The main stage at the Bridgewater Hall

Absurd at SMART:DM19

Rowan Cavanagh

By Rowan Cavanagh

Lead Visual Designer

On a chilly late November morning, as the clouds threatened everyone to stay indoors, we made the short trek across the city to the Bridgewater Hall. As we walked through the entrance, amongst our first observations of the waiting crowd were “are these college kids??” and “I feel old”.

Over the course of the day, we took in seven talks and one panel at Design Manchester’s SMART conference. These touched a wide range of topics and disciplines, with central themes around self-discovery, empowerment and growth. There were also stalls and little workshops on one of the concourses that we dipped our toes into, as well.

Charlie Waterhouse and Clive Russell of Extinction Rebellion talking on stage

Extinction Rebellion

In the main hall, the day began with a signature hard-hitting speech on the climate emergency by two British representatives of Extinction Rebellion, Charlie Waterhouse and Clive Russell. Both graphic designers by trade, their role within the organisation being that of creative strategy and poster design. Although their appreciation and dedication to that side of their lives was clear, they used their platform for the day to affirm the bigger issues within the environment we design. Their opening assertion that “design is not important—the intent of design is important” provided a strong ethically-charged soundbite to begin the day.

How can we use what we do in design, to be truly rebellious? What changes to humanity can we enable through our involvement in the right initiatives, through more sustainable products and services?

Hansje van Halem talking on stage

Hansje van Halem

Hansje van Halem then provided the foil to Charlie and Clive’s eye opener with an orthodox designer’s presentation. Her story covered the journey from her youth, experimenting with letterforms in her father’s study, to her professional life, and evening opening an art and graphic design gallery in her own home. The importance of experimentation was demonstrated through her collection of works that didn’t quite come off, in a sort of a portfolio. This led to further work when new clients saw these pieces, where she could flex her creative muscles on something a little more outlandish.

Failed sketches become a catalogue of possibilities
Ladies, Wine & Design panel discussion

Ladies, Wine & Design

Here we ducked out of the packed main hall to venture upstairs for one of the day’s panels in the Barbirolli Room, hosted by the global initiative Ladies, Wine & Design. On this panel were designer Penny Lee, leadership coach Auriel Majumdar and educator Tash Willcocks.

Auriel began her introduction with an interesting point revolving around finding your own voice and path, in life and your career. She was brought up by a reasonably traditional Indian father, who enforced in her the values of working hard, keeping her head down, and “doing better”. This instilled guilt and a “right” way of doing things along the way. Leading her down an unfulfilling career, until the age of 48 when a leadership course that she attended shook things up. In then setting up as an independent coach, her chance to reflect on the downsides of following the wishes of others resulted in her strong attitude and poignant advice for us on choosing your own direction in life.

You can change your life at any point

When questioned by a woman in the audience experiencing similarly pressured family situations, Auriel’s response was to “do the things that are right for you. Most of [the ability to navigate family and career politics] comes with age and experience”.

This led well towards the next topic of discussion, on trying new things. Here the consistent point made was to of course embrace change, but to also push on and seek it. Penny commented that things may not come easily, but encouraged anyone to jump into the new. She said “everybody’s bricking it”—that everyone is just finding their way, and isn’t as confident as their exterior may show, therefore you shouldn’t judge yourself harshly in that regard. Tash’s opinion on the topic revolved around her reaching a point where she acknowledges she has become comfortable in what’s she’s doing, and then “disrupts” that by moving on. To this argument Penny also commented that a telltale sign of needing to find something different is if you start blaming others for any issues or unhappiness in what you’re doing.

Harris Elliot talking on stage

Harris Elliot

Following a break and a talk by Neil Hubbard on his very beautiful and functional architectural work, was a talk on his life and influences by Harris Elliot. As the child of working class Jamaican immigrants, Harris encapsulated the thread of representation through the day perfectly. His talked continued the theme of self-discovery, and how he found himself on a path not easily accessible to people of his social background. No doubt enabling others present in a similar situation to keep pushing.

Harris’ differentiator as a creative in the U.K. is very much informed by his minority upbringing. His work’s influences turned towards music and fashion as a means of finding an identity, leading him to reggae, dancehall and teahouse. As was common, he drew from associations with his parents’ homeland. One prevalent influence here was the Rudeboy movement, which took the form of a well-dressed young person (usually male) who also demonstrated social discontent and violence. For Harris, all of this was about finding a place and belonging amongst under-representation.

Throughout his schooling in the run up to applying for university, he had never been shown how to present his design and art work, and knew nothing of portfolios. Therefore when heading into his application interview, he did what he thought was best and wrapped his work in a bin bag liner. Demonstrating to us the simple privileges that most of us in the audience would have taken for granted.
Harris was inspiring, he showed and talked of the benefits of finding your own space, finding what defines you. He demonstrated through his own work how differentiation stops your work from flatlining and feeling homogenous.

When you feel uncomfortable, that’s where the magic happens
Paula Scher talking on stage

Paula Scher

Wrapping up the day after another break and a talk by Cosey Fanni Tutti, was world-famous designer, Paula Scher, described as the “master conjurer of the instantly familiar”.

While at one of the world’s leading design agencies in Pentagram, she produced some of the world’s most respected and awarded brand work for a wide range of consumer, arts and cultural organisations, including the seminal Public Theater identity and brand system. Paula is also known for the Citibank logo design, that she drew on a napkin during a lunchtime kick off meeting with her client. A complete list of her famous works however, would be a bit much for this little article.

She spoke about her work, offered opinions and learnings on branding, logo designs, and systems. Twelve years into her professional career, Paula took the plunge into working for herself. It was at this point that she began experimenting freely with her famous graphic and typographic designs inspired by Art Deco and Russian constructivism. It feels as though this change helped develop her into the creative force she became.

Paula talked through the struggles she had at first with the Public Theater identity and promotional pieces at Pentagram. The logo and brand had been well defined by herself and her team, but the posters they were creating for a series of shows weren’t quite hitting the mark. At first she tried to create unique posters for each show, but feedback came that potential attendees weren’t able to link them together as a series, or associate them to the Public Theater brand at all. She then showed how she ditched the individuality of each, in favour of a system where each poster in the series used similar styles and colours, still drawn from her Art Deco and constructivist styles. She commented that “the strongest brands are recognisable without their logo”.

On logo design, Paula also offered some sage advice, with the following quote on simplicity of brand, and how it interacts with the jobs it needs to do. For instance how the Public Theater logo is able to adapt to all of its creative posters.

If a logo is too busy, it tends to get in its own way. The trick is to keep it simple because it has to do complicated things.

To summarise the day, it was a valuable lesson in how to work your way to the top, it was inspiring and motivating. We’ve seen the path of others and how they’ve come to identify themselves. We saw how their work has emerged from a personal place, that has developed over time. Resulting in renewed determination and experimentation, to continue finding ourselves and our unique voice.

Absurd workshop