Designing in a Barren Wasteland

Is Ireland a prosperous, culture-rich environment for aspiring designers to build their trade in? An interesting question, I think. My answer would undoubtedly be no.

In our little design culture class, we had an exercise to try to discover some of the things that best describes Ireland as a whole. These are the characteristics that give life to life in this country; they are our culture. Such aspects as religion, the catholic church and priesthood were familiar themes. We seem to be forever bound to this sense that we owe the church everything, that the priest controls our family’s perspective and that we should always feel the harsh guilt set upon us by the church. Other cultural amenities include the pub, drinking culture, laziness and the idea of “sure feck it, we’ll be grand”. Unfortunately it is a mentality that stains our existence. We are bred on a life surrounding a pub, where aspirations of a decent night out revolve around getting shit-faced and puking in a bin on O’ Connell street. The main influence that makes us Irish is our humour, or rather our racist-humour. It spreads from the casually racist grandfathers and grandmothers who would think nothing of their words to the destructive and hateful views held by young people who don’t fully understand the others they insult. We like to pass it off as humour, as ‘banter’ but it is very, very racist in nature.

Catholicism makes a slave of us all

You may be wondering what all this has to do with design. Well I firmly believe that it is the culture and the influences of a society that greatly determine the people who will rise to the top of their respective piles. Unfortunately the spread in Ireland is turning sour. People, and in particular designers, can only make it happen for themselves.  They can only find themselves in the world if they can manage to get themselves out of our own little-minded world. We, as a nation, put ourselves down too much. We undersell ourselves, then give our lives to work and the church, and we only reward ourselves with narrow communal sports and binge drinking in a local pub. The train that is leaving for the future? Yeah, we’ve missed that.

Philip Treacy Collection

And so I feel only the designers that get out make the best of what they have. They move to more accepting cultures, more aspirational environments like New York, Tokyo, London, Paris and Los Angeles. One such example of what I am getting at is fashion designer Philip Treacy. For those that don’t know, Philip Treacy specialises in hats. Extravagant hats. He has designed sculptural masterpieces to sit atop the heads of Lady Gaga, Sarah Jessica Parker and Princess Beatrice. 36 hats designed by him were worn at the British Royal wedding of Will and Kate last year. That’s an astonishing number when you consider how high a profile event this was. He started in Galway. He lived in a house with seven brothers and sisters and made gimmicky hats to pass the time. But at one stage he said enough was enough, packed his bags for London, sold himself as a brand and made it big.

Philip Treacy's Designs for the British Royal Wedding

To reinforce the idea of getting out, my chosen designer was Cedric D. Gibbons. An altogether unfamiliar name, no doubt. But just look at the statuette and its clear to see the impact he has made. He started in Ireland too. He lived in Dublin and moved to Los Angeles to let himself prosper. He finished his acting career with 11 Oscar wins (second only behind Walt Disney with 26) and was an original chair-member on the panel for the Academy of Motion Pictures. He designed the trophy that every actor in the world aspires to win. That is some achievement.

Oscar Statuettes

Cedric D. Gibbons Design

And my whole point is that Gibbons, like Treacy, got out. They got out of this rotting wasteland and went someplace where their talents, abilities and aspirations could flourish. And unfortunately for most of Ireland now, especially designers, we too will have to look elsewhere to make a decent hash of our lives.

Don’t let the truth get in the way

Storytelling is such an important aspect of our lives, one that is often overlooked or dismissed as a genuine trait of the Irish people. However, we just seem to have this incredible knack for telling a good tale. Whether it’s the simple story of Bridie telling her neighbours of that troublesome young lad down the street that “do be doin’ the drugs and what not”, or one of the countless yarns of the middle-aged generation telling us how Ireland nowadays is “gone to the dogs”. We love to tell an old wives tale or two, and the truth is not always the first port of call.

The Oscar-nominated short film, Granny O’ Grimm is a perfect example. The truth is supplemented for entertainment, the animals in the woods become the dreadful, winged, fire-breathing dragons of the old Fanmorth Forest and the left-behind grandmother becomes a fearsome and wicked witch to be reckoned with. And this exaggeration, it’s fantastic viewing! The stories are far more interesting, far more enjoyable, easy to imagine and easier to bend the truth.

Another fantastic example of excellence in storytelling, is the 1957 black and white film ’12 Angry Men’. Here is the case of a youth accused of murder; his trial consists of the eleven bigots that believe he did it and the one man who gave him a chance. The selling point of this film is that it is solely based in one room. The entirety of the film, in one room with diverse, strong characters and an increasingly poignant sense of storytelling. These were the days when the story was the key to selling whatever it is that needed to be sold.

For our class this week we concentrated on loosening up and getting the story to flow. Through interaction with other students, we sifted through ideas and ways of getting a story out. It was probably the most fun I’ve had (inside college hours) since I came back from the holidays. Not an ounce of truth to the yarns, but enjoyable and hilarious. We also had to sell our own product as an exercise. This was perfect, i had been taking in all this talk of adding a back story and a context, with characters and situation, adding all that to the products. I felt I could make my waste disposal project romantic (ambitious, i know). I had this whole tale of my girlfriend and I on the Costa Del Sol for a getaway picnic on the beach, the stars were out, the soothing sounds of the oceans swept through the night…and yet I had nowhere to throw my rubbish.

Waste Disposal Project

And as designers-in-the-making, this is a vital lesson that we ought to learn. A good story is sold on its characters, its context, plot, imagination, twists, and guile. A product is sold much in the same fashion. If you can tell the story of the product, its history, its place in society through imagery and intelligent composition, then there is no reason for your creation not to catch the eye of any manufacturer. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If you can make it tell a story then it is worth far more than that, especially to a designer.