Skip to main content

Design Manchester 2019: Smart conference

Design MCR is an annual celebration of design and creativity. Two weeks of gallery exhibitions, screenings and panels held around the city culminates in a one-day conference, with a diverse lineup of speakers. This year's conference – the seventh for the not-for-profit festival – was dubbed 'Smart', and kicked off with a sobering talk from Extinction Rebellion, a nonviolent protest group dedicated to taking action against the climate change crisis. 

Design has a rich history of activism; of starting change

Charlie Waterhouse, Extinction Rebellion

While it seems like an unusual choice for a creativity event, Charlie Waterhouse – a designer working with XR – pointed out that the design profession is tied up intrinsically with our consumerist society, which means we have some responsibility in the matter. “We create the ads, the fads, the products, the tweets, the brands,” he reminded us.

However, with this responsibility comes some exciting opportunities. “Design has a rich history of activism, of starting change,” continued Waterhouse, citing William Morris and the Bauhaus School as classic examples. Designers have influence, now's the time to use it.

Extinction Rebellion's Clive Russell and Charlie Waterhouse rallied designers to action

Extinction Rebellion's Clive Russell and Charlie Waterhouse rallied designers to action (Image credit: Design Manchester)

The impact that designers have historically had, and continue to have, on culture and society, was a theme that cropped up repeatedly during the day. Harris Elliott (opens in new tab) is a creative director, curator and stylist whose uses his work to  comment on society, and isn’t afraid to get political. A project he’s particularly proud of was his Return of the Rudeboy (opens in new tab) exhibition at Somerset House. 

The show was the first of its kind for the gallery and required the team there to take a risk on something new – get a taste of what it included in the video below. Elliott spoke about embracing your culture and identity and using your work to comment on it and take that story further. 

Design can also influence our day-to-day interactions. Neil Hubbard is a partner at Heatherwick Studio (opens in new tab), which uses architectural design to open the doors that are being closed by technology. “We’re digitally and virtually connected to people, but physically we’re alone,” he said. 

The studio’s aim is to create creating ‘hyper-real’ spaces that “draw people out of their homes and away from their devices.” Its designs encourage people to bump into each other, and promote incidental meetings. “Celebrating nooks and crannies is part of our job,” he smiled. “It’s almost the best compliment when someone doesn’t notice your project, it just becomes part of their city.”

Technology for us was like paint

Daljit Singh

Creative director Daljit Singh spoke about using all the tools at your disposal to make a real statement. He recalls working in a world when we were first starting to make big technological advancements, such as Flash, and how exciting it was: “Technology for us was like paint,” he said. 

Very quickly, though, a ‘flatness’ set in. Singh argues that given the possibilities opened up for us by tech we should be making incredible and diverse things, and instead we’re making bland, homogenous things. The antidote? Passion projects. You need to be able to physically put these new experimental ideas in front of clients in order for them to see the possibilities and take a chance on something new, he explained. 

The iconic Paula Scher closed out the conference

The iconic Paula Scher closed out the conference (Image credit: Design Manchester)

Legendary designer Paula Scher closed out the day with a look back on her 50-plus years in design so far. She is well known for her branding work on New York’s not-for-profit Public Theatre, but her scheme for the 1995 season didn't go quite to plan. Scher's Bring In Da Noise Bring In Da Funk posters were so popular they became a full-blown design trend, synonymous with New York City itself. “It’s a terrible thing, to design a style and have a city eat it,” smiled Scher. 

Check out the Design Manchester website (opens in new tab) for a look at the full, and varied, programme of events from the 2019 festival.

Read more:

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

Ruth Hamilton
Ruth Hamilton

Ruth spent a couple of years as Deputy Editor of Creative Bloq, and has also either worked on or written for almost all of the site's former and current print titles, from Computer Arts to ImagineFX. She now spends her days reviewing mattresses and hiking boots as the Outdoors and Wellness editor at, but continues to write about design on a freelance basis in her spare time.