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Design Leaders Conference News

‘Designers are ‘uniquely qualified’ to address the challenges of uncertain times’

1 February 2023
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design leaders conference

Design Skillnet’s Design Leaders Conference gives grounds for optimism

Design Leaders Conference Round Up BY KERNAN ANDREWS

THE MULTIPLE challenges facing designers today should not be seen as barriers, but as opportunities for creativity, business-orientated solutions and inclusivity.

This was the overarching message from speakers at the Design Leaders Conference in The Light House Cinema, Dublin, on Thursday, January 26, led by Design Skillnet.

The conference theme of Joy was also explored. Speakers discussed how joy could still be found in work, despite the challenges produced by various political and economic factors.

charlotte barker idi

The tone was set by Charlotte Barker, Chief Executive of the Institute of Designers in Ireland (IDI)While acknowledging that the tech slowdown and job losses in the sector reflect a “volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world”, she noted that “If we follow the data, design is on the up”.

A recent report by Grant Thornton found the design and craft sector has a turnover of €53 billion – 6.7% of Ireland’s total business turnover – the eighth largest in the State by number of enterprises. Designers in the commercial design sector have a turnover of €200,000 per employee with a gross value add of €72,000.

“We are not insignificant,” she said. “We are a sector in growth. We do have a case for optimism. Take confidence in this data.”


We are in a good position to rebound

Despite the looming challenges of inflation, oncoming recession and the wider effects of the war in Ukraine, the panel discussion, ‘Any JOY in the Headwinds?’, provided grounds for genuine optimism.

The panel noted that none of these challenges are new and that designers have overcome them before and will do so again.

“This is not 2008, we are in a good position to rebound”, said Gráinne Morrison, Strategy Director at MCCP. “It’s a mood and it will pass.” Addressing attendees, she said, “This room is uniquely qualified to address and meet that.”



She said clients are now more wary, resulting in short-term planning and reduced spending. With less money to spend on design, clients will be focussed on the “practicality and functionality” of what designers can offer, and they will look for more “certainty”.

She recommended that conference attendees “respond to the business, not to the brief”, explaining that while the brief must be met, designers must go beyond the immediate requirements of the brief, taking into consideration the wider needs of the business and the role design can play in that.

Kim Comiskey, Senior Strategist at Folk Wunderman Thompson, said this necessitated increased collaboration between designers and clients, with designers needing to provide reassurance on the value of the design, and “practical day-to-day solutions” to help clients see beyond short-term focussed outlooks. “This is an opportunity,” she said. “Help people get more from what they have.”

Gráinne advised designers to “ask questions about the brief, understand the business you are working with and make your proposals more digestible to them, to help the client sell the idea and the function of the design to the rest of the business.”

‘Connecting to a good mood’

David Cullen, CEO of Opinions, advised against the current move towards short-term thinking, saying experience shows brands which “continue to invest in long-term planning and marketing tend to do better”.

He noted the reaction against “doom scrolling”, with “people doing joyful things online”, which are in turn enjoyed by a public “wanting a sensory break from the negativity of the news”.

He cited the McDonald’s eyebrows campaign, saying, “It feels appropriate for the times and builds on distinctive brand assets.” Encouraging designers to move towards this “more experiential” content, he said, “People want to connect to a good mood. The best definition of a brand is the feeling that it gives you.”

Kim echoed these remarks, saying, “When people are in an experiential space, the joy is increased.”

Sustainability ‘is achievable’

declan bogan and Brian O’Kennedy

Climate Change is a challenge demanding creativity and innovation from designers, and in making them look at the environmental and social impact of their business.

Declan Bogan (innovate2zero, sustHub) and Brian O’Kennedy (Clearstream Solutions) outlined that moving from a recycling economy, towards sustainability and a circular economy, challenges designers to think about constantly reusable materials, processes of production and how these fit into various systems of use.

Reflecting on these challenges, Brian said they demanded changes in the way businesses think and in their working methods. “It is achievable, but the curve is steep,” he said. “We might die trying, but we owe it to ourselves to make sure we try.”

‘Disabled people are the best people to bring into your organisation’

Inclusivity is another challenge, but also an incredible opportunity for innovation and unique perspectives to be encouraged in design.

Niamh O’Shaughnessy, Network Manager at Design Skillnet, said designers have the “power and imagination” to make “a real difference in the world”, and that design “should reflect the whole community”.

noel joyce designer

These ideas were fully explored by the pioneering Irish designer, Noel Joyce. A wheelchair user, he is a passionate advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities within the industry.

“People with disabilities have secret and mystical powers,” he said. “They can see into the future as they have to plan for probabilities that may arise,” highlighting how such challenges can range from going to the toilet to the physical effects on wheelchair users of rough and uneven footpaths.

“They always have to be 10 steps ahead,” he said. “This leads them to be project planners, doing risk assessments, project management and mental agility.” As such, “disabled people are some of the best people you can bring into your organisation”.

Noel noted the reluctance to do this is based on the labour, time and economic cost of adapting workspaces to make them more accessible. However, he said with 15% of the world’s population has a disability, and, as he pointed out, it is a minority we all become part of at some stage, through either injury or ageing.

“Disability is something we’re all going to experience,” he said, “so we should embrace it when we design. When we are designing for disabled people, we are designing for everyone, and we benefit ourselves in the future.”

He highlighted how kerb cuts, the keyboard, audiobooks, and the electric toothbrush were originally designed for people with disabilities, but are now ubiquitous products. As such, designing with disability in mind makes good commercial, as well as social, sense. “Don’t design because of disability,” he said. “Design for disability because it’s part of the human condition.”

adaptive mountain bike

A highlight of the conference was the display of the ground-breaking adaptive mountain bike Noel has designed and open-sourced, with a view to it being affordable and accessible for anyone who wishes to use it. Attendees were also treated to footage of Noel speeding along mountain bike trails in Tipperary.

“I want to see adaptive mountain bikes available at every trail in the world,” he said. “Inclusivity matters today as you will want to be included tomorrow.”

sabh feehan

The importance of inclusivity was further emphasised by Maire Devitt of the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, and Sadbh Feehan, a graduate of the Trinity programme who worked in A&L Goodbody before returning to work in Trinity.

Sadbh said her experience of getting work placement through the programme resulted in her taking pride in doing “meaningful work”, leading to “increased confidence and independence, and hope for the future” – further underlining the importance of including people with disabilities in the workplace.

‘Rise, Rest, and then Shine’

The importance of leaders’ well-being was explored, as they were invited to try practical techniques to facilitate JOY in their work by mindset coach Wendy Bollard.

wendy bollard mindset coach

While the importance of employee well-being was emphasised in talks by Cormac Ó Conaire, Chief Design Officer at Design Partners and THINKHOUSE founder, Jane McDaid. Through a series of imagined book titles she may one day like to write, Jane spoke of the importance of fostering a positive company culture through positive leadership, a progressive mindset, encouraging upskilling and the value of rest.

“I believe in Rise, Rest, and then Shine,” she said. “Nobody should work before 10am. Find what works for you and then be violently original.”

jane mcdaid thinkhouse

Cormac explored studies carried out by Design Partners on Flow states – an optimal state of consciousness achieved when one is fully immersed in an activity. Highlighting the connection between Flow, productivity, creativity and happiness, he referenced Dr Arne Dietrich, a pioneer in the study of this phenomenon, who said that people good at “relaxing techniques and destressing” prior to activity, have a “much greater chance” of achieving Flow.

cormac o conaire

‘Creativity is contagious’

Jane and Cormac highlighted the importance of stepping outside comfort zones – being “comfortable in the uncomfortable,” as Jane put it – and it was headline speaker, Pum Lefebure of Design Army, who showed what that meant in practice.

One of the world’s foremost designers, and an artist of the form, Pum treated attendees to highlights from her splendid creations for the Washington Ballet, Georgetown Optician, Neenah Paper, as well as political chocolate bars – all bursting with colour, vitality, imagination, and a sense of joy in their creation, which also imparts joy to the viewer.

pum lefebure

When presented with rebranding the Hong Kong Ballet, Pum outlined the challenges of being unfamiliar with the city, trying to create a campaign across different time zones and facing bad weather when on location for photo and video shoots.

However, with her beliefs of “integrating your passion into everyday life”; design’s power to  “change business and perception”; “using your voice” to make the ballet not simply the preserve of the well-off, but something which can be enjoyed by all; and the opportunity for creativity presented by challenges, Design Army completely reimagined what the Hong Kong Ballet is and could be and how it presented itself to the world – in short, taking a previously staid and conservative company, and making it vibrant, exciting, relevant, and joyful.

“We inject joy into everything we do at Design Army,” she said. “Things will go wrong, but you want to be excited about going to work every day. If you’re not excited, your staff won’t be either. As Einstein said, ‘Creativity is contagious’ and so pass it on to your city, community, family, and more importantly, to yourself. You are in charge of your destiny.”

pum lefebure design army

The day concluded with IDI president, Mary Doherty, paying tribute to the late Steve Payne, and noting, that despite being an era of uncertainty and challenges, designers “had a responsibility to change the world. It is a really exciting time to work in the creative industries in Ireland”.


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