June 2018 saw the launch of the Birmingham Design Festival - a celebration of the local, national and international design industry held over four packed days. The festival had a curated theme with a focus on “forward”, a theme which has been used in Birmingham since 1838 as it grew from a town into a city and a very fitting theme for the first year of the festival as they aimed to unite the design community and build on the popularity of the city’s growing culture. The festival welcomed a combination of local studios and individuals who are championing the scene in Birmingham, along with international creatives who’re making their mark across the globe. The festival was split into three districts - graphic, digital and product, giving attendees the opportunity to engage in a broad range of disciplines. I attended the festival on Friday and Saturday to catch some great talks, workshops and exhibitions hosted by some of the top creatives in the industry.

For it's first year, the festival ran very smoothly and looked great. The branding is obviously a big part for a design festival and the details were all thought about, right down to the pin badge. The festival had such a diverse mix of events and interesting speakers that it was difficult to pick where to be at what time, but after a little deliberation, I had set my itinerary for both days so I could make the most of my time at BDF. I spent most of my time in a mix of events based in the graphic and digital district.

A few messages were consistent throughout the festival, and it was these key points that stuck with me the most;

The importance of your why.

The importance of having a 'why' was a theme that was expressed quite often at BDF, not just as a brand, but on a personal level as well - why do you do what you do? or why do you want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work? This first was brought to my attention in Naeem Alvi’s workshop, finding your brands purpose. This workshop focused on the importance of your brands ‘why’ and how a clear vision and strategic direction are essential for your brand to succeed. Naeem shared a video by Simon Sinek, explaining the concept of the 'golden circle'. This explains that your 'why' is the fundamental part of your branding, not what you do, or how you do it, why you do it is the buy-in for a customer. He shared a great example of a brand doing this successfully - Huit denim. This was also present in Trevor Beatie's talk. He started off by expressing how from a young age, he has always wanted to go to space, and next year, that will be made possible all thanks to advertising. He stressed how it is important to “have your thing”, that 'thing' that keeps you going, and to never give up on it. He shared how he has become obsessed with space and when he could, added it as an element of his work to remind him what he was working to. 

Mirroring our own ethos in the office, Alvi reiterated that it should be clear to see the importance of your brands purpose - it’s why customers decide to choose to make a purchase with one company over another, it is what you stand for and it gives you a clear direction. It was interesting to see how much this method is true for more than just a brand though, to see it applied so personally and used in that manner really amplifies the importance of it, get that right and the rest of your actions will fall into place better, resulting in a more solid approach and better results.

Personal projects, where they can lead, and the creative freedom they provide.

By the end of my weekend at the festival this really stood out for me. It was a recurring theme in a few different talks, all with a similar outcome. This was first highlighted in Rich wells presentation, ‘printed by us’ which is also the name of the company which runs screen printing workshops for people in Sheffield who may have experienced homelessness and other complex issues. They collaborate with local artists to create unique artwork which they can then hand screen print, sell the prints and run more workshops for more people, helping them turn their lives around. Rich wanted to do something for the community when he noticed homeless people on his walk to work, he then got together with other creatives to come up with ideas, of which the outcome was ‘printed by us’.

Again, Jane Bowyer, an independent designer from Manchester, explained her personal project ‘women in print’. She spoke about self-initiated projects, and how they can be a force for good. There was a particular focus on her project ‘women in print’; an exhibition of print that aims to spotlight the role women have played in Manchester’s past and present. It was great to see how this project had gained such traction and has grown from originally 6 to 22 pieces, thanks to 22 different creatives all giving their time and effort to support something they believe in.

Finally, grant of DBLG shared the hilarious story about how his studio bought a 3D printer as a new tool to experiment with, but which actually led to them landing a large client. They first used the 3D printer to create a stop-motion animation of elevator stairs in real life situations, which then led to the idea ‘bears on stairs’ and then even further, and a personal favourite of mine, ‘bears off stairs’ which went viral. Whilst they were having fun with the 3D printer, they hadn’t had the chance to use it for a client until Channel 4 came along, with the opportunity to redesign their brand. They printed out the separate parts which make up channel 4’s logo, and started to test how they could reinvent the brand, without actually showing the complete logo. Instead just using these components as the brand elements, which is now what Channel 4 use to promote the brand on the TV today.

It shows how personal projects are can be a great way of winning new work, it is a chance to flex a creative muscle outside of a brief. Just the thought of the blank canvas might scare some creatives into putting this kind of work on hold, but it can be seen how important this could be to win new clients.

Keep moving forward.

The whole festival theme was something that was embraced by all the speakers, but these, in particular, stood out for me. Mark Shayler in his talk, design is a superpower, expressed “the problem comes when change happens and you don’t” and that “nothing stays the same, and neither should you”. He spoke about his past, and how from just the age of 10 he lead the whole school on a strike over the quality of school dinners, showing his disruptive nature from an early age, and now, businesses are beginning to embrace this disruption. As creatives, we have the ability to help these businesses stand out from the crowd. “It’s no longer good enough to be the best of the best, you have to be the only one who does what you do” was another interesting point that he raised, it stresses the importance of moving forward, creating new experiences and pushing the boundaries.

The main event Saturday night at the Royal Birmingham Conservatory welcomed a very jet-lagged Aaron Draplin of the DDC. He is a creative who really doesn’t stop making things, whether it’s for himself, or for his clients. It is clear to see the reason he was chosen to close the main event, as he has always embraced the “forward” theme. From creating Field Notes to getting a book deal, He has progressed from being a designer, to performing talks all over the world, selling products from his constantly growing merch stall, and becoming a familiar name many designers aspire too. It is clear to see he hasn’t stopped pushing what he can achieve and the importance of always growing, regardless of being a brand or an individual. So whether it be offering your clients a new shopping experience or rebranding your company to better portray your values, progression is key. Problems come when change happens and you don’t, so it pays to have a clear strategy of what you want to achieve.

Coming back from Birmingham Design Festival, it was hard not to feel recharged, with tonnes of new inspiration and motivation. The first year really was a success, the city really embraced the festival, and had a buzz all weekend. I’m looking forward to next year already as the bar has been set so high, and I’m sure this will become a regular festival which will go from strength to strength.