21 April 2016

Dundee: the UK's new creative capital?


21 April 2016


Scotland has no shortage of creative heritage: from David Shrigley and Eduardo Paolozzi to 1996 Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon, Rachel Maclean and Haroon Mirza it’s produced a long line of big name talents. But it’s perhaps fair to say that creativity is mostly associated with Glasgow and it’s school of art, and Edinburgh with its festival. Until now, perhaps. Enter Dundee: long-known as the home of publishers DC Thomson, and more recently, home to a new Design Festival and a soon-to-open Victoria and Albert Museum, its first outside of London.

Design wise, it may come as a surprise to learn the city’s got a hell of a lot going for it at the moment. A year ago, the city was awarded the status of a Unesco City of Design alongside European cities Turin, Helsinki, Bilbao and Curitiba in Brazil. It’s the only city in the UK with the accolade, and was chosen for its contributions to comics (DC Thomson published The Beano and The Dandy, among others) and its history of video game design: it turns out Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto were born there.

Dundee’s stature as a beacon of design is soon to be furthered with the opening of Kengo Kuma-designed V&A Dundee in 2018, part of a wider 30-year, £1billion regeneration project of the city’s waterfront. This year’s budget announcement was a boon to the project: on 16 March the UK Government announced it was awarding an additional £5 million to the museum. That same week, it was announced that V&A Dundee will be representing the UK at the 2016 Milan Design Trienniale.

On a smaller scale, the Dundee Design Festival launches its inaugural event this May, taking over the former DC Thomson building, a huge industrial building on Guthrie Street that seems fitting for design-led reinvention.

Siôn Parkinson, the Dundee Design Festival producer, says: “Design is about solving problems. A design exhibition is about putting things on plinths, which ultimately makes them redundant. We want to show people how they work, and show design across the disciplines. It’s about trying to find a human scale to design, whether that’s with an endoscope or a table. We want to foreshorten the gap between objects and people, and demonstrate the narrative that eve thing connects.”

As such, the festival will focus on live activity, with demonstrations of things as varied as prosthetic limbs and video game design.”


Comic Strip, Adventures in Design, Part 6 Genesis in Space

Where Dundee has quietly been forging ahead in design isn’t just in the spheres of museums, comics and games design; but in less discussed areas including service design. One current project is Designs on Justice, a project aiming to “rethink the criminal justice system” and undertaken by by law and art and design students and staff from the University of Dundee, experts from the Scottish Institute of Enterprise, and community representatives, policy makers and interested parties from across the criminal justice landscape. The project is exploring how design thinking can lead to innovation in criminal justice across areas including building a sense of community, equal access to opportunities and resources and community health and food initiatives.

Gillian Easson founded Creative Dundee in 2008, a proudly indie operation that aims to “amplify and connect what’s happening locally,” she says, making sure that creative talent “stays in Dundee.”

While there aren’t currently as many design agencies as Glasgow or Edinburgh, there’s a burgeoning scene of creative freelancers making the most of the co-working spaces popping up around Dundee and artist-run sites like Generator Projects. “People here are very keen to network,” says Gillian. “We run quarterly PechaKucha events and they’re always packed: people here turn up to things.”

With a growing design scene, the city’s businesses are also becoming more savvy to their own branding and creative touchpoints. “Businesses need to know that design is needed right from the start,” says Chris Wilson of V&A Dundee. Siôn adds: “We want to raise the vocabulary of design in the city and show that it’s a part of everyday life.”

Part of Dundee’s creative prowess is down to its universities, boasting the renowned Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design; and much of today’s design remains in the game development sector with studios including Denki, Ruffian Games, Dynamo Games and 4J Studios.


Exhibition install at Dundee Contemporary Arts

The University of Dundee’s Design in Action programme helps startups to realise their potential, and current projects include Tappstory, an app that scans product labels to give consumers information about their provenance, or instructional content. The programme helps unite people from different backgrounds to make things happen, so connecting academics with tech experts, marketing people and designers. Branding and design agency and co-working space Fleet Collective worked with young game designers A Fox What I Drew to launch its game Baum, which gained financial, strategic and creative support that would otherwise have been totally out of reach.

Fox co-founder Dan Allan went to Dundee’s University of Abertay to study specifically for its second-to-none games design course, and found its support of start-ups helpful in fostering their work. Dan says: “We’re a small city with very strong design pedigree. I don’t see why it can’t one day be the home of design in the UK.”

Another business to have received DiA support is on the other end of the tech scale: homewares brand Hush. It creates pillows from wool, a project born of its founder Julie Hermitage’s frustrations with a lack of allergy-friendly bedclothes for her asthmatic son. She came from a strictly agricultural background, but farming was no longer financially viable on its own. “There was no place for the traditional family farm any more,” she says. “We did tourism and farm shops to death. Then I realised the answer was right in front of me. Most people don’t realise that wool is nature’s memory foam, and Scottish wool has a very large micron, which makes it perfect for people with sleep issues, or ladies going through the change.” With the help of graphic designer Jamie Thoms, who took care of the branding, and textile and service designer Selena Law, Julie managed to turn an ailing farm into a slick, beautiful boutique health brand.

In the fashion world, Dan Vo used the DiA to help build her ethical fashion brand, a stunning mix of minimalism and gender-neutrality that draws on her previous experience working with designers like JW Anderson. Having studied at the Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, she’s now staying in Dundee for the foreseeable, using the city as the springboard for her unique patterns that painstakingly ensure that there’s absolutely no waste material. Her branding was created by GSA graduate Debbie McLeod, and is a superb marriage to her understated, pared-back aesthetic.

“Creative disciplines are collapsing, and people are keen to reach across them,” says Chris. “We want to demonstrate a narrative of how design affects everything.”

With the opening of the V&A and the investment in the surrounding area it’s bringing, it’s certainly an interesting time to look at Dundee’s design future. Can this museum, the city’s art schools and the and its Unesco label set the foundations for a new UK creative hub? Only time will tell, but judging from the passion of the city’s designers and design community, it’s got a very decent chance.


West Ward Beezer Annuals 1966
c. DC Thomson


Print Studio at Dundee Contemporary Arts


Lemmings Statues


V&A Dundee

Share Article

About the Author

Emily Gosling

Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.