Criticism in Irish Design

13th November 2015
by Simon Sweeney

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From the smallest freelance operations to the fully fledged studios, there is a mindset that almost totally permeates Irish graphic design. We are all affected by it. It is a mindset that gives birth to many ideas, namely; we are a small, tightly-knit community, best not to ruffle any feathers, you might get work from that person some day. You might even have to sit beside them at a wedding.

This is both a positive and negative structure of thought in my opinion. The sense of general camaraderie throughout the Irish design community is one of its greatest strengths. As a group we are all striving to show the skills we have on offer to an international audience and encouragement and celebration act as a catalyst that drives our success forward and out into the world.

The negative aspect is much more subtle and intermittent but I feel it needs to be addressed. It was highlighted to me again recently by the new Dublin tourism identity and marketing campaign, commissioned by the Grow Dublin Tourism Alliance with Fáilte Ireland and designed by Think & Son. The Fáilte Ireland press release states the brand “seeks to communicate Dublin’s unique position as a vibrant capital city…where city living thrives side by side with the natural outdoors”. Needless to say it has been met with mixed reactions.

Although I agree with many of Armin Vit’s points in his review of the work, I am not fully aware of the brief, its context, or even the circumstances that brought about this outcome, so I feel less than equipped to critique the project myself. I will say the visual aspect of the work is not to my taste and personally I feel that, at least in execution, it doesn’t communicate the city in which I live and work, and the talent therein, very well to an international audience. Particularly as a designer and developer the accompanying site is a pale shadow of the high level of output that some studios are putting out in similar areas.

The reason I began writing this wasn’t to discuss the project itself but the reaction I witnessed to its launch. It followed a path similar to many public projects like it, and its reception by the Irish design community, and the resulting conversations, were almost laughably predictable in their correlation with those surrounding previous launches.

Initially the usual smattering of tweets appeared, most of them negative. Some could even be considered vicious (my own included). Nothing constructive was said, no attempt to engage in any real way was made. Then followed the usual mockery and pastiche, we meme’d off the aesthetic of the work, delighting in our own hilarity. We waited for the broadsheet article and its plethora of comments with bated breath, ready for an onslaught.

Then a crucial waypoint was reached, the identity of the designer behind the work was revealed and the mob splintered in two. Most of those with no personal connection to the practitioner continued their vitriol, pondering why the others had subsided.

The other half realised that they had been mocking an acquaintance, a potential collaborator. Case in point, a friend of mine was outspoken about the new logo, stating it was terrible and ill-suited to our city, yet when informed about the identity of the creator, went silent, elaborating privately that they felt remorse for saying anything in the first place.

Similar reactions could be seen across the board as the penny dropped and people realised there was, as is usually the case, very nice people behind the project.

The vicious nature of the initial backlash isn’t a result of a group of malicious people gunning for an easy target, it is a symptom of the fact that there is no real outlet for any sort of intelligent criticism in the Irish design community. There is no viable way to talk about a piece of work in a way that is anything more than an immediate knee-jerk reaction amidst a group mentality. We all feel so strongly about projects like these, but there is no place for discussion to happen in any real and meaningful way.

The conversations are already happening, I’ve personally witnessed it. Behind studio doors, in skype groups, in the corners of pubs, at the Offset panel conversations while some boring advertising hotshot is on the main stage. The individuals with clear and constructive ideas and opinions, that temper their initial rage with coherent thought, are abundant. Brief glimpses of dialogue shine through on Twitter, even as a 140 character limit stifles the ability to elaborate. I just feel these thoughts and opinions should be shared, documented, indexed and made searchable, so that we might lay a foundation for the community to work from. Can we be mature enough to open up this discussion without worrying that we might hurt someone we know personally?

There are so many excellent things happening in design in Ireland at the moment. The 100archive is picking up momentum and producing genuinely interesting content that really highlights the amazing work being done by people in and of this country. We have a conference like Face Forward this December that will no doubt provoke informed and critical debate, that will probably address the very issue I’m talking about.

I just feel we need something more lasting, a collection of ongoing conversations that help shape what Irish design is within the greater context of graphic design in general. Insightful, intelligent criticism documented with a certain rigour could tease out the things that make Irish work great and allow the whole community to learn from the discourse generated in the process.

This article was originally published on Medium.

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