Photos by Caroline Brady

Inside St Andrew’s Church at the corner of Suffolk Street and St Andrew’s Street, construction is underway.

Formerly Dublin’s Central Tourist Office, the church is now under the control of the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland.

In November, it will reopen as the new national design centre and host to the Liminal exhibition – the flagship show of this year’s Irish Design 2015 programme. Dublin will be the third city to host the exhibition, after Milan and New York.

The creation of the national design centre comes just 53 years after it was recommended by “Design in Ireland” or, as it is generally called, “the Scandinavian report”. (It was drawn up by members of the Scandinavian Design Group after a visit to Ireland.)

The government at the time commissioned the report to assess the state’s approach to design. The report was highly critical of the design industry and, particularly, Ireland’s design education. But little was done to follow the recommendations.

“The Danes and Finns were redefining their national identity through design and doing an amazing job,” says Alex Milton, programme director for Irish Design 2015 and former head of design at NCAD.

At the time, the report suggested that we needed a design council, a year of design, a national design strategy and a national design centre, he explains. “This year we’re doing all of that – 50 years later.”

A Change in Attitude

It wasn’t until Dublin City Council decided to make the bid for World Design Capital 2014 that the government began to look at design seriously, says Barry Sheehan, head of design at DIT.

Though Dublin didn’t win the bid, he believes it changed the government’s thinking about design. Money was invested in a year of design. Design also became part of the (Design &) Crafts Council of Ireland’s responsibilities, whereas before it had fallen between ministerial roles and nobody had really been responsible for it, says Sheehan.

The design centre at St Andrew’s Church will offer an exhibition space to showcase different areas of design, a place to hold training programmes and a home for start-up design companies. “One step on from incubator units,” explains Milton, “so initiatives launched this year will have a place to go.”

Irish Design 2015 will also support the introduction of a formal government design policy. At the moment, the only other EU countries without a strategic design policy or design centre in place are Bulgaria, Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia.

As Milton sees it, Ireland is “playing catch-up” with other European countries, but he believes we can learn lessons from them while creating our own design industry here.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

Note that Irish Design 2015 – which is the biggest investment in Irish design since the Kilkenny Design Workshops were set up fifty years ago – is funded by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation rather than the Department of Arts.

The programme is part of the government’s action plan for jobs and has set targets for the number of jobs, new companies and exports it should create. So far, the programme is on target, according to last month’s interim report.

“The remit of this year has been all about jobs,” says Sheehan. For every design job created at the corporate giant IBM Ireland, thirty others in different areas follow, he says. This is how the programme aims to create 1,800 jobs on the back of design.

“It demonstrates that investing in design is a good thing,” says Milton, “which is pretty much what everybody internationally has known for many years, but it’s great that Ireland is taking it up.”

Though there has been no research here in Ireland into the benefits of investing in design, our European neighbours have calculated that it’s a good bet.

It’s tough to measure, but research by the UK’s Design Council showed that every £1 of public-sector investment into its design programme saw a net value return of £3.75 to the public sector. And for every £1 that businesses invest in design, they can expect more than £20 in increased revenues, more than £4 increase in net operating profit and more than £5 in increased exports.

The creative industries in the UK earn more money per square mile than the City of London, says Milton. He believes we should be investing in design for economic reasons, particularly because the talent and skills needed are already here.

Mad Skills

Though we are behind in investing in design, we don’t seem to be lacking in the skill sets needed to have a booming design industry. Irish designers have been making waves abroad and snapping up awards.

Designer Paul Adams was Facebook’s head of brand design before coming back to Dublin to set up his own business. Three of the six architects shortlisted for this year’s Stirling Prize are Irish – though none of the buildings up for the award are in Ireland.

Dublin-based architects O’Donnell + Tuomey also won Britain’s RIBA Royal Gold Medal last year – one of the most prestigious architecture awards in the world.

Simone Rocha, Brown Bag Films and Frontend have won international awards for their work in fashion, animation and user-experience design respectively.

IBM is in the process of setting up its design centre in Dublin, mainly because of the availability of talented designers, says its communications officer, Jim O’Keefe.

Design is becoming more important, especially in technology, he said. “Up to now, engineers have been designing stuff, but now we need designers.”

What Is Design?

For Milton, a key part of Irish Design 2015 is raising awareness of what exactly design is. People in Ireland aren’t fully switched on to it, he thinks.

“I think it’s fair to say that when you’re in Holland people really get what design is, they really understand the value of it,” he says. “Design is an inherent part of what they do. Every government department has a design team working with them.”

But there’s a misconception here that it’s about luxury objects and making things look nice, according to Milton. “It’s actually about transforming every aspect of daily life,” he says, giving services and the environment as examples.

Looking to the Future

Despite all that Irish Design 2015 has done, Simon Dennehy, CEO of design research company Perch in Dublin 8, doesn’t think people have a good sense of design. “I think it will be missing for a long time,” he comments.

Founded in 2009, Perch, which features in the Liminal exhibition, stopped taking on clients in 2012 to focus on design research. Instead of designing and manufacturing products, Perch spends years working on design solutions and then pitches ideas to companies that can manufacture them.

This is the best way forward for Irish design, Sheehan says. Ireland doesn’t have huge manufacturing capabilities, so it’s best not to try to make products. “But what we can get is a reputation through design solutions,” he explains.

Sheehan believes Irish Design 2015’s legacy will remain into the future, because he feels the government and Enterprise Ireland are starting to take design seriously. He also points out that the programme relied on many volunteers – like him – who will continue their work beyond this year.

Alex Milton is already looking forward to next year, when St Andrew’s Church will act as a headquarters for Irish design. He plans to tackle some big design challenges, like transforming the HSE and dealing with the built environment left over from the Celtic Tiger.

“They’re design problems that we need to solve”, he says. “[Irish Design 2015] is not just a one hit wonder.”

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