Jonathan’s take on the Birmingham Design Festival

20 June 2018
By – Jonathan Topliss

Birmingham Design Festival

I promised myself that I wasn’t going to write a fabricated experience and make the festival sound like an inspirational guru quest. Although I feel a lot would have attended with the hopes that this miracle will happen, I somewhat maybe thought this myself. Instead I’m going to take a real approach as to why I felt the design festival to be both good and bad, the positives and the negatives and give you a few ramblings and rants in the process.

I normally steer clear of talks like these, I always pictured these things to be people on a stage going ‘look at me aren’t I great!’. That actually have no meaning or relevance at all and would leave me less inspired since I had to listen to someone’s ego for an hour. But the first ever Birmingham Design festival came across my paths and I had an opportunity to attend.  I don’t know why but this seemed like the changing point for me to ‘give it a shot’, plus a lot of the talks were free! I wanted to for the first time see if I was right or wrong and give something like this a chance. So, by now you’re probably thinking wow this guy’s negative so was he right or was he wrong … the answer is both!

So that’s enough negativity… for now anyway. The first thing I want to say about the event is the fact that two designers, Daniel and Luke, created the festival.  To make something like this happen is a massive thing to take on, which they honestly managed to pull off; with sponsors, and a great team – their hard work really did clearly show. They managed to gather a wide variety of speakers and place them all around Birmingham in different locations, that’s a monstrous and daunting goal and they should be really proud that they made something of this scale happen.

I found that the speakers at the talks just didn’t quite seem prepared for the talks. I left a few thinking “okay…you didn’t really say anything?!”. I then thought to myself maybe this is because the topic had no relevance to me. So therefore, I couldn’t see the point, as it was telling me something I wasn’t looking for.

As the first talk was happening I was looking around and saw people frantically scribbling notes and I sat there trying to absorb like a sponge with an open mind. I watched as this speaker showed other agencies work. This was not my thought of what this talk was going to be like. She showed campaigns of other agencies from smaller cities or non-cities, so interesting start. The talk was about London Vs Birmingham. However, I felt that what I was meant to get from the talk is how smaller locations can create big campaigns and cause more growth in their community hub. But what I actually got from this was the ‘how’; so how can a ‘small’ agency manage to bag the big clients? This question started to rattle around in my brain. Okay you’re in a location that’s not normally the first in mind for a creative design studio, so the question that jumped into my mind was; how does a small fish make a big splash in the ocean?

I left feeling like I’d missed the point. I was annoyed that she shown all this work where it seemed like these ‘small’ agencies got these big clients with massive budgets and I’m thinking well how did they get noticed?

My take was self-promotion. How you stand out from the crowd and get your work noticed? How do you push yourself to be seen and heard? To then give your clients faith in what you do and listen to your opinions?

The first of a few healthy debates,  full of questions, flowed between Mike and myself after the first talk we attended, mainly about what we both thought. I think this was my first lesson I took from this festival. That you take from it what ever you need to! We both saw something completely different in it, but ultimately, it’s what it means to you. If you feel it’s rubbish your more than likely still going to be thinking about it, debating it after so even the ‘bad’ ones where it just didn’t hit that spot, you come away with food for thought.

The big question for me was how to make an impact! That doesn’t limit it to creative agencies but to their clients too. How do you get ultimate impact and get yourself noticed; how do you make that big splash!

I’m now going to condense the next few into one. It is important to do your own projects! As the sessions went on, it was easy to see the speakers who put in the most effort, were the ones talking about their own personal projects.

The best talk for me was Craig Oldhams, he’s a straight-talking designer that does not shy away from saying what he thinks. He had a great stage presence and showed work that was a personal project to him and his passion showed. Not once did his approached come across as ‘look at me and my wonderful work that I produced’, but instead he was a humble ‘I wanted to do this for me and for the people’.

His project was a political approach to a book about the coal mines being closed and the effect it had on his family who worked in the coal mines and the town around it. It was his way of being a voice again for all the people that lost their jobs and the riots that followed.

He talked about print being a ‘tool’ the same way the software is. I never really thought of print that way, it’s so easy to see it as a final outcome, the end piece, so to speak, and not really the process in-between. For the print of the book he had the idea to take the coal from his town and put the coal into the inks for the print of the cover. So part of the town was actually in the book along with the stories from the people themselves.

Craig didn’t just talk of print, he also talked about the separation of designers and web designers. That it should never be split, this stood out to me as its so easy to say this is the ‘creative department’ and this is the ‘web department’ and I liked how this was incorporated into his talk.  It reminded me of the quote “treat the janitor the same way you would treat the CEO”.

Why do we separate digital from print when really, they can work together?

It really showed how passionate designers can be, the impact a designer can have, taking a negative subject and produce something beautiful. It highlighted that your own projects can easily become something bigger and have a positive impact.

That said, a few of the talkers seemed to me to do what I said of the ‘look at me ain’t I great’, but less than I thought.

One that stuck in my mind for this was a speaker that talked about her agency and the work they have created, she went on to show examples of work. When she said she was going to show a ‘few’ pages from a magazine, she began to show the entire magazine and how beautiful it was.

I sat there thinking why?

Some of the pages were as simple as a black ‘W’ on a white page with some of the letter being cut off the page. I kept hearing beautiful… but it a letter on a page! What is so beautiful about that?

I somewhat felt jealous that Mike could see the art and the beauty in the simplicity of the W, where I thought that no effort seemed to be used in the process in my mind. I felt like it was somewhat naïve; I mean she didn’t create the font, so all she did was place it on a page.

She then started to rattle off random words for about 15mins, which made me bored and I started to drift off into my own mind. I thought that a lot of the designs, the ‘arty’ designs were very simplistic and very samey. It’s in fashion now, but they have developed a style that will date surely? If you only do this sort of style (this seemed the case as every work from this company all looked the same), does that mean they would struggle to adapt? After talking to Mike and how he saw the beauty in the designs it was clear that this difference in opinion is great. We debated and argued our thoughts with passion.

When you look at the team at Ghost, we are all so different. It’s what makes us such an interesting team. We all have our own personality; we all see the beauty in different things. We all have our own different opinions that we can back up! We all have our own strengths and it’s clear to see these talents and how the work can be so diverse from each project.

So the question I got asked a lot after and knowing how cynical I can be is ‘would you go again?’ and the answer is yes, of course.

It’s always good to keep up to date with the trends in design and I think it would be interesting to see if any of the designers that talked come back and really do adapt with the trends of the day.

If something makes you think outside the box surely that’s a good thing. If you don’t agree with speaker it means you’re thinking of the reasons why it wasn’t for you. Sometimes these thoughts can spark how you might do something different. That kind of thinking is important, you can’t go thinking that everything said is by a guru. Instead it’s for you to decide what you take from it.

Passion comes from your own opinions and how you feel you can make things better. Trying something new like going out your comfort zone to attend talks, or debating with a colleague and listening to everyone opinions, that’s priceless!

We’re a team of creatives who believe that our individual abilities and perspectives are amplified when we come together to create change for our clients.

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