The Cheltenham Design Festival 2013

Although this blog is really supposed to be a forum for our opinions on specific design related issues, the fact that the town our studio inhabits has just hosted a rather magnificent design festival warrants some form of posting.

This Sunday just gone, the 2nd Annual Cheltenham Design Festival came to a close just up the road at the Parabola Arts Centre. Four days of awe-inspiring speakers from the coal face of design thinking in the UK. I was peripherally involved, in the sense that I run a design business in Cheltenham and was invited (as a result of various chance conversations and email introductions) to be video’d, along with other ‘Cheltenham creatives’ in the run up to the festival – making comment on the benefits and delights of working outside of London in the leafy suburbia of the Cotswolds. There was a lot of inflatable yellow sofa and all-round shoe envy! Other than that I can claim no part in its organisational success but I am rightly proud of our (relatively) small town and the impressive list of names willing to travel to, and speak at the festival.

Before I go on, I’d also like to mention – for those of you that may have attended – the newspapers that were being handed out throughout the festival (at the front of the venue). These were a clever initiative from 3 undergraduates (Sam, Adam and Shaun) at the University of Gloucestershire – calling themselves ‘The Paperboys’ (@_ThePaperboys). For one of their module submissions they decided to do something that would both generate income and interest in their work. They basically rode the coattails of the festival (to which all of their design heroes – and therefore, prospective employers – were attending as speakers) and put together a tabloid newspaper containing articles on various aspects of ‘Hidden creativity within Cheltenham’ interspersed with their own undergraduate work and a number of pages flogged to local design agencies (myself dutifully included) to fund it all. All in all, a very savvy little undertaking and one which I hope will stand them in good stead as they approach their graduation. I know I’ll be keeping an eye on their careers!

For once, I was genuinely spoilt for choice at this year’s festival and had to make some tough decisions about who I couldn’t see. It is a rare thing indeed, to get the likes of Sir John Sorrell, Michael Johnson (Johnson Banks), Bruce Duckworth, Richard Seymour, Neville Brody, Sir John Hegarty, Deyan Sudjic and many other equally creative people in one place, let alone outside of London. This isn’t rhetoric – there literally are too many to mention here – and I could have done with the festival being a week longer to allow me to fit them all into my diary!

Anyway, from the rich pool of choice, I selected individual talks from Bruce Duckworth, Richard Seymour, Nat Hunter and Fred Deakin, with 2 ‘panel debates’ including Michael Johnson, Spencer Buck, Mark Bonner, Craig Oldham, Sir John Hegarty, Neville Brody, Deyan Sudjic and David Constantine.

On the whole, the individual speakers delivered exactly what I was looking for. Thought provoking, well structured insight into a world we all aspire to inhabit as creative design providers, working at the very pinnacle of their professions. Bruce Duckworth in branding and graphics, Richard Seymour in product design, Fred Deakin in the digital/musical realm and Nat Hunter spearheading a welcome pragmatic approach to design for sustainability (I will admit to not being particularly impressed with Nat’s co-presenter – a guy called Steven Johnson…but that is purely subjective…he simply didn’t connect with me. By all means have a look at his site at to judge for yourself). I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve been privileged to work for Richard as a senior designer at Seymourpowell, and have worked with Bruce and Fred (albeit only for a few days) on a collaborative project a few years ago, so it was interesting to hear their views on the developing design industry. I hold all of these guys (and Nat) in very high regard and they didn’t disappoint.

I won’t go into the ‘nitty gritty’ specifics of each of the talks as they differed greatly in their delivery, content and personality. However, what did come across was the overarching aspects of responsibility, integrity of ideas and honesty as designers. Bruce talked about their recent work for Coke and Waitrose and the ultimate simplicity and clarity of the underlying idea. Their work can only be as clean, witty and uncluttered as it is because of the sheer brilliance of the idea and understanding of the wider context of that brand’s implementation and exposure to the consumer cultures it develops. Like all great work, it appears ludicrously simple and obvious in execution, but all attempts beforehand could not manage their (Turner Duckworth’s) clarity of message in these instances. Incidentally – I would put the work of Johnson Banks in this same category, and it is one of the things I was disappointed not to see – a singular talk from Michael Johnson…maybe next year.

For a festival heavily weighted towards the 2D design fraternities, I was particularly pleased to see Richard Seymour on the bill. As a product designer myself, our world is often under-represented at such events and less understood by consumers at large – mainly as it is sometimes a more complex, muddy message to convey. It was good to see that Richard did not pull any punches. He spelled out the future that awaits us and the responsibilities we have – as designers of things – to treat our human ingenuity and technological advances with tender care. As he stated (and I paraphrase somewhat) “For the first time in human history, our imagination has been surpassed by our capacity for delivery.” In other words, we as humans can create and do things that we can not yet imagine easily. That may not make a great deal of sense in the context of this blog post, but I urge you to attend a talk of his in the near future if you get the chance. It is a proverbial gut punch to the moral kidneys of the so-called ‘responsible’ designer. We have a toolkit available to us that could very easily be abused and we need to ensure that we do the job properly as we meander through the near future.

In a very different style altogether to that of Bruce and Richard, it was good to hear the exploits of Nat Hunter (previously of Airside fame) addressing the ‘elephant in the room’ called sustainability. Now I’ve heard quite a few ‘sustainability’ talks and they tend to exit my brain very soon after entering it – mainly because they say a lot without any commitment or concrete examples – something that tends to frustrate the hell out of me. I don’t mind being told that something is necessary, but I like to see some evidence of success in practice. Nat’s talk was nicely pragmatic and resonated with much of the thinking that most decent product designers would attest to. She has been developing something (via the RSA) called the Great Recovery and the promotion of a more circular economy, but rather than simply pointing accusingly at designers and saying more needs to be done, she is engaging the people who have to deal with the end results of our product design legacy – the poor sods at the recycling centres who have to disassemble and sort materials for post processing and re-use. There is plenty of refreshing detail, but maybe not for here. Have a look at for more info. I’m seriously considering getting involved in this…

Fred Deakin (also ex-Airside and one half of Lemon Jelly) was equally relevant as a speaker. He argued that we are in a fabulous transitional period; our grandparents were brought up with purely analogue products and our children are being brought up with purely digital ones, leaving us straddling the two worlds perilously. It is unlikely this will ever happen again – where such a monumental shift of fundamental delivery technology and interface ubiquity can be witnessed by a single generation, so we should thank our lucky stars and embrace it! As you would imagine from a guy so buried in the equally changing worlds of digital media and music, his talk was suitably charged and energetic and left the audience somewhat reeling with opportunity overload. I – for one – enjoyed it thoroughly.

So those were my ‘talks of choice’ and the ones I attended. I wanted to see more individual speakers and I hear from other attendees that most – if not all – were equally engaging, challenging and career-shifting. I think I’ll keep an eye out in the future for talks from Craig Oldham, Spencer Buck and Adrian Westaway – to name but a few of the ‘up and coming’ heavyweights on the design speaking circuit.

So to the ‘debates’…

On the whole, I was excited by the prospect of the panel sessions. Pulling together interesting, opinionated designers with proven track records to discuss matters relevant to design sounds intriguing and – on paper – can only be brilliant. I attended 2 such sessions; the first one at the start of Day 1 and the ‘biggie’ at the close of Day 3.

I must admit to leaving the auditorium feeling a little underwhelmed to be perfectly honest. Whilst the individuals themselves said things that made perfect sense, it felt a little like a polite conversation in a dentist’s waiting room. Everyone tripping over themselves in deference to their peers, not really having the opportunity to voice a truly gutsy opinion on any particular matter. It felt like they were all being a bit too polite to say anything ripe enough. To my mind, we were observing the first hour of a ‘drinks’ party, where everyone tiptoes around each other and dutifully hands around the hors d’oeuvres. What we needed (and I suspect… wanted) was to return to the party 4 hours later after a couple of bottles of choice had been emptied and the discussions were a little less cautious. THAT would have been interesting to listen to!

I have nothing but utmost respect for all of the panelists and tended to agree with much of what each of them said (even when they politely disagreed with each other!) but I would have paid more to see each of them talk independently on their subject of choice – to hear their singular, unedited opinion on a subject matter. Straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Individually unleash Michael Johnson or Sir John Hegarty or Neville Brody and the room would be captivated for hours. It was almost as though the sum was less than the individual parts.

I can’t put my finger on why exactly it didn’t work. The venue was great, the guest were spectacular and the chairs asked the right kinds of questions. Maybe it was the lack of time available or the generic blandness of the questions. To be perfectly honest, the BIG debate spent most of the time defining the question itself and ended up tying itself in knots. Maybe it was my expectation of what I was going to be seeing. Too high? Too detailed? Who knows.

As an aside…one thing that did resonate with me in that final debate, was something David Constantine (of Motivation) said… “Appropriate design is good design”. I couldn’t agree more. The panel was getting itself muddled with definition of ‘good’ design but David nailed it right there and then. ‘Appropriateness‘ is something I hold very dear to my own design thinking and to hear someone like David say the same felt very good indeed!

Despite this slightly empty feeling from the 2 panels discussions I attended, I think the festival was a resounding success and something I am very happy to support and help to develop in whatever way I can to ensure that it becomes a regular calendar event. The trustees have obviously done wonders to secure the consistent calibre of speakers and they should be doubly applauded for getting these guys to not only speak at a festival with a short track record, but more importantly in Cheltenham, which as we all know, is NOT IN LONDON. To be perfectly honest, and given the quality on the bill, I was slightly embarrassed that Cheltenham didn’t fill every seat in the house for every talk. We can’t very well sit here and complain about anything, when such a festival is put on for us on our doorstep and we find it hard to get bums on every seat. I for one, will be firing on all cylinders to promote it next year if the CDF team can secure anything like the level of speakers we got this year.

All told, I think it was brilliant. Well done chaps!

author : Russell Beard  |  Founder

2 thoughts on “The Cheltenham Design Festival 2013

  1. Hi Russell

    It’s ‘Steven’, not ‘Stephen’. A more objective analysis would be more courteous to your readers, and to me. As would the inclusion of a link so they could judge for themselves:

  2. Hi Steven.

    Apologies for the typo and fair comment. I have updated the post with a link as you suggest.

    I’m very upfront is suggesting that these posts are my thoughts and are – as such – opinionated. I have no doubt that many people connect very well with what you say, but I didn’t. That is all I am saying. There are plenty of blogs and online articles talking about the festival in an objective and sterile sense (in the nicest possible way). These are simply my views and comment on what I saw and heard.

    All the best.


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