Design in the valleys

With plans for the first Design Forum for Wales under way, Sarah Balmond looks at how Wales can boost its international profile

With plans for the first Design Forum for Wales under way, Sarah Balmond looks at how Wales can boost its international profile

In seeking to raise its profile on the international design stage, Wales is facing a sizeable challenge. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Discussions are in progress to establish the first Design Forum for Wales, which will seek to create a formal network of designers to address local industry related issues. The forum will be open to everyone in design and the intention is to use the group as a way to build a collective voice and highlight regional concerns at a local level (DW 1 June).

Talks continue to circulate about the plausibility of opening a Welsh national design centre in the wake of the recent Cox Review, although many remain divided on how best to go about achieving this.

And then there is the second inaugural Cardiff Design Festival, comprising the usual fanfare of exhibitions, events and lecture activities. Conceived as a way to help generate outside interest in Wales, the festival – which started last week – is going some way to help build a reputation to promote Wales as a hotbed of creative talent.

One of the major issues being addressed is the fact that many businesses simply do not have Wales on their radar. Perhaps this is not all that surprising, given the fact that Wales is home to just 4 per cent of UK design business, according to the Design Council’s Design Industry Research 2005. Only six consultancies out of a total of 340 are registered with the Design Business Association.

Mathew Talfan is managing director at Cardiff-based consultancy 6721, which he co-founded with Chris Lee in 1998. He has overseen many projects, including the recent creation of a new identity to promote Wales internationally. He believes the Welsh design industry is ‘invisible’ to those who do not deal with it directly. ‘If you ask any Joe Bloggs they will know very little about design and what it means in Wales. The area we must focus on is developing a voice that can be heard, to let people know we are here,’ he says.

Talfan stresses that the industry must take the lead and should be more proactive in raising its profile, rather than sitting back to wait for the public sector to put forward initiatives. ‘There is no specific Wales-only body for designers to be a part of at the moment. We need to ask why that is,’ he says.

Hoffi, which means ‘like’ in Welsh, is a bi-lingual design consultancy, based in Cardiff, which launched three months ago. Co-founder Julian Sykes has ambitious plans for the business and wants to develop a full creative offering, encompassing branding, graphics, interiors, digital and product design. At the moment, Hoffi is exhibiting one of its latest multi-functional chair products, Big-Small, at the Cardiff Design Festival. In addition, Sykes is hoping to launch three other lifestyle products within the year. He, too, thinks that one of the biggest challenges facing Wales is a lack of client awareness.

Gavin Cawood, senior design advisor at Design Wales, believes that the time is ripe for Wales to make a bigger play for the spotlight. He thinks industry leaders should look to Scotland for inspiration, as a way to establish a strong, working model for the design industry. He warns, however, of the current trend for the type of ‘generalist’ consultancies, suggesting that clients also like to hire groups with specialisms.

Design Wales is actively trying to raise the design agenda in Wales. As an independent design advisory service funded by the Welsh Assembly Government, it works closely with local consultancies to help them tackle business dilemmas. The organisation does this through hosting workshops, running a telephone hotline and sending out on-the-road advisors. Design Wales has also just launched its first on-line directory of Welsh design consultancies, with a brand identity and website created in-house.

DBA chief executive Deborah Dawton believes that creating an active network will be key to raising the profile of design in Wales to local businesses. She also stresses the need to be ‘creative’ in the way that local resources are used.

Above all, a vibrant and confident local design community must be maintained in Wales, affirms Olwen Moseley, director of enterprise and development at Cardiff School of Art and Design. ‘Art and design educational bodies are duty bound to make connections to design communities,’ she says.

While, historically, there may have been little in the way of support for the design community in Wales, this is changing slowly, as industry leaders wake up to the growing need for activism at a grass-roots level to best promote Welsh design.

Websites for design in Wales:

• www.designdirectorywales.org

• www.designwales.org.uk

• www.cardiffdesignfestival.org

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