Cheltenham Design Festival v 3.0

Well, the dust has settled on the 3rd Annual Cheltenham Design Festival, and I was keen not to simply throw my thoughts into the immediate ‘post event’ twitterstorm. Similarly, I don’t want to just focus on the talks I attended, as this would be unfairly biased toward those that appealed to my tastes alone, and I am as keen as the rest of the trustees to see this festival become ever more successful and a regular slot on the Cheltenham festival calendar.

Regardless of my personal observations, it was fair to say that the calibre of the visiting speakers was once again incredibly high, as was the overall vibe from visitors on the festival days.

I’m in a fairly privileged position – a) Square Banana is based in the heart of Cheltenham – a stone’s throw from the festival venue, b) I have met some of the trustees and have a sense of what they are trying to achieve with this, c) I am fairly well versed in the design disciplines supported and have a decent working knowledge of the speakers attending each year and d) I am not directly involved in the organisation of the festival nor get involved in the peripheral activity, other than to fiercely promote it to the wider world through the channels we have available. In these circumstances, it allows me to observe from near and yet enjoy the spoils with a modicum of insider knowledge.

It should be worth noting that prior to the festival, the trustees invited the great and the good of the design/creative fraternity in Cheltenham to discuss the intentions of the festival and to politely coax anyone interested in being a part of it, to throw their hat into the ring. We will see what comes of that exercise in due course and how the dynamic of any future organisational team will steer the festival in a new, fresher direction, or whether it will slow it down with politics. Whomever does become involved, I truly hope they do so for the greater good of the festival, rather than any misplaced intentions to climb the ‘notice me’ ladder.

So… what of my observations?
Like any half decent blog, I thought it might be worth creating some form of easily digestible list!

1. Laandaan tahn.

I guess my radar is finely tuned to this aspect of any event as, having worked in London (albeit only for a year or so), there is a tendency for all so-called ‘design’ events to be heavily weighted in that direction. Whilst there were quite a number of talks that were encouragingly inclusive and eclectically European, there was still the lingering air of ‘visiting the outlying territories to spread the word’. The panel discussion particularly did nothing to make me feel that those residing and working within London had any awareness or mutual respect for those businesses doing marvellous things in the apparent wilderness outside the M25…other than a little tokenism when it dawned on them that the audience was ‘not from London’. I don’t blame the speakers per se, as they are simply responding to an invitation to speak at a design festival, but it would be refreshing to see more UK based speakers who might bring a more holistic view of the wider British creative industries to the festival. More than that, how about some that are deemed ‘local’?

2. Don’t assume old isn’t new.

There is a tendency to see the young as shiny and maverick, whilst respectfully listening to the old as ‘experienced’ and knowledgable. In large swathes of our industry this is relatively true, but what struck me about the ‘tête-a-tête’ between Ken Garland and Sir Ken Grange at the conclusion of the festival was just how bloody sharp and aware they both were. They demonstrated that – whilst, like many from their generation, they still lament some elements of our inexhaustible technological march forward – they are just as aware of the human-centric issues facing modern society as any ‘top of their game’ social commentator, and the acute need to positively encourage the young to be creatively nurtured. They were both astute, erudite and amazingly relevant to modern design thinking. I could have listened to them talk to each other all day, and as a result I have a suggestion for the festival…

With guests as brilliant as these guys (and who need no curating as such) I would prefer to have them simply sit in two comfortable chairs facing each other and get them to discuss a subject of their choice. A ‘host’ constantly asking them banal questions like “Who inspires you?” does nothing to allow their conversation to flow freely, it constantly interrupts the anecdotal flow and doesn’t give the conversation a chance to meander off into really interesting territories. With lives and creative back-catalogues as rich as the two Kens have, an hour and a half of them chatting to each other with a loose agenda to discuss a few salient issues would be marvellous to watch….in my humble opinion. Not quite ‘an audience with…’, more of a ‘conversation earwigging’.

3. Indefinable design

In many of the talks I attended from individual speakers, it was clear that the ‘defined design discipline’ model is fast disappearing. Many people working within the broad umbrella of ‘design’ are no longer ‘graphic’ or ‘product’ or ‘digital’ designers. They seem to be more holistic enablers or creative keystones to businesses that are developing intangibles and services that are defying definitions – a notable example being Jack Schulze of BERG. As an experienced product designer and having heard him speak for an hour, I’m still a little unsure as to exactly what he does…despite him making it sound incredibly interesting and fulfilling!

Another aspect of this ambiguity or discipline-blending is the overarching issue of defining the word ‘design’ itself. Within our own ‘creative industry sector’ we have enough issues agreeing on a singular – often horribly broad – definition of the word amongst ourselves, so how on earth can we expect the wider ‘non-design’ sectors to possibly get a solid handle on what we do as an industry? Finance, hospitality, healthcare are all easily to digest, but ‘design’ is an indeterminable goo that can be used as a verb, a noun, an adjective or pretty much any other way the user chooses. The ‘Creativity in Britain’ panel discussion – as with last year’s session – got itself in a right tangle when using the terms ‘creative industries’ or ‘design’. It ended up skimming the surface or every argument and discussion point with rhetoric, cliché and excuses that left me feeling a little despondent to be perfectly honest. I’m not entirely sure that these panel sessions do anything but confuse. The guest are too polite to steamroller, and no-one is given the opportunity to really deepen their arguments. Whilst I’m always keen to see these panel discussions when they are advertised, I would prefer this format to be ditched in favour of something different. Something that allows the speakers to engage with the audience more swiftly or discuss the subject matter more fully.

4. Ideas rock

Following on from the emerging central, omni-skilled, design figurehead, it is apparent that ideas rule the modern world. And I mean proper ideas. Ideas that are rooted in understanding behaviour and people, rather than some half-arsed technology that needs a brand or reason to exist. The combination of these design polymaths and well rooted ideas is looking like it might change the world. Investors seem to be understanding the real value of design and not just ‘something Apple do’. A good number of the talks I attended really emphasised the greatness of good honest ideas and thinking about a real problem. In most cases, it was the thinking behind the idea, rather than the implementation of the solution that commanded the greatest respect of the audience. This in itself is phenomenally reassuring to see, at a time when we in the design industry are being bombarded with spurious tat about 3D Printing and how it’s going to change the world. I’m hoping that the same spirit of ‘idea hunting’ will rub off on the 3DP fraternity and we can finally put to bed the inconsequential whimsy of much of the 3D Printing spin we are subjected to. I for one would love to work with a 3D Printing business to help them shape something worthy from well honed origins.

5. Spirit of recklessness

I am in two minds about this next observation. It appears that whilst society and business is accepting of the more cavalier, design-centric, kickstarting ‘entrepreneur’, it is similarly accepting and encouraging of the ‘fail hard, fail fast’ mentality that so often accompanied the stock market cowboys of our recent past. On the one hand, it is clear that more people are having the audacity and confidence to throw convention to the wind and try new things, but too many people are being told that creating, developing and selling your own product – be in tangible or intangible – is incredibly easy…all you need is a camera, a kickstarter pitch and some flouncy renderings. “Hey, don’t worry about failing! You’re not a real entrepreneur until you’ve failed and lost your first million!” You can almost see the billboard writing itself. The design festival hosted a number of talks that seemingly promoted this mentality in the spirit of creative abandon and whilst I think that it is fantastic to encourage everyone to positively engage with their inner designer as an outlet for creativity, it needs to be done with caution. Although slightly less dramatic, it is akin to expecting people to start doing their own surgery. The skills that a product designer develops in understanding the multifaceted world of product creation are wide ranging and often complex. To suggest that ‘anyone’ can simply compete on the world stage with a home 3D Printer, a blog and a twitter account is a tad foolhardy. I fully appreciate that I am exaggerating somewhat but it may be more responsible to explain either a) the funding channels (and inherent complexities/negotiations) that allowed said idea to come to fruition or b) indicate the pitfalls that can often accompany the product development process. I’m all in favour of enabling people to create, but do it with more responsibility and less bravado.

I sense that I am veering off into a standalone blog post with this one, so I’ll terminate before I get carried away!

6. Variety, variety, variety

On initial inspection of the festival lineup when it hit our desks, I was a little underwhelmed by the general, across the board ‘recognition level’ of the names involved. I’ll admit now that I was being snooty and elitist. Last year saw a plethora of grand dames of the design industry grace the stage – a hugely impressive lineup that would put ANY design conference, festival or seminar to shame. However, having been to both, this year’s lineup had a much more rounded feel to it. To be able to go from a talk about interior space, vibrancy and colour with Morag Myerscough to an inspiring anecdotal talk about people and stories by Erik Kessels to an intense overview of the amazing innovations loaded into the new Range Rover to a chat by Mark Champkins about the Science museum and his life in invention was thoroughly inspiring. On reflection, I think more speakers from less well known, but equally interesting corners of the design and innovation space would really help to inspire all those that attend…not simply preaching to the converted i.e. BY designers TO designers. Stuff convention. Let’s try and broaden everyone’s horizons. More Jack Schulze. More Erik Kessels. To use a word oft quoted to Steve Jobs…more misfits please!

Whilst I may seem critical of some aspects, I am still a huge supporter of the festival and think that it has built up a hugely credible momentum. I went to as many talks as I could feasibly manage (and had the cramp to show for it!) and enjoyed every single one. It was great to have Sir Kenneth Grange on the one hand – a sage like Jedi of the design world – on the same bill as Kirsty Pinnell – a youthful, exuberant materials geek from the Williams F1 team talking about composite moulds! No talk any less relevant than the other.

I guess my main gripes are promotion and attendance. As with last year, it was clear that there is a distinct bias towards local undergraduate students and graphic design (not unsurprising really). Many talks were apparently sold out and yet the audience numbers in the auditoria did not reflect this, with about a third of seats vacant in many cases. As a passionate supporter of wider design awareness, I felt a little embarrassed on behalf of Cheltenham that the calibre of some of the speakers were not attended to the levels they deserve – a particular example being Laura Jordan Bambach of D&AD who should have commanded a packed house. After three years of the festival, I would have expected to see more attendees from the design industry present – it certainly has the clout and gravitas to do so. Maybe there should be more business related networking events to run alongside? Something to entice the design business types away from their studio desks and towards a fertile, opportune festival in Cheltenham. Can we tie up with a local venue to do some form of dinner or conference to coincide with the festival? Lots to think about.

It has been useful to compare 2 very different events that effectively have the same intention. On the one hand we have the 2 day, Cheltenham Design Festival with a list of talks attended by predominantly students, the public and a handful of local professionals. On the other we have the 1 day Develop3D Live event crammed full of speakers but with an attendee list consisting mainly of industry professionals. My experience of each was very different. I went to the CDF to hear as many of the speakers as possible and try to grab chance opportunities to speak to them (with varying levels of success). I went to D3DLive to listen to a few choice speakers but mainly to talk and meet with like minded individuals. I felt more ‘inspired’ by the CDF because of what I heard at the talks, but more ‘energised’ and connected by who I met at the D3D Live event. Each has their merits and failings, and two very different target audiences (of which I happen to overlap) but there are elements of each that I would urge each other to consider. I will eagerly continue to attend both events and each year, will most likely wish that – as this year – they cross-pollinate.

So here’s to CDF v4.0 in 2015. I haven’t even touched on the great work that the trustees do with school kids with their Saturday design schools, but notwithstanding that, I think the festival itself is going from strength to strength, and the very fact that the ‘obvious’ candidates have already visited and spoken at the festival these past 3 years, means we are in for a treat in years to come as more modern and game-changing individuals are sought to inspire multiple generations to create, empower and enable great ideas for our ever-fragile future.

Carry on.
I for one will be flying the flag for the festival as long as I have arms!

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