Bren Byrne: OFFSETting Irish Design and Creativity

Culture bits, sponsored by CurrencyFair.

Bren Byrne and Lisa Haran are the directors of Ireland’s (and one of Europe’s) freshest design happenings, OFFSET. I interviewed Bren about the conference’s beginnings, the state of design then and now, and the key creatives and makers working in Ireland.

Tell us about the early days of OFFSET.
We organised the first OFFSET in 2009. It was at the time when everything was falling apart in the economy, and there was a big black cloud over Ireland. The design magazine I was working on with my co-organiser had a very positive editorial slant. We talked about design that we loved and respected, as opposed to chin stroking and writing negative articles. The gloom that was around made it the perfect time to set off. We booked the Liberty Hall Theatre and sold the 500 available tickets in about a week. We had a waitlist of another 500 people. In 2010 the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was just about ready to open. The fact that this building was going up in the area, with its structure and design, despite the dark economic times, pushed us to make the leap for a bigger venue. It matched our ambition for where we wanted to go. Even though it had 2,000 seats, we went for it. We booked it, and we’ve been there ever since, sold out for the last four years. We have since also started running OFFSET conferences in the UK.

What was happening in the design scene back then?
We found great illustrators, photographers, graphic designers, architects, and animators. The problem though was that none of them talked to each other. They were disparate groups working away and doing great things in isolation. There wasn’t a unified platform putting a spotlight on what was happening or bringing those artists together under one roof. We wanted to connect the members of the community with each other and with our design heroes, while also showcasing Irish design and creativity to a global audience. We have seen some of our speakers go off to work with some of the larger advertising agencies and studios around the world after meeting  at OFFSET.

Which are the areas of design we’re particularly good at?
The illustration and animation that we have produced over the last ten years has probably been the best in the world. If you look at children’s book illustration, you’ve got people like Oliver Jeffers, PJ Lynch, Chris Haughton, Chris Judge, and Niamh Sharkey. They are among the most read children’s book producers, and they’re all from Ireland. They touch people around the world, and because of them, publishers are now looking for Irish talent. At that first OFFSET, we did a panel discussion about children’s book illustration with Oliver and PJ. A young illustrator was sitting in the audience who thought, “I want to do what they are doing.” That illustrator was Chris Judge, and he worked hard for the following three years. In 2012 he was one of our speakers at OFFSET; his children’s books were already being translated and sold worldwide. That, for me, is one of the best moments I have witnessed.
In animation, Ireland has Cartoon Saloon and Brown Bag Films. Both studios have Oscar nominations. It’s a great testament to the talent that’s here, and the ambition, hard work and the vision for not just settling for local income.
We have great photographers like Richard Mosse and Eamonn Doyle. Our graphic designers are working at the biggest agencies in the world, such as Pentagram and in Wieden + Kennedy. The local advertising agencies are now getting global clients because they have the vision and the ambition to grow. It’s a great time for creativity in Ireland.

So design is no longer lagging behind writing or music?
We never had a rich tradition in design; it only kickstarted in the ’60s. We are pretty young as an independent state, and it took a while to shake off the shamrocks and the Celtic ornaments. Forging a new identity and trying to figure out who we are and our place in the world has taken a while to figure out. Our writing and our music were an expression of our nationality when we were under British rule. Then when we became independent, they were the natural facet of the arts and pushed us forward. We needed the Celtic Tiger and the money that came with it to give people the freedom to express themselves in more ways. But we also needed the recession to make people a bit more reflective. The combination of having some money and then losing it helped us figure out our identity a bit more, and that is reflected in design.

So OFFSET was a platform to discuss all that?
Yes but a platform that is uniquely Irish and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It needed to be very social and encourage people to come out of their little cocoons and meet other people who work in similar fields. It needed to give people confidence as well. We showcased Irish creatives on the same level as we did the international ones. It’s a similar confidence boost to what Web Summit provided to the tech and startup industry here. For a week, Dublin is the center of the universe. We recently talked to NCAD students about OFFSET and what we do. One student came to me afterwards and said he had just come back from Holland, where he met local designers who had been to OFFSET. He felt so proud to be from a place where people connected with design. That is a new feeling in Dublin.

What are other things you have noticed through the years?
How different the Irish crowd is from the UK one. We are much more interactive and expressive. If one of the speakers makes a joke, the Irish audience will laugh. In the UK, they would tweet about it but not laugh. It can make it quite unnerving for some of the speakers because they don’t know whether it’s working or not. We’ve had every reaction at OFFSET Dublin, from empathy when something goes wrong, to tears of happiness and support for the genuine presentations that touch people emotionally. These are really special moments.

What do you see in design in Dublin nowadays?
The bigger agencies, whether they’re working in design or advertising, have started to change how they hire people. They’re now looking for people who are creative and do not necessarily have a Masters in Advertising or studied Copywriting in college. They’re looking for a creative spark. Another thing is that the brilliant artists from Ireland are exhibiting and submitting work overseas; they bid for tenders globally. It wasn’t like that ten years ago, and it comes from a confidence and ambition within. We’ve become much more global in our outlook, and that is pushing the quality to new heights. There is growth happening in the Design Thinking space as a lot more companies are applying it, which has a massive impact on the visual cultural landscape here in Ireland.

How is Ireland changing visually?
During the recession, each time we saw a new furniture or candle shop pop up, we used to joke that it’s probably another out-of-work architect. They never stopped being creative and setting up businesses around the country. Since they have a background in visual communications, the places they opened look very stylish. They raised the standards for visual culture, whether it was through a shop sign or the interior design. These people also got involved in the local community and helped kickstart things. An example is the art centre in Boyle in Roscommon. It’s brilliant. Each little provincial area now has a much higher standard of design happening in it.
Craft making has also surged. After the recession, we started appreciating high-quality things more because we needed them to last longer. We bought less and appreciated the craft more. We preferred to curate, over just buying without thinking. All that improves creativity.

Tell us about some of the Irish creatives and makers you will be showcasing at OFFSET this year?
Shane Griffin, who is a brilliant Irish designer working in New York. He is a self-taught graphic designer, visual communicator, animator, and art director. He works with some of the major visual effects companies like The Mill, ManvsMachine and Piranha Bar. He has also done projects with Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. His work is breathtaking. We are showcasing photographer Eamonn Doyle, animation studio Boulder Media, and Lorna Ross, who is the new head of Fjord in Dublin. We also have the Project Twins who are brilliant young designer-illustrators. Yasmeen Ismail whose children’s books are winning awards all over the place will speak as well. We also have sound designer Gavin Little. He has created the promo music for Game of Thrones, Narcos, Superman and others. We certainly have no shortage of Irish talent, both male and female, and that’s something that’s very important for us.

OFFSET Dublin 2017 takes place February 18-20. OFFSITE, the free fringe festival alongside it, is from February 12th to the 16th in the Fumbally Exchange.

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