Art & Design

Agents of change: how Irish design is becoming a global force in climate action and equality

Connecting to people and the planet is the key to unlocking change, says Charlotte Barker, CEO of the Institute of Designers Ireland, and designers are perfectly placed to be the joining force

The award-winning collection of designer Alison Conneely in support of UNFPA (United Nations Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency).

If you were to ask 100 people what design is, the common understanding would be of design as a noun. Things, objects, places and spaces - Dyson vacuum cleaners and Ercol furniture, influenced by the clean lines of a Scandinavian aesthetic or the runways of Paris and Milan. But design is also a verb; a description of purposeful change and invention, innovation and improvement. In today’s turbulent world those who can create and innovate are a vital currency to be recognised.

Connection as human beings has never been felt more strongly in a world that feels divided and volatile, challenged by wars and ravaged by climate change. So designers have a role to play in leading change, bringing unique thinking and skill sets to overcome the seemingly impossible. The Institute of Designers in Ireland (IDI), as the representative body for commercial designers, is leading the charge, galvanising the design sector to bring their talents to the fore.

IDI board of directors

New appointments to the board of directors indicate a clear and determined direction for the sector; Dr Brian Dixon, Head of Design at Belfast School of Art will support a shared island approach to design education and opportunities for the island of Ireland. Ann Kehoe, Group Brand Director for Kerry Group brings the voice of the client and industry to the board, demonstrating the need for designers and industry leaders to be united in the approach to change. And stylist Aisling Farinella, Creative Consultant and regular contributor to Irish Tatler is leading the charge on growing and championing the Irish fashion community at home and abroad. Bolstering an already established and powerful board led by President Mary Doherty, Managing Director of Red Dog, along with our small but growing executive team, the energy is palpable - and not just amongst ourselves.

Designing Change for People

The government is increasingly recognising design as a tool for change, with the newly established design principles gaining traction with civil servants up and down the country. Changes are being made to our justice system, healthcare and education, led by design to ensure a citizen-centric solution that will work. There’s proof in the approach – design is championed by the European Commission, which states ‘user-centricity is even more important for local and regional administrations as they are at the forefront of delivering many of the public services and making decisions that affect individuals in their community every day.’ The newly appointed Public Sector Design Lead, Trevor Vaugh will champion service design to improve the lives of the people of Ireland. Design is at the table, and the contribution of designers is being both seen and heard.

Designer Alison Conneely’s collection in support of UNFPA (United Nations Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency). Photo by Eilish McCormick

Designing Change for Planet

Nothing seems more important right now than understanding what we can do to tackle climate change and taking action. Flooding in Middleton and unseasonal temperatures are very clear indications that our planet is under immense stress, and it will take both individual and collective action to slow the impacts of mankind. Design Declares Ireland is the start of a new platform for designers to work together to share knowledge, build infrastructure and support each other as we identify the ways and means that we might design our way out of crisis. Initiated in the UK and with burgeoning movements in Brazil, Japan and the US, Ireland is leading the way as the first global adopters of the programme. Partnering with a global platform connects our small island to an international knowledge base and network of change makers, acknowledging our responsibility at the heart of industry and community to take action. We are grateful to be supported by the government’s Creative Ireland agency, another government commitment to recognising the importance of design.

To strengthen this position, the annual Irish Design Awards judging criteria have been updated, assigning designers more accountability to designing for the planet and using their skill sets to amplify the change.

Charlotte Barker, CEO, IDI

Designing Change for the Regions

Post-pandemic, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of designers living and working outside of the main urban centres as people strive for a better work/life balance and connection to the environment. We are building infrastructure throughout the west of Ireland to support designers in building their businesses, growing local economies and creating connections. Through our research, we know that designers living regionally want to find ways to connect, and we are focused on providing these opportunities for them. Our Living West forum creates space for collaboration, strengthening the opportunities to work together on larger projects for corporate clients or international businesses. Supporting events such as Gasp! in Limerick, Design West in Galway and Design Pop in Cork encourage greater connection. Harnessing talents and encouraging the blending of skillsets is where the magic can happen.

Designing Change for the Future

Of course, all these efforts are to build for the future. As the pace of change accelerates, we need to make it a priority that we equip the next generation of talent with the skills and mindset to continue driving forward. In fashion, we can look to the practice of multiple designers using fashion as a medium for social and environmental change, notably the (award-winning) collection of designer Alison Conneely in support of UNFPA (United Nations Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency). The recently B-Corp certified Re-Pete Project, by Dublin-raised, London-based Katie Walsh, creates garments 100 per cent made from locally sourced waste. Internationally celebrated designers like Róisín Pierce and Standing Ground champion handmade, craft-focused practices while the global success of Simone Rocha is imbued with contemporary Irish identity.

Here at home, digital agency Path is deeply committed to accessibility to improve web experiences for every person, and is on a journey to BCorps status marking a commitment to sustainability, while The Factory in Birr, Offaly has transformed a traditional family printing business into an award-winning sustainable business. Their manifesto and eco-actions set out purposeful change that benefits people and the planet, not just profit. In addition, working with design educators is vital to improving design education and building a pipeline of talented individuals who will think in the way AI can’t, building empathy and humanity into the products and services of the future.

Arguably, never before have we needed to connect so deeply as human beings. The challenges we face affect us on many levels - economic, human, and personal. It’s a vital time for openness to change and for collective action. To move from fitting into the hierarchy to practising democracy. From being competitive to building community. Many designers self-identify as problem solvers. So as the world changes and adapts, you can rely on designers to run into the fire.

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