industry to grow and succeed through better dialogue and connections. In Ireland, designers tend not to be networked internationally, we don’t join the international clubs and we don’t judge on the international judging panels, so we’re not really experiencing the whole of the design industry, we’re just experiencing the local design industry and its standards. How can we counter that?

AM   I think for any creative person it’s about the context you’re operating in and it’s very easy sometimes with the pressures of commercial work that we start to narrow our viewpoints and focus on very small aspects but we need to open those up. As you say, we have to engage internationally, we need to be exhibiting internationally and showcasing internationally and that’s one of those things for this year that we’ve really tried to do in a positive sense. We have showcased over 260 design companies, studios, and practices internationally this year but that needs to continue. We need to get out there and understand what we’re up against and start those conversations.

GS   Do you think that the Irish design community realises how good design is elsewhere? Do designers here really understand that there is an international quality standard that is set very high – and that for example it is through excellence that Scandanavian design has been so successful?

AM   I think our best designers do and our best designers tend to be the ones who have internationalised. For example in product design you look at a company like Design Partners, they’re based in Bray but they have offices in Eindhoven and offices in San Francisco, they are an international company with an Irish soul and heart and I think they’re a great example, we have to look at that, we as a design community have to put ourselves through the process of asking how good are we? Where do we need to improve? And to be honest, we need to ask ourselves how we can become a valued part of the international discourse about what contemporary design is.

GS   Irish designers are sometimes very inclined to believe that the art is everything and international designers and design companies are very inclined to see that you can also measure how good you are by how profitable your company is or how big your company is, or the kinds of contracts that it’s attracting. We don’t tend to measure design that way. We have small groups of excellent designers, introverted excellent designers and a handful of Irish designers with excellent International reputations.

AM   I think there’s no doubt we’ve got a job to do, to demonstrate the economic impact that design can have. All the research internationally shows that investing in design affects the bottom line. UK Design Council research demonstrates that design increases turnover: for every euro invested in design, businesses can expect over €4 increase in net operating profit! It’s a great rate of return. You don’t get that from investing in tech or other sectors. I think we need to be aware of that and designers need to talk it up to their clients so they can understand the impact on value that design can have but we also need to be aware that design fulfills a really crucial cultural, social, political agenda and it is about transforming people’s lives. I’m less concerned about designers worrying about the ‘art’ of what they’re doing, I’m sometimes more worried that they’re doing it in a sort of self indulgent bubble and are not actually engaging in some of the big issues that I think society faces today.

GS   We have been talking about economics, and what you’re talking about here is in part about sustainability, how we can imagine, build and design things that are sustainable. Are we making progress in that field in Ireland, can you give us examples of design excellence?

AM   I think we’ve got some amazing examples of excellence in different sectors. It’s quite funny, there has been a huge investment in agriculture but actually I think one of the most interesting examples of Irish product design is a Dublin-based company called Dolmen who have been long established, they have just helped create a new product called ‘Moocall’ which is a small device that you put on the tail of a cow and it senses when the calf is due through sensors monitoring subtle movements of the cow and analysing the logarithms of a birthing dance. So, the farmer doesn’t have to sit there watching the CCTV, the device simply texts the farmer and vet when the calf is due, and even senses if there is an issue that needs the vet immediately. This ensures that calves will be safely delivered and in addition to animal welfare, this is going to be worth millions internationally as it ensures large prize calves aren’t lost. It’s a huge success story and the interesting thing is that it’s an Irish company that’s clocked that and has made an enormous impact on probably the most traditional sector you can imagine, dairy farming.

GS   The scale of design companies in Ireland tends to be quite small. You mentioned Design Partners earlier, which is a relatively large Irish company. They’re pretty much unique in Ireland in the exceptional way they’ve gone about their business over a very long period. But again if you look to the Scandinavian or Nordic countries, where populations are around the same size as ours, the scale of companies that they grow is very impressive. For example Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen is one of Northern Europe’s largest fine jewellery workshops with more than 40 goldsmiths working in their studio – or Georg Jensen … in Ireland we probably don’t even have forty goldsmiths on the island. How do the Scandinavians achieve this ‘scaling-up’ of their design businesses?

AM   I think they’ve understood, number one that design is a collaborative process, and have understood that teamwork is an inherent part of that. It’s very rare to see teamwork embedded and this comes back to education. If you go to TU Eindhoven nigh on every design project they do at Masters level is a group project, so they’re basically educating people to think collectively, to pull the talents across a variety of different disciplines and as a consequence when they graduate they’re able to see themselves, not just as solo practitioners, not just as individual craftspeople but actually part of a dynamic design ecosystem, and they can say for us to survive and flourish we need to build some critical mass. I think it is interesting that there are a number of practices in Dublin in the last few months that are starting to say why don’t we get bigger, why don’t we join forces, bring elements of design and advertising together or graphics and UX, and that I think starts to build that critical mass.

GS   The link we haven’t talked about is the design the client community. It is rare that Irish companies or organisations have a chief design officer, so what can we do? Do we need a re-think at board level? Is intervention in third level enough?

AM   No, I think we have to do it within the business sector itself. One of the big things we’re doing this year is a whole series of enterprise initiatives, we’re introducing design vouchers, start up programmes for designers, we’re trying to do a whole series where we are getting designers to tackle some radical challenges. We’ll be looking at things in the health service, wellness, big issues that we have to face and then I think people will be able to understand what role design can have.

The frustrating thing is that the examples I have to use are often of Irish designers doing this in other locations. For example, in New Zealand there are Irish designers working on transforming how people interact with public services, so that’s a little bit like the award-winning direct.gov.uk initiative. They’re doing an amazing job, and we should be doing it here. You’ve got a designer like Lorna Ross at the Mayo Clinic, which is one of the biggest healthcare providers in the States, she’s using design to transform the delivery models, everything from the communications systems to the triage system. It is service, product, graphics and communication and it’s Irish designers who are having the success internationally and people are suddenly going ‘wow, we have to have that quality of design here! We have to have it in this sector,’ we just need to be doing more of it here, and again this year we are trying to encourage this, but it is an ongoing process.

GS   What is happening next year … when the thrill of design year fades?

AM   The year is a very ambitious project and the aim is that this will continue for a number of years. A lot of the education initiatives – and the enterprise initiatives we have effectively delivered as pilots and one of the really heart warming elements of the year so far is the impact that these pilots are having – we can very clearly say ‘look at the social case, look at the economic impact case’ and we can make the case to government to continue to invest in the sector and that’s what we’ve got to do.

GS   What’s your ambition for 2020? What state do you think the industry can be in 5 years from now?

AM   I think we can actually transform the sector within a five-year period. We can benefit by learning from the mistakes and successes of others. There has been a huge investment in design across Europe and there are now only five other countries in the E.U. that haven’t got a national design strategy, haven’t got a national design centre and haven’t invested in terms of a year of design and all these sorts of aspects. We can look at some of the best precedents and some of the best practices internationally so I’m really pleased that we are taking a ministerial delegation to Holland and to Scandinavia on a research trip to go and see the very best of international design and understand what’s possible here. I think the fact that governments are now grasping what design can do is a positive step. Looking at our nearest neighbour, the UK, we know that the creative industries makes more for the exchequer than the square mile, it’s an enormous industry and I think in Ireland it hasn’t been recognised as that. There hasn’t been an understanding of what the creative industries can do and how much they’re worth.

We’ve had enormous traction internationally and one of the biggest challenges I think, is that in five years I would hope to see a transformation in how the press here understand what design is. So they understand that design isn’t just shopping or property porn, architecture is more than that, and again you go to Helsinki or Milan and pick up a daily newspaper and it will have a design column, it will have a design critic – it’s an everyday part of life and they understand the importance of that. That is something we need to do and I’m delighted that RTÉ are airing a major series about design at the tail end of the year because it’s so important that we get the general public looking at and valuing design.

GS   Hopefully it won’t be a reality TV show because there is a serious aspect to this. I saw a headline recently about the work you and your team are doing and about the development of this building and it read ‘building a shrine to Irish design’. Those sort of headlines just don’t improve the understanding of the importance of design. The development and strengthening of the Irish Design sector is not about ‘building a shrine to design’ and we as practitioners shouldn’t be about building shrines to something – this is a very down to earth field about everyday life.

AM   Absolutely, it’s about everyday transformation and I think what’s important is that we hope to build a design showcase rather than a gallery. I can always remember, as an emerging designer, going to the Design Museum in London and being completely baffled on one level because it looked almost identical to the Conran Shop, except that in a Conran shop I can sit on a chair and buy it and in a design museum it’s on a plinth in a glass vitrine. I think design is about the everyday, it’s about making it real, so the idea here is that it becomes a catalyst rather than a shrine. A shrine is a very outmoded model and it’s one that we have to get past. Design is a dynamic industry and I would hope that the programming so far this year has reflected that, because yes we have supported some projects that look at the past and heritage but it’s really been about using that as a platform and it’s about the new; it’s about new disciplines, new approaches, new collaborations. It’s about the future.

GS   The political classes in Ireland really haven’t understood what they’re dealing with here in terms of potential for growth, wealth and job creation. There are lots of examples, recently Finnish homewares group Fiskars bought Waterford Wedgwood for more than $400million. That is a staggering amount of money – and design is the heart and soul of both Fiskars and Waterford Wedgwood. The political classes, I think, have been suspicious about supporting the design sector with public funds design since the collapse of Kilkenny Design in the late ’eighties. It failed after years of drawing funds from the State. Although many people speak about Kilkenny Design with a kind of nostalgic reverence, the truth is it actually damaged the growth of the indigenous design sector. It was excellent in so many ways yet it failed to take the step to internationalise its product / service offering. The fallout from its expensive failure is a political elite or maybe a public service elite who feel that that’s what design is, something that they don’t understand and is bound to ‘go wrong’. What else explains the ‘hands-off’ attitude by the state until now – an attitude that leaves our sector with so much catching-up

to do?

AM   I think you have to make it tangible. We can’t just talk in expansive terms of ‘this will transform your business’ they want to know how it is going to do that, what’s the timeline? We have to juggle those two elements. We have to be very clear about what the benefits are but we can’t lose the aspiration of what design can do beyond just being a service provider.

GS   It’s a huge driver of economies around Europe and we are not benefitting from the potential that exists.

AM   No, and we don’t have such a strong manufacturing base, there isn’t the history in large-scale manufacturing like the UK or Germany, but on the other hand there isn’t the problem of a rustbelt of dying industries to try to engage with. We do have a very interesting craft tradition, which I think does provide a different type of approach. When we are putting together the international shows, a lot of the international journalists ask is there an Irish style­ and I’m very adamant that there isn’t. There isn’t a set aesthetic approach, we don’t have some mid-twentieth century model about what Irish design is to look back at as reference. It’s certainly not Claddagh rings and cream Aran jumpers and some of the clichés that I think historically people have perceived it

to be.

GS   And in some cases still do.

AM   I think what’s interesting is that there is a deep understanding of craft. I think there is an empathy that Irish designers have. They often design ‘with’ people not ‘for’ people and I think that’s a really interesting space. I think there’s actually a benefit from not having these manufacturing bases – it means that some of the best designers float between disciplines and I think that’s a new emerging trend and I think Ireland is in a really good position to do that.

I also think that the bit that Irish designers are probably best at is telling stories and we all know that the key element in terms of good design is narrative. That’s something that we can really build upon.

GS   We have the Institute of Designers in Ireland, we’ve got ICAD, the Institute of Creative Advertising and Design, we’ve got Design Business Ireland – all relatively small and all following international models. Is there a role for these or is this an old-fashioned model?

AM   No, I think it’s a vital role. I think disciplines and the design sector itself needs champions. I think ICAD have championed visual communication and advertising but I think we need to be more connected internationally and to foster that form of interaction. These trade organisations are vital networks and I’m really pleased as part of Irish Design 2015 that we’ve been able to support ICAD and help bring back Campaign and a number of other initiatives. We’ve also been very supportive of the IDI, but we’ve also been trying to set up, where relevant bodies don’t exist, sectoral or regional networks. Whether that’s in some of the craft areas or UX or medical device design, they all need support so trying to build those networks is really important and trying to make sure that there’s a regional engagement is also important because it’s not just about Dublin, it’s about the country as a whole.

GS   This is true and there’s a lot going on but it’s not linked up. There are lots of small initiatives around the country and collectively they could be quite strong and powerful.

AM   Well, this is it. I think in some sense in terms of planning the year, it was almost like stepping back and viewing Irish design as a constellation of opportunities and thinking where can we bring these elements together and how can we start to forge those conversations?

GS   Okay! Thanks very much Alex, very informative and best of luck with the next five years.

AM   Thank you very much.

This interview took place on 8 September 2015 at St Andrew’s, Suffolk Street, Dublin 2.