The fine art of partnership

In the quest for creative solutions across a diverse range of projects, corporate clients are combining the talents of designers and artists, says Maeve Hosea

Are you an artist or a designer? The question has logic to it when set against the background of educational institutions, but boundaries between the two are becoming less meaningful in the corporate world. From projects as wide ranging as identity work for the Bank of Scotland to public regeneration projects across the UK, artists and designers are finding themselves collaborating on work that crosses both disciplines’ boundaries.

According to Institute of Contemporary Arts director Philip Dodd, the distinction between art and design is becoming increasingly blurred. ‘The notion that there is an essential difference is a historical fantasy,’ says Dodd. ‘Things move from one category to the next – the traditional definition that art isn’t functional and design is, doesn’t work. Everybody is a designer and the word “design” should be rethought.’

Dodd agrees both parties bring different strengths to a project and says ‘putting people from different disciplines together creates new possibilities’.

‘Cynically, I could say that an artist gives [a project] status and a designer gives [it] functionality,’ he says. ‘But, in fact, a lot of boundaries between the two disciplines are being reconstituted and increasingly, the most interesting work is collaborative. The corporates have caught up and [are starting to] understand that.’

The Bank of Scotland discovered that a collaborative project successfully met its design needs when it worked with Navy Blue and fine art student Anwen Williams to create its corporate banking division’s brand (DW 10 April).

Bank of Scotland marketing manager Victoria Turton says using an artist helped to illustrate the bank’s latest campaign effectively, which carries the strapline ‘Experience the Difference’.

‘The work was very fresh, clean and clear,’ says Turton. ‘Initially, we weren’t sure how it would work, but the design group guided her through. She was very professional and we would definitely work with an artist again.’

Scarlet Projects curates architecture and design exhibitions. One project for Bloomberg featured a collaboration between Graphic Thought Facility and illustrator Lucinda Rogers. Rogers made sketches of ‘Bloombergers’ doing their daily work for a series of paper plates and cups for the kitchen area of the building, while GTF created the overall design of the plate.

Scarlet Projects partner Sarah Gaventa sees the project as an example of a highly effective combination of art and design.

‘The illustrations told you so much more about the company than a logo’, she says ‘They communicate the energy and buzz of the organisation.’

Clearly, illustration is an area that is more suited to a commercial project than other areas of the arts. But across Britain, artists from a broad range of disciplines are collaborating successfully with design consultancies.

Sculptor Gordon Young and Why Not Associates worked together to create Morecombe’s critically acclaimed 300m-long typographic pavement installation, A Flock of Words (DW 20 March).

Young attributes the success of the project to a personal empathy with Why Not Associates partner Andy Altman. ‘It was a 50:50 relationship. It used both our skills,’ he says.

Young feels artists can benefit from collaboration with a graphic designer, with learning ranging from using technology to ‘obvious themes of designers – such as including people and thinking about costs’.

Altman agrees and says the learning curve is a two-way process. He was used to thinking about typographics, but not on such a large scale, and says the project allowed the group to ‘question what an artist or designer is and begin to move beyond those boundaries’.

‘The project couldn’t have happened without the collaborative pooling of knowledge and expertise,’ he adds.

Peckham Borough Council’s regeneration project also taps into the resource of artists living in the area. It involved artists like Antony Gormley and John Latham in designing practical objects including street lighting, bollards, pavements, manhole covers and gates (DW 10 April).

The project continues to be exciting for all those involved, not least Aquila, an engineering and design group, which works with the artists to realise designs from a structural and functional point of view.

‘We are really happy to help create products that have an artistic energy that flows through them.’ says Aquila’s design manager Melinda Hart, who manages the project, co-ordinating the artists, engineers and industrial designers, ‘It is so much more interesting than straight engineering or design.’

However, such projects are not without challenges and Hart cites artist Tom Phillips’ design for a light fitting in an arch, which had to be altered to fit British safety standards, as an example.

‘We are designers and they are artists,’ she says. ‘They are not governed by the same rules that we are, like safety considerations. We have to make sure their designs comply with these rules.’

Problems can also arise around the issue of ownership, particularly if it isn’t clear who is in control of the project, Gaventa says. To avoid confusion it’s important to define ownership and remits early and to get the two parties together as soon as possible, she says.

Young puts success down to empathy and the ability to work in tandem. ‘We were like rock climbers – sometimes him [Altman] leading, sometimes me.’

Young says that he has collaborated on other less successful projects and insists that unless the project is built on respect and mutual empathy, it is unlikely to be successful.

‘If you just think, “Oh, I’ll do a collaboration” and it is about money, it won’t work,’ he asserts.

That the definition of art and design is fluid, is evidenced by David Shrigley who, as an artist, created illustrations for plates for the Bloomberg project, but also teaches product design at the Royal College of Art.

‘A Shrigley artwork on a plate’, muses Gaventa. ‘Is that art or design? I wouldn’t even worry about it anymore.’

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