For those from further afield than my own backyard let me set the scene; for many years Sydney Design had been Sydney’s one and only effort to recognise, celebrate and promote Design to the good people of Sydney – Design in it’s many guises, product, interior, architecture, urban and of course a bit of graphic design now and then too.
An initiative of the Powerhouse Museum, and originally titled ‘Sydney Design Week’, over the years the festival morphed into a longer and more complete program of events – thus dropping ‘Week’ from it’s title.
Each year, I looked forward to seeing the campaign concept and marketing for the festival appear – who won the job? Who was on the pitch? How’d it turn out? Then the appearance of the program and the events – from symposia, workshops, films, exhibitions and talks – another source of anticipation and high expectations. But mostly I cared about the look and feel – I’m a graphic designer after all. And over the years it threw up some highlights – from the chicken and egg games on street posters by Boccalatte from many years ago, to the more recent efforts demonstrated above from Toko and Boccalatte again (stalwarts and acknowledged masters of working with cultural clients that they are).
I speak of Sydney Design in the past tense because the festival I remember, used to be about Design.
It used to value Design. It used to celebrate, promote and champion it. In 2012, Sydney Design took a year off, with the reasoning being vaguely attributed to budget cuts (presumably the organisers would blame the newly elected Liberal state government and their budget balancing ways). Over the one year break and the near death experience, Sydney Design seems to have changed, and not for the better.
For 2013, Sydney Design have decided to embrace an open competition (translation, crowdsource) to source their ‘campaign concept’, using the ironically named site, Creative Allies. It would be tempting to begin a critique of this approach by pointing out the Creative Allies site is usually for music fans to design the merch for their favourite band – but that would be too easy.
A couple of disclaimers before I really roll up the sleeves and work through my thoughts on this. It’s indeed understandable that budget cuts are budget cuts, and the effects they can have on a cultural festival already stretched thin are devastating for all concerned. Also, by no means is my reaction an instinctive reflex against crowdsourcing as inherently bad for the industry, as many are fond of moaning; I have little interest in doing logos or websites for $500.
However, many people need them, and designers around the world are willing to take on this type of work. Crowdsourcing sites provide an efficient mechanism to facilitate such a transaction, rather than the high maintenance ‘relationship model’ many of us in the industry prefer from our clients. If the phone in my studio rings less with clients whose budgets are measured in the hundreds, and not thousands (or tens of thousands), it’s a win for everyone as far as I’m concerned. Especially the (admittedly few and far between) designers in developing economies earning a living from working almost exclusively through these sites.
But Sydney Design isn’t a suburban dentist or a plumber looking for a spiffy logo to put on the door or truck. Forgive the crudeness of the expression, but Sydney Design are meant to be in our corner.
A festival that is tasked with celebrating and promoting capital-D Design should know the core of great Design lies within thoughtful interrogation of a subject matter. Meaningful dialogue and collaboration are at the heart of the design process, and it can’t be achieved through posting 5 paragraphs and some tension sliders on a crowdsourcing site. Sorry, it really can’t.
Small budgets have never intimidated or limited great designers – design books, museums and award annuals are filled with clever solutions to small budgets. Non profit organisations the world over have created value with, and enjoyed the benefits of, working with designers who place an importance on making a contribution and giving back to society, rather than purely chasing commercial outcomes. Sydney is alive with studios doing work of a scale, quality and significance in direct contradiction to their client’s budget. This work not only makes these organisations look good and speak with a compelling voice, thus growing their audience, but in many cases those creative partners contribute valuable strategic and business advice, making those organisations more professional, relevant and financially viable.
A city’s program of cultural festivals, their visual identities and highly visible marketing campaigns are a key part of the experience it’s inhabitants and visitors have of a city. If a city is a person and the building are it’s clothes, the visual language we experience on the street are it’s jewellery – bright, shiney and attention grabbing. In my own experience working with the Sydney Biennale (way back when), the importance of the marketing campaign as another venue through which the public engages with the art, artists and themes of the biennale was discussed and explored at length. I may be biased towards the work of friends, but the vibrant, contemporary nature of the 2011 campaign by Toko was particularly memorable. The city became a gallery for one of Australia’s most progressive design studios to strut their stuff – for a short period, Sydney was an aesthetically better place to experience. I remember seeing Michael and Eva on Foster Street during their time on the project – to say their heart and soul was being poured into that project is an understatement. Sydney Design have turned their back on that relationship for the expedience of a design competition and the illusion of choice through ‘options’.
Lastly, and perhaps most heartbreaking of all, for a program that is heavy on architecture, interiors, product and craft – the identity and marketing campaign was the primary vehicle by which Sydney Design celebrated graphic design. Year after year great studios did fantastic, challenging, progressive work and humbly presented it as their gift to the people of Sydney for their consideration, admiration or otherwise. If people chose to tune it out and ignore, well that was fine too. The point is, we were there, we had a forum, a vehicle.
People are free to decide what they do with the efforts of designers of any stripe – that’s entirely ok. But when a publicly funded organisation (whose entire justification for their funding, and thus their existence, turns on promoting and championing Design) chooses a crowdsourcing model, it’s incredibly disappointing to say the least. But who knows, maybe a great designer like Vince Frost will enter, create something amazing and win, thus proving me wrong. Stranger things have happened.
Sydney is capable of better, Sydney’s Design industry deserves better, and the people of NSW are providing funding for something better.
See the current crop of entries to the competition here.
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