The Irish are known all over the world for our art, literature and music, and our reputation in the field of design is growing too. As design becomes more and more important, we must nurture our indigenous talent if we want to reap the benefits at home and in the global marketplace
by Róisín Lafferty
Ask anyone which designers they like and nine times out of ten they will name a fashion designer. And yet design is so much more than that. Look around you. Absolutely everything you see has been designed. A newspaper, a lamp, a phone, a font, a fork, a stethoscope.
Ireland is not automatically associated with design either, not in the way that Italy, Sweden or Japan are, for example. We’re better known internationally for our art, literature and music, and more recently for our film and animation. Design, for the most part, has taken a back seat and yet its scope is so broad. It’s a plan or drawing or blueprint produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, a garment or any other object before it is made.
While I can design the interior of a home, hotel, restaurant or office, I wouldn’t know the first thing about designing a website or a medical device. But I am connected to these practitioners and professionals under the umbrella of design. Design pervades all our lives.
The Irish government designated 2015 the Year of Design. Irish Design 2015 was about harnessing this power and working to support society, educators and students, designers, the public sector and businesses. While the year proved successful, we need to look longer term and ensure that every year is a year of design.
The story of Irish design is one that evolved slowly since the foundation of the state and more rapidly in the last 25 years, with the 1994- 2007 boom and advent of the internet transforming lives and design like no other moment in time. More recently, the definition of design has expanded from a more limited view of styling and appearance to a perspective in which it plays an integral role in the innovation process across the industrial complex. Design as concept and practice is now integral to our socio-economic way of life.
Ireland is a curiosity to many countries; we have our own distinct brand and the landscape we carved out in the arts must now be replicated for design. Ireland is respected on a global level and
it is time to prioritise Irish design, and to realise and appreciate its contribution to our society and our well-being as well as its international influence.
The gloom of the 2008 recession encouraged a huge swathe of creativity and entrepreneurship that is now coming to fruition across all design disciplines in Ireland. As a result, we are experiencing a design renaissance. Support for this movement should continue. Government is catching on to the overall value that creative thinking and design can add to the Irish economy. More than 50,000 people in this country classify themselves as designers. The overall financial contribution to the Irish economy must be acknowledged and these creatives must be supported to continue in their growth and development. Recent research suggests creative jobs are far less at risk from automation than other areas of employment, so design, in all its guises, will more than ever attract the brightest and best.
The Institute of Designers Ireland (IDI) has long been an advocate of Irish design. This year, I have taken on the role as president. I hope to highlight the success and importance of Irish design at both a national and international level. We must make the mental shift so that design thinking and appreciation become part of the fabric of society. The IDI awards are a showcase of some of the best design being produced here and give a good insight into the international standard of work across all design disciplines. This is much more than surface-level beauty; these designers are problem solvers, creative thinkers and inventors.
Our collective understanding and appreciation of design is improving. From my own perspective, more attention is being paid to the importance of interiors and there’s a greater appreciation of the impact space has on well-being. At KLD [Kingston Lafferty Design], we always look at who uses a space and how they use it. We consider the best possible way to enhance their well-being while also delivering aesthetically beautiful and functional spaces. We’re currently working on a large office space over seven floors in Belfast in which we are installing a wellness room to provide an area of calm for employees away from the workspace. It is minimal in design with the use of pale tones, timber, mirrors and planting, combined with soft lighting, which are proven to enhance mental and physical well-being. This isn’t a trend;this is the future.
Ireland operates on a global playing field. We are not competing with ourselves; we are competing with design practices and professionals across the world. The internet has brought ready-made markets to our fingertips. We should not shirk from this. I set up my own company, KLD, at the height of the recession. It was risky, but it paid off. Life is short; you must take risks. After almost a decade in business, it is only in the last year that KLD has enjoyed sustained international interest in showcasing our work. What are the benefits of appearing in an international arena? For starters, current and prospective clients’ perception is huge. If you are aligned with international designers, it shows people that your work is of an international standard. As well as raising one’s profile, it also increases one’s visibility in a broader marketplace, opening up project and client possibilities. Cumulatively, this adds value to Irish businesses and to the Irish economy as
So what is the future of Irish design? Can we ever compete with the likes of Milan or Paris? Personally, I think we will increasingly draw on international influences as we travel and see the world and bring our learnings home. Ireland currently ranks 39th in the world design rankings. The US, China, Japan and Italy enjoy the top four slots. With our creative talent and excellent educational facilities, there is no reason Ireland can’t climb this ladder. It won’t be easy, but we must start by nurturing and showcasing the existing pool of talent that we have here.
Indigenous companies shouldn’t feel a need to hire designers from outside of Ireland when there is an abundance of talent here. As a country, we must start from within and empower our own designers. Creative minds, critical thinking, our unique history and our fringe location all combine to make Irish design unique. Ireland is brimming with creative minds and great design ideas; now we need to show the world.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on 6 October 2019.