Birmingham Design Festival: photography by Fraser McGee

Work / Events

This year’s Birmingham Design Festival explored truth in the design industry

On a grey day at the beginning of June, I stepped off the train in Birmingham to attend the much-anticipated Birmingham Design Festival. Founded out of the need to fill the West Midlands’ festival-shaped hole, the festival’s impressive line up hoped to contribute to a more transparent, helpful and genuine design industry.

Revolving around the theme of truth, this year’s speakers included the likes of 4creative’s Alice Tonge, Extinction Rebellion, AIGA’s Perrin Drumm and SuperHi’s Milan Moffatt on the first day. Following suit, design giants such as Erica Dorn, Harry Potter graphic designers MinaLima, Craig Oldham, Hey Studio and Google’s Jennifer Daniel also took to the stage for an all-round feast from some of the biggest names in the creative industry.

The festival took place earlier this month from 6-8 June this year and kicked off with a hubbub of activity around the city centre. Running across four venues within a short walk from each other, the events were curated through the disciplines of graphic, digital, gaming and product design. First on the stage at The Old Library (BDF’s digital venue), experience designer Luke Matthews talked us through his recent experiences designing for the polar extremes of wealth.

As part of the Birmingham-based digital studio 383, Luke’s job is to create “useful things to make lives better.” Recently presented with two starkly contrasting briefs – one for the Uber-rich luxury hotel brand Hilton and the other, a homelessness charity St Basils – Luke discussed the similarities and differences of working for juxtaposing clients at the same time. Though the sociopolitical circumstances of each demographic is entirely different, Luke highlighted the unexpected similarities within both briefs. Fundamentally, both clients required new digital experiences centred around human interaction for optimum efficiency. And in order to establish this, 383 undertook research to understand the client, its demographic and the services it could provide to make this happen.


Birmingham Design Festival

At midday, 15 minutes away from The Old Library, design-based festivities were well underway at Birmingham City University’s campus. In the Parkside building, screen printing workshops amidst several goody-filled stands filled the ground floor of the university building. On the second floor of the open-plan building, graphic design talks were taking place over the next three days. Next on stage in the large auditorium, co-founders of the UK-based climate change activism group Extinction Rebellion played host to a rather depressing but essential talk on the ruinous path we are about to encounter if we don’t do something about it sharpish.

Clare Farrell and Clive Russell treated the audience to a profound discussion on the catastrophic effects our current consumptions are having on the environment. Having experienced countless problems in their respective roles in the creative industry; the pair called out a number of current issues including the inaccuracies of environmental data sets, the misunderstandings of policy makers and crucially, what designers can do about it.

Citing Milton Glazer’s magnum opus – the “I heart NY” iconography – Clive emphasised how change starts within the creative industries. Where Glazer’s logo is seen today as a signifier of love for a great city, when it was designed it was pretty much the opposite. Clive underlined how this ubiquitous logo is an example of how designers can whole-heartedly change minds. And, instead of lecturing us on design philosophy for the remaining minutes, Extinction Rebellion invited the audience to take place in a printmaking workshop and have a chat while making collaboratively.


Birmingham Design Festival: photography by Martin O’Callaghan

In the afternoon, the first female head of 4creative, Alice Tonge, talked us through her meticulous creative process, including that inevitable feeling of “I’m shit” sprinkled throughout. Naming her talk after Hemingway’s saying “The first draft of anything is shit”, Alice offered some useful tips as what to do when these feelings of shit occur eventually.

“Do the obvious then do the opposite” was her first piece of advice. Employing examples from the most recent Paralympics campaign as well as the new Channel 4 idents, Alice explained how she tackles particularly difficult briefs with innovative thinking. With a healthy amount of calculated risk, Alice and her team have shown how advertising can be alternative. She also talked us through the reasoning behind the E4 shutdown. During the last general election, the channel ceased to stream any content for the whole day, in turn, encouraging young people to get out and vote rather than stay at home watching TV.

While each talk revealed design industry truths in their own way; some scary and others enlightening, this year’s Birmingham Design Festival packed a punch with thought-provoking content and approaches, tackling the ensuing issues that effect our discipline. Shedding light on the innovative West Midland’s design scene, this year’s series of events not only broadened our idea of Birmingham’s creative landscape but also hosted the talks and workshops with broader scope too.


Birmingham Design Festival: photography by Thom Bartley


Birmingham Design Festival: photography by Martin O’Callaghan


Birmingham Design Festival: photography by Martin O’Callaghan


Birmingham Design Festival: photography by Thom Bartley


Birmingham Design Festival: photography by Martin O’Callaghan


Birmingham Design Festival: photography by Martin O’Callaghan


Birmingham Design Festival: photography by Martin O’Callaghan