Imagining the City: Dundee Design Festival 2019

How can a city use design to shape its future? Poised to answer this question is the Dundee Design Festival, back this month for its third iteration and with not one, but two energetic new curators at the helm in the form of design studio Agency of None

Feature by Stacey Hunter | 13 May 2019

Located in the UK’s first and only UNESCO City of Design, the challenge to create a festival with the intellectual and aesthetic rigour the city deserves has been fully embraced by this year’s team. Design duo Lyall Bruce and Ryan McLeod launched the theme Liveable/Loveable cities back in late 2018 by asking citizens of Dundee (and the world) what those terms meant to them.

“When we put those questions out there it was a deliberately democratic approach to get everyone to feed in to what this festival should be and could be. One of the outcomes of asking people about what makes the city Liveable or Loveable is learning that citizens are actually much more attuned to cultural shifts than councils are – and now more than ever it’s the right time to bring people’s valid ideas and thoughts to the forefront in a really public way.” 

This inclusivity underpins everything in the festival programme, with the core theme being identity and “how you allow people to play with a city’s identity and then reflect that in the real world. We want to ensure that anyone can come along, at any time in the festival, and get involved in any part of it.”

Initial ideas for a new aesthetic for the festival grew from research into city branding. “Badly done ones just market a city, in quite a reductive way – whereas the really good ones embed themselves and seem to really understand their city.”

Along with graphic designer Tommy Perman, the team explored the city archives and examined historic packaging designs from the original Keiller Factory. These have inspired and informed the brand for the 2019 festival: an exciting variable typeface with a series of patterns and a colour palette that makes up an accessible visual identity toolkit.

What could have been just another typeface for graphic design aficionados has been cleverly recast into a highlight of the festival: Poster Playground is an interactive exhibition and a system that allows people to shape and adjust typefaces themselves. “This is about inviting people to come in, play, and explore really easily and freely without the requirement for any level of technical skill or design expertise. We’re removing the obstacles to getting to all the fun stuff in a very tactile way. You can come in, pick up a brief, create something, and then release that and see it go out into designated spaces around the city.”

The 2019 festival takes a genuinely socially engaged approach to exploring what a Liveable/Loveable city is by asking citizens to speculate on the city’s future and get directly involved with designing and making. The eight-day events and exhibition programme has been shaped by the thoughts, feelings, memories and wishes of Dundee residents and designers. And from 21 to 28 May, the city’s Keiller Centre is where multiple vacant shop units are being transformed into what the festival organisers describe as “a living prototype for audiences to explore and shape.”

The festival is showcasing a spectrum of design disciplines within live production spaces. Designers working in jewellery, ceramics, lighting and fashion will be festival residents during the course of the week.

“This design festival is for people who want to look at the future of their city differently and think about what it could be like. Or to learn about how they can make a difference. It’s for people who like to get involved and thrive when they can get hands-on and make things. It’s not for people who like to walk around art exhibitions with their hands behind their back; it’s definitely an accessible environment.”

The designers say they feel as though they only have themselves to blame when they complain about people not understanding design. “We need to remove the barriers to entry; things like software, hardware and university degrees – by developing better tools for change. Design is a process of creating systems and we enjoy the strategic aspect that takes good ideas and transforms them into usable ideas. Most importantly, our programme will explore how design can empower people.”

Exciting new installations, concepts and transformations sit cheek-by-jowl with existing tenants of the 1970s shopping centre: a bustling florists, a nail-bar, a key-cutter and workwear and fashion stores. Located at the centre of no fewer than four Dundee streets, the Keiller Centre occupies what is wryly referred to as the Dragon, Oor Wullie, and Desperate Dan triangle. Its arcade style architecture is out of sight of the main high street, meaning that many units now lie unoccupied. And it’s this that DDF 2019 sees as an opportunity.

Many design curators would shy away from the less-than-fashionable Keiller Centre, especially when competing with new kid on the block V&A Dundee for audiences. But that’s where this festival gets very interesting; not just for sheer ambition and confidence, but for its nuanced understanding of local needs and assets. This combined with the Keiller Centre’s tenants and management’s visible rallying might just be the perfect storm for a lasting legacy (that word so carelessly tossed around by cultural projects).

Dundee Design Festival Top Picks

The entire festival is under one roof and at street level – and if you’re a design fan it’s a must-see. Here are our highlights from the festival programme this year.

Fragrance design studio Arboretum (led by Clara Weale) and designer Pete Thomas are using scent to encourage hopeful futures in their performative exhibition Approaching Air. Positive stories about life in Dundee in 2039 will be synthesised, interpreted and formulated into a bespoke scent. During the festival, 100 limited edition samples of the scent will be dispensed. These will be shared with participants who will be invited to experience the Approaching Air.

In Poster Playground visitors of all ages can get hands-on with typography. Using shape, colour and pattern you can design your own poster. Choose from two different production methods – ‘printing blocks’ or ‘building blocks’ – to create your design. Workshop materials are informed by the sweet wrappers and typography created by James Keiller & Son, a historic sweet factory famous for the manufacture of marmalade, Dundee cake and chocolate that once stood on the site of the Keiller Centre.

In Subject to Availability four designers each have two days to make their products live at the festival. Audiences can watch them work up-close, gain an insight into their design process and buy the entire range in this specially designed exhibition. See ceramics, 3D printed jewellery, lighting and limited edition T-shirts by designers Steph Liddle, Lynne MacLachlan, Kevin Sinclair and Jennifer Stewart.

Design maven Joanne McFadyen of Tea Green Events has brought together a diverse and exciting range of products from designers based in Scotland, all curated around the theme Liveable/Loveable. Browse for a design souvenir from her colourful custom-built Design Superstore, fabricated by Dundee designers Roots Furniture. With both lifestyle and fashion products ranging from Kate Trouw’s playful jewellery, Clod & Pebble’s ceramics, and vibrant, contemporary quilts by Lucy Engels, there’s lots to love and plenty you’d like to live with.

An eclectic after-hours programme includes a film screening and the festival team’s own take on design-themed game shows with titles like Play Your Fonts Right! as well as provocative, participatory evening discussion events.

The new curators summarise their ambitions for the festival: “Ultimately our programme will show that design is not always about the shiny objects at the end. The festival will challenge that by exploring the process of design and some real possibilities for lasting positive change.”

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Dundee Design Festival 2019 runs from 21-28 May, 10am to 5pm daily, Keiller Centre, 3 Chapel St, Dundee
For the full evening events programme and locations please visit

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