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Column: Design in an age of austerity – why we need to stimulate the creative economy

Despite Ireland having produced world-class designers though the years, ‘design’ as a concept is often undervalued and misunderstood. It’s time for that to change, writes Professor Alex Milton.

Professor Alex Milton

I MOVED TO Ireland 18 months ago because I kept meeting graduates of the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), and I was struck by the quality of their work. NCAD is internationally renowned and, when an opportunity came up for me to work there, I jumped at the chance.

I’ve worked internationally – in cities across Europe, North America and the Far East – and, in most cities where I’ve worked, I’ve been very aware that designers are at the forefront of commerce. There’s widespread recognition that high-quality design adds value to products and services – and this fact is respected, acknowledged and promoted by government and policymakers at all levels.

In Dublin, however, design can sometimes take a back seat. Despite Ireland having produced world-class designers down through the years, ‘design’ as a concept is often undervalued and misunderstood.

I was surprised when I arrived in Dublin that Ireland’s design heritage and expertise weren’t more to the fore. There are Irish designers based all over the world, playing lead roles for major global brands – yet we don’t seem to shout about the country’s talents in relation to design.

This weekend – coinciding with Design Week (4th to 10th November) – NCAD is hosting a major international conference in Dublin 8. Over 200 design experts from 50 different countries are attending the Cumulus Dublin conference (Cumulus is the International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media, of which NCAD is a member).

Dublin 8 as a leading cultural and creative quarter

In my opening address to the conference today, I’ll be calling on government to acknowledge Dublin 8 as a leading cultural and creative quarter. Doing this, I believe, would be an important first step in pushing Ireland’s design talent to the fore.
Dublin 8 is home to many traditional design and arts practitioners and, more recently, has attracted a high concentration of digital and creative SMEs. Close to NCAD’s home on Thomas Street, you have The Digital Hub, the Guinness Enterprise Centre, and the art and antique shops on Francis Street.

The rich historical heritage of The Liberties provides a powerful platform for contemporary design and creative learning in general. Furthermore, international visitors come to the area in high numbers, not just for the local tourist attractions, but because of the quality of the arts, design and cultural experiences on offer.

Official acknowledgement of Dublin 8’s lead role in Ireland’s cultural and creative economies would be a sign of the Government’s intent to really prioritise these industries. It would send a strong signal to international visitors that Ireland values high-quality design, and takes the creative economy seriously.

Culture and our creative workforce are central and recurring elements of IDA campaigns encouraging companies to do business here – but, to really give weight to this claim, we need to do more in the domestic context to promote, stimulate and showcase our creative industries.

Our neighbours are far ahead of us

At present, some of our closest neighbours are far ahead of Ireland in terms of prioritising and stimulating the creative economy. In the UK, for example, the creative industries there are worth more than £36 billion a year. They generate £70,000 every minute for the UK economy; they employ 1.5 million people; and they account for around £1 in every £10 of the UK’s exports. The reason they’re so successful is because the government there is proactively supporting these industries through financial incentives, promotion at home and abroad, and reducing unnecessary regulations. In Ireland, we need to do likewise.

We need to face up to the fact that Irish creatives cannot compete with low-quality, mass-produced products. Instead, we should prioritise and promote excellence in design, and stimulate expertise in niche areas. To do this, we need to build ‘design thinking’ and visual literacies into our education system from an early age, and we also need to learn from our neighbours in terms of what they’re doing.

Ireland has paid the price for poor design thinking and choices during the Celtic Tiger years. The legacy of that is evident across all sectors – from poorly-built apartment blocks to poorly-designed public services, and an emphasis on consumerism that has led to a ‘quantity over quality’ mentality.

Now, in this period of resetting and not simply recession, it’s vital that crisis be turned to opportunity – that we learn from our mistakes and prioritise ‘quality over quantity’.

Ireland has the talent, the cultural and educational institutions, and the historical legacy to become a world leader in the creative industries and learning. But we must work to stimulate and promote our creative economy now.

Professor Alex Milton is Head of Design at NCAD. The theme of the three-day Cumulus Dublin conference is ‘design in an age of austerity’. Keynote speakers at the event today include the visionary German designer Werner Aisslinger and NCAD graduate Paul Adams, who played a lead role in creating Google+ and is a former global head of brand design for Facebook. Further information is available at www.cumulusdublin.com, or by following NCAD on Twitter: @NCAD_Dublin, #CumulusDublin.

Headshot: Christopher Heaney

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Professor Alex Milton

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