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After last year’s very successful event, Manchester Design Symposium was back bigger and better this year with the phenomenal backdrop of Manchester’s iconic town hall and an equally inspiring set of internationally acclaimed practitioners from the design world. These included publishers, font makers, educators, entrepreneurs, digital artists and even a royal designer.

The theme for the event was ‘design and the economy’ but this was consistently interwoven with last year’s theme throughout the day by all the speakers; the ever important ‘value of design’. The huge variation in specialisms across the speakers was definitely reflected in some of the dialogue that came out of the day, the stand out phrase, coined by Adrian Shaughnessy, being the ‘post graphic design era’ – an era he felt was characterised by the saturation and expansion of traditional graphic design into lots of highly specialised areas, an increase in social awareness and commentary amongst young creatives and ‘internetization’ i.e. the growth of new networks and technologies.

Adrian talked at length about some of the key factors he felt modern graphic designers had to contend with in this new ‘era’, of which I think possibly the most potent was his insistence on a ‘non-passive’ era. He gave many examples of his student’s work where social and political issues had been picked up and focussed on; a trend he said, had emerged quite drastically in the last 5 years and felt characterised the new generation of young creatives. He also talked about the saturisation and democratisation of the graphic design industry, using examples such as 99 Designs (a website offering very cheap creative and somewhat frowned upon by a lot of the industry) to show how there was now almost a polarisation of design work, from something ‘anyone could do’, to those areas which are highly specialised, particularly if the business function was fundamentally linked to that specialised need i.e. a large online company requiring a highly sophisticated website.

3hundredand65 project - Day: March 17th

It was interesting to see how the different speakers felt about this democratisation and communicating value; a particularly interesting point to come out of the panel discussion at the end of the day was the idea of a ‘design spokesman’. Brian Cox was used as an example in the Science world of someone who could ‘sex up’ the subject matter and explain it to the general public in an entertaining yet understandable way. It was a common feeling amongst panelists that this was something which was definitely missing within the design community and hinted at being possibly one of the reasons why there was a clear lack of understanding from both the public and the government about the value of design. It was however noted, that as design is fundamentally subjective by nature and judged on taste, it was understandable to see why there seemed to be a lack of solidarity amongst designers and a reluctance for a uniting body or figure to come forward as a spearhead.

The Restarting Britain report was referred to more than once by some of the speakers today as an exemplary piece of writing, which really communicated the lack of understanding by the current government about the importance of the creative sector to the British economy. Professor David Crow started off the day by announcing that 7% of the UK’s GDP was from the creative industries, between two and three times more than any other country in Europe. After such an obvious example of the real value of design, it’s still astonishing to think most people who aren’t in the industry just ‘don’t get it’.

Deptford Project - Image by Studio Myerscough

Another theme that emerged throughout the day was the feeling that designers needed to be a lot more open about their process with clients in order to demonstrate that enthusiasm for their craft and encourage stakeholders to actually take part in the process from the outset. Morag Myerscough gave an extremely inspiring talk about some of the community projects she’d been involved with, which looked at how design could be used to repurpose spaces, changing the environments and making people want to engage with spaces by getting them involved in the design process. I particularly enjoyed an example she gave of some work for a local school in which she transformed the inside spaces of the building to such a degree that student’s grades were actually higher and the reputation of the school was transformed – an example of the value of design if ever I saw one.

Vera-Maria Glahn from Field studio showed some absolutely magnificent animation and interactive visuals where by shapes shifted and took on lives of their own, creating unique identities using real time insights. You could see the huge influence of science and technology on their craft and visual aesthetic as a whole; I particularly liked their work for the Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong where they’d created a permanent video installation wall showing 8 different artworks all generated in real time so that each sequence was unique.

Other speakers on the day included Jason Smith from Font Smith, Dave Kirkwood who talked about his crowdsourcing project 3hundredand65 and Will Hudson founder of publishing platform It’s Nice That. Will was a great example of someone who had trained as a graphic designer but done on to do something completely different; something which Adrian summed up nicely by proclaiming ‘designers will find graphic design is a passport to do other things…designers are versatilists‘. The idea of mobility, of cross collaboration and of repurposing. This new era of designer seems to be one who doesn’t pigeon hole themselves and thinks strategically about their surroundings and what will work for them as a practitioner at this exact moment. As Malcolm Garrett (guest panelist) so succinctly put it, the new graphic designer needs to be ‘jack of all trades, master of at least one’.

The panel discussion concluded with the ever contentious subject of piracy and theft – something which resonated extremely strongly with Jason from Fontsmith who admitted he was currently in the middle of suing a company for ripping off some of his work. There seemed to be quite a mixed feeling amongst the panel about the idea of ‘stealing’ someone’s work, Vera-Maria made a brave point that if certain types of software or fonts weren’t able to be acquired illegally on the internet, then it could stifle a whole generation and wave of creativity and experimentation, thus preventing the industry from growing in innovative ways. It was clear there were some extremely strong views on the subject and evidently something which could have easily taken up a whole day’s symposium in itself.

There were so many other pieces of work featured that demonstrated the economic and social value of design, probably one of the most resonating being Massoud Hassani’s ‘Mine Kafon‘ – a device designed to seek out and destroy landmines.

The whole day was really a great example of the real urge and need within the design community to be listened to and taken seriously by the government. The economic, social and political values of design were evidenced in extraordinary ways at the symposium today; it’s clear that during this time of upheaval and economic uncertainty, designers and creatives are proving that ideas really are the only way out of the recession.

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