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Design Leaders Conference News

Embracing the Future with Confidence: Design Leaders Conference highlights 2021

2 December 2021
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A half-day conference with international speakers – inspiring today, transforming tomorrow.


2021 saw the return of Design Leaders Conference in person at the Light House Cinema with 100 design-thinkers from the Irish design sector attending a half-day packed with engaging talks and discussions on the Future of Design.


The focus of #DesignLeadersConf this year was to reconnect, reflect on our careers and businesses after the disruptions of the past months and provide designers and creative leaders with the necessary tools and knowledge to take the lead in driving change, as we strive to design a more sustainable future.


Aileen Dempsey, Design Leaders Conference 2021 organiser. Photography: Conor Healy of PictureIt


Opening the Conference with a positive lens, Institute of Designers in Ireland CEO Charlotte Barker and Conference Organiser Aileen Dempsey assured us that despite the accelerated disruptions of the past month the Future of Design is bright, with an opportunity to build a culture of development and learning.


Designing for uncertain times – using foresight.


Kevin McCullagh, Design Leaders Conference. Photography: Conor Healy of PictureIt


Anticipate to Initiate’ 


In a world of increasing uncertainties, taking a foresight approach in Design is crucial for design leaders to make informed design decisions and deliver more successful outcomes for people, products and services. 



‘Designers don’t analyse trends as passive observers; we do it to make a dent in the future.

Foresight helps us check that our thinking is working with the grain of change and helps us shape the future.’


Keynote speaker Kevin McCullagh, the founder of the Strategic Foresight Agency Plan, unveiled the steps we need to take to untangle intricate future trajectories and anticipate to initiate change.

Kevin demonstrated how using foresight to identify historical key trends – prioritising sociology as a determining factor before technology – is essential to understand the change drivers,  protect us from unpredicted shocks and scope future design needs.


 ‘If you mix with people from different backgrounds to expand your thinking, you will cover your blind spots.’


Foresight is best treated as an iterative exercise and not a one-off exercise and designers need to act as informed contrarians, seeking viewpoint diversity and field expert advice, scanning wide and often, and keep on tracking to maximise their results.


‘Unlearn what you think you know, don’t be afraid to update your assumptions, get advice from the experts in the field, seek viewpoint diversity and do it again.’Kevin McCullagh.


Unlocking designers business mindset


Kimi Gilbert Design Leaders Conference
Kimi Gilbert, Design Leaders Conference 2021. Photography Conor Healy of PictureIt


Kimi Gilbert, Managing Partner at The Future Factory, a leading business development consultancy advising some of the world’s best agencies, was next to take the stage.


‘Creatives make the best salespeople’


In an energetic and engaging presentation, Kimi challenged our misconception that sales and creativity cancel each other out. On the contrary, designers possess natural selling abilities such as problem solving and resources including portfolio and awards to demonstrate their value to clients and develop and incorporate a more business mindset to their work. Kimi brilliantly unlocked the path to take that more creative approach to business growth for reluctant designers, breaking down sales into sprints, one step at the time, rather than a marathon.  


Kimi Gilbert Design Leaders Conference 2021
Kimi Gilbert Design Leaders Conference 2021



Embedding Design as a strategic business function


Up next was a stimulating panel on building in-house capabilities: Novartis Global Head of Creative and Digital Julie Richards, PARK Design Leader and Course Director of the Design Management Professional Diploma James Hall, Savills Ireland Design Manager Ciara Ní Bhrolcháin and skillfully facilitated by John Moriaty, Design Director at Fjord Accenture. 


Julie Richards James Hall John Moriaty Ciara Ni Bhrolchain
James Hall, Julie Richards, Ciara Ní Bhrolcháin and John Moriaty at Design Leaders Conference 2021. Photography Conor Healy of PictureIt.


The panel discussed how business has come to realise the strategic value of developing high-quality internal design departments and the need to collaborate between in-house and external teams. They stressed the importance of hiring with the company’s future in mind and defining the long term creative scope with designers at an early stage of the discussions, as well as bridging language gaps between departments.


How can designers be change agents and strategic innovation business partners? 


Innovation and design leader Robert Bau demonstrated the power of Service Design as a Change Agent and Innovation Driver to help tackle complex challenges. 


Robert Bau Design Leaders Conference 2021 Photography Conor Healy Of PictureIt.
Robert Bau, Design Leaders Conference 2021. Photography Conor Healy Of PictureIt.


Design thinking is what we do, service innovation is what we want to achieve’ 


Robert encouraged us to get a clearer picture of which activities and skills we need to focus on by mapping the seven key roles a service designer – or service ‘design superpowers’ – can play changes with regard to the four organisation’s distinctive changes process.


In a very insightful presentation, supported by leading organisations’ case studies, Robert illustrated how designers can empower leaders’ to bring the case for change to life, set the tone for the organisation wide innovation, create the conditions for change, both top-down and bottom-up innovation.


Robert Bau Design Leaders Conference 2021 Photography Conor Healy Of PictureIt.
Robert Bau, Design Leaders Conference 2021. Photography Conor Healy Of PictureIt.


A more flexible, sustainable, and diversified work Culture.


The workplace challenges and trends of the future were highlighted by our panel on Remote Work – Distributed Teams – Future Hybrid with Ciaran Harris, Co-founder and Principal UX Designer at Each & Other, Donnacha Costello, UX Principle, Logitech and Róisín Buckley, Director Piquant Media facilitated by Design Skillnet Learning and Development Manager Niamh O’Shaughnessy. In a truly thought-provoking conversation, the panel took a deep dive into how the pandemic and lockdown threats have also been opportunities to grow and expand, and catalysts to rethink Design and redefine our work Culture. 


Ciaran Harris Donnacha Costello Roisin Buckley Niamh OShaunessy
Ciaran Harris, Each & Other; Donnacha Costello, Logitech; Róisín Buckley, Piquant Media and Niamh O’Shaughnessy, Design Skillnet


‘The main issue with a more sustainable design is the negative impact of data on our environment.’Róisín Buckley


Interesting perspectives were exchanged on adapting to a forever-evolving and remote work environment, such as collaboration with more inclusive teams and digitalisation with a more sustainable approach to data management.


A strategic and creative partnership of creativity, energy and magic.  


Finally, the acclaimed founders of Smith &+ Village, Debrah Smith and Richard Village shared their journey, from finding the right partner, the reality of running your own business, the choice to run it remotely without an office and kissing a few frogs before winning clients as Harvy Nichols and countless awards.  Sharing insights on how they manage a business framework that is a collaborative network, their creativity and energy was palpable.  


‘The Future is small, connected and networked.’


In a lively, funny and refreshing presentation, showing glimpses of their stunning portfolio along the way, they retraced how making bold moves, finding the right balance between strategic logic and creativity, adopting a ‘working smarter, not bigger’ and collaborative approach to building their own network, made them grow as a team.


Richard Village And Debrah Smith
Richard Village And Debrah Smith, Smith&+ Village at Design Leaders 2021. Photography Conor Healy of PictureIt.


We left the conference inspired to embrace the future with renewed confidence, equipped with meaningful, practical lessons and new connections, ready to innovate and take action to design a more sustainable future.


For Design Skillnet, Design Leaders Conference is the foundation for training, seminars and events in the coming year. It’s the beginning of new ideas, connections made and leadership skills developed. As we are now starting the countdown to Design Leaders Conference 2022 and plan for next year’s event, we would greatly appreciate your thoughts on what would be relevant, beneficial and enjoyable for you next year. Join the Design Leaders Conference mailing list to be the first to hear further announcements and ticket offers.


About us

Design Skillnet works all year round to prepare and empower designers to be future-ready, through subsidised training initiatives and events including in-house bespoke solutions. We aim to identify challenges and bridge the gaps in the Design sector’s workforce, facilitate information sharing and provide practical opportunities to increase the maturity, resilience and competitiveness of our members and the sector. 


Let us be your business partner in your career journey, sign up to become a member.


Design Skillnet is co-funded by Skillnet Ireland, the Institute of Designers in Ireland and member companies. 


Photographs, courtesy of Conor Healy of PictureIt and Charlotte Haffner, Design Skillnet team. Find the full conference album on our Facebook page.


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