A new vision for Ireland as ‘design island’

The fastest-growing segment of Irish design is in the relatively new field of ‘User eXperience’ (UX)

 

For decades, Irish design was inextricably linked to a thriving community of craft producers, a strong Irish presence in international fashion and a successful cohort of long established indigenous companies designing and manufacturing on an industrial scale. But times have changed and so has the meaning of “designed in Ireland”.

Today, the fastest-growing segment of Irish design is in the relatively new field of “User eXperience” (UX), while Irish companies are also showing formidable talent in the burgeoning field of product design and are making a big impression internationally in furniture design and architecture.

“We have some of the best designers in the world whose work has been repeatedly recognised internationally, but they are largely unknown at home,” says Marc O’Riain, president of the Institute of Designers in Ireland, which represents a very broad cross section of Irish designers from visual and digital practitioners to craft and industrial design.

Moving on

O’Riain also disputes the view held by some, that Ireland’s design sector lags that of other countries. “Design has moved on,” he emphasises. “It is no longer about designed and made in Ireland. It is about designed in Ireland.

“We have transcended traditional design practices and now live in a blended model of design employment, where we design the physical and the virtual. The value of design is not limited to craftsmanship. It is about the way your product engages with the user. This is as true for architecture and interiors as it is for those designing the iWatch.”

O’Riain believes that the reason the design industry here is sometimes perceived as being less effective than it is or should be is down to policy.

“The world has moved on since the seminal Scandinavian Design report of 1961 but policy towards design has not,” he says. “Despite some failed efforts, like Design Ireland in 2000, and the related Digital Hub as a design support in Dublin 8, little else has emerged to support design until the advent of Irish Design 2015.

“This year has raised an awareness of indigenous talent and the desire for growth. We must now be brave and build a new vision for Ireland as a ‘design island,’ North and South.”

Part of the problem around defining Irish design is that design is not a neat category. It criss-crosses disciplines from traditional handcrafts, to clothing and textile design, architecture, UX, the graphic arts and product design. In addition, promotion and support from State agencies for Ireland’s design sector over many decades has not been consistent across all disciplines.

Enterprise Ireland has been too focused on products being made in Ireland and in the past it has shown little or no interest in the design services sector,” O’Riain says.

“However, these skills are now becoming a critical part of inhouse design teams. I met the NCAD graduate class of 2004 recently and they are all working in UX. It has significant growth potential and jobs are jobs, whether on an assembly line or on a desktop.

“With the abolition of An Coras Tractála in 1991 and the establishment of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, design seemed to fall between the stools,” O’Riain adds. “Design has never really been ‘owned’ or promoted since outside the narrow focus of craft or industrial design.

“Government policy within the IDA and the Crafts Council remained product or artefact focused. The design services sector accounts for €0.5 billion of GDP, yet government policy in the promotion of jobs in this sector has been absent or overlooked.”

Despite the shortcomings in industrial policy and the inconsistencies in support, there is a strong understanding among many Irish businesses of the relevance of good design and how it drives commercial success.

Design is very much seen by them as a potentially powerful point of differentiation in world marketplaces.

Dublin-based Botany Weaving, one of the largest aviation interior textile suppliers in the world, began life as a traditional tweed manufacturer in 1934. Today, it makes airline seat fabrics, curtains and carpets at three plants in Ireland, with the emphasis on designing innovative products that make aircraft more comfortable and economical.

Fabric

An example of this is a highly durable fabric designed by Botany that is 15 per cent lighter than standard aircraft upholsteries. The company numbers airlines such as Singapore and ANA of Japan among its customers.

“Design is absolutely critical to our business as more often than not we are working with newly developed interiors,” says marketing director David Lawson. “Therefore our work is helping to create not just a fabric or a carpet, but also contributing to the overall style. We have five fabric designers and three carpet designers here and we also use two consultants in London to advise on design awareness, trends and weave constructions.

“We are a design-led business, not least because interiors are a key way airlines announce new aircraft. The colour and design of the seat fabrics and the carpets on a new A350, for example, will be different to those on a new A380. Airlines also use colour and design when they are refreshing interiors so it’s an important part of their branding.”

Aran sweaters and Waterford crystal are icons in the canon of traditional Irish design.

So, too, are Sybil Connolly, who enjoyed an international reputation for her haute couture creations often made from Irish textiles, and architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray, whose work is considered on par with Le Corbusier, van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer.

Bespoke

We are still adding to that distinguished roll call today through the distinctive styles of contemporary designers such Orla Kiely and furniture maker Joseph Walsh, whose dramatic and striking bespoke and limited edition pieces have won him international recognition with collectors, aesthetes and architects alike.

Marrying this talent pool for aesthetics, ergonomics and technology is product design consultancy Design Partners, which uses a combination of handcrafting and leading edge technology to develop products for its big name IT clients.

Design Partners was formed in 1984 and employs 32 people at its offices in Dublin and Eindhoven in The Netherlands.

The company is best known for its work on Logitec mice but it also designs keyboards, audio equipment and computer peripherals for Logitec and has been doing so since 1994. Its latest product for Logitec is the MX Master mouse. It provides seamless navigation between multiple devices and is aimed at premium users such as architects, engineers and creatives who use the mouse as a control device for most of their working day.

“We have developed a process for mouse design over 20 years that links hand sculpting and technology together,” says creative director Cathal Loughnane.

“We have all the modern technology here but also a workshop with an array traditional hand tools. We are unusual among product design companies in retaining handcrafting skills, but all of our industrial designers are trained in sculpting. We believe you need both to develop the perfect mouse. Ultimately, it is all about how the mouse feels and performs under your hand and how you achieve this faithfully with no drop in design intent.”

Loughnane adds: “The possibilities for building intelligence into everyday devices are immense. It’s a wild frontier of possibilities. We want to harness this potential to create meaningful experiences in people’s lives. We see a future where digital intelligence is baked into the fabric of our lives.

“Where digital begins to disappear from view and the environments we work and live in become aware of our needs, desires and even moods.”

Crossroads

Irish design is at a crossroads as traditional sectors redefine themselves and new disciplines become a force to be reckoned with.

As things stand, Irish design remains fragmented when it comes to representation and O’Riain is firmly convinced that the sector needs to speak with one voice.

“We now need a design council representing all designers across a wide disciplinary bandwidth so we can grow jobs and GDP,” he says. “Design needs a strong advocating and promoting council with a clear message to industry, education and the consumer. The UK has had a Design Council since 1945 and design is valued at 7 per cent of GDP there, whereas the total unreported output of creative industries here represents only 1 per cent of Irish GDP approximately.

“We should be aiming for something similar but, among other things, it is going to take a serious cross-departmental policy to guide a revision of design education which is effectively caught in a time warp.” Eurostyle: Design critical Calvin Klein is a familiar fashion brand all over the world. What might come as a surprise is that the company’s golfwear range is designed in Cork by Eurostyle, the world-wide licensee for Calvin Klein golf.

Eurostyle has been in business for more than 40 years and in that time has gone from being a traditional shirt manufacturer to designing and producing top end golf wear.

“Design is absolutely crucial to the golf fashion business,” says Alan Dwyer, whose father started the business in 1972. “We compete with the likes of Nike and Adidas and our design room is one of the most important functions within our business.

“We are very much design-led and employ four full-time designers and have a consultant designer on contract for Green Lamb.”

Eurostyle used to manufacture in Cork. However, this proved unsustainable in the long term, not least because the company was losing staff to new high-tech industries (such as Apple) that offered shorter working hours and better wages.

“The clothing manufacture is now outsourced and locations change to maintain competitive advantage.

“We use a lot technical fabrics and source them mainly from Taipei, while manufacturing is primarily in Vietnam – but all design is done in Cork,” Dwyer says.

“We face formidable competition from the big brands that are marketing machines in their own right, but we have successfully carved out three really good niches.”

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