“We felt a responsibility to go ahead”: 5 minutes with LDF’s Ben Evans

As London Design Festival gears up to open tomorrow, we sat down with its director to chat about obstacles, giving designers a stage and breathing life back into the city.

Design Week: Why did you make the decision to go ahead with the festival this year, given the significant obstacles posed by the pandemic?

Ben Evans: It was a difficult decision to actually go ahead with it. We consulted widely and the overwhelming consensus was for us to do it, but we were still very mindful of the fact we weren’t going to be able to have a festival like we’ve had before, both in terms of scale and experience.

It does feel like this is a decent window for us to put LDF on right now, even if everywhere else is feeling pressure to cancel or postpone events. I think our decision was the right one.

More than anything else, we felt a responsibility to the industry we serve — it’s been a hard year and even though designers have continued to produce things, they’ve had nowhere to show it off. The festival is essentially a platform to connect content with audiences, because some people are really holding on by their fingernails right now.

We’ve got more than 100 partners this year, but that’s still only about 35% of our normal amount and we have lost a chunk of income, but we felt it important to keep on going and to get inventive with our programming. The easy option would have been to just hibernate.

The Hothouse, designed by Studio Weave

DW: What were the main considerations for LDF 2020?

BE: Moving about the city was one of the biggest things we were concerned with this year. People have not been very keen about travelling around the capital over the past few months — today is the first time I’ve taken a train since March and it was virtually empty.

People are really sticking in their own local neighbourhoods, but that’s kind of okay given the way LDF has evolved over the years. We’ve realised that as the number of design districts has grown, so too have their individual personalities — what you see in Shoreditch is different from what you’ll see in Brompton. We’ve got six districts this year and I do think that most of the people that will visit each one will be locals.

But of course, as well as travel around the city, travel to the city has been affected. Normally around 15% of our audience is international and that’s not been possible this year, so we’ve had to put this emphasis on the local.

Unity, designed by Marlene Huissoud

DW: Are there any lessons you’ve learnt while putting on LDF in 2020 that you’ll use in future years?

BE: I think the future of our cities is a very unknown one. I do some work with the Mayor’s office and we were only having a conversation the other day about how Zone 1 is “dead” because of the pandemic. It’s only going to be more important as we move forward that cultural events like LDF are able to bring people into the city.

We’ve got two installations this year, where we’d normally have ten or 12, but they’ve been distributed across the city because we were interested in getting them into really public places. I’m interested in the passer-by, not just people like us who will visit these places anyway.

There’s been quite a transformation in the general public’s confidence in and sophistication with design, so people are much more design aware than they were a generation ago. So now I think our audience is everyone. How we will try to get people engaging with out work this year will only be built upon, and become more relevant, in coming years.


DW: What are you most looking forward to the public seeing this year?

BE: I’ve always enjoyed the Global Design Forum, because I love the debates. But additionally, I think one of the most important things we’re doing this year is working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and SAP for the Circular Design Project.

We’ve come up with a programme of talks which kicks off on Monday and it’s an unbelievably high grade of people taking part and I’m very excited about it. It’s a very important story to be told and design is a hugely central element to the conversation of circular economy.

For Design Week’s top recommendations for the festival, head here

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