XpoNorth: The Art of Design

XPoNorth hosts a design programme, run by the Glasgow School of Art Forres Institute for Design Innovation, with workshops, panel discussions and an inspiring keynote speech

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 02 Jun 2016

Where will you find the most innovative design and research happening currently in Scotland? A new set of designers and creatives setting up in the Highlands suggest that to get to the cutting edge, it’s best first to head away from the centre.

Keeping this in mind, consider the new Institute of Design Innovation. While it might be run by Glasgow School of Art, this new organisation is located in the Highlands – as well as pushing GSA's city limits, it also picks at most of the easy preconceptions of design disciplines. 

Flying the flag proudly for the latest trends in design, they see no useful limit in thinking only in terms of objects or things, or under old headings of fashion, furniture and graphics. As a new research and teaching facility, the GSA Forres campus houses lecturers, students and researchers.

Amongst their number is programme director Don McIntyre. Explaining some of the Institute’s remit, he says: “GSA InDI is not simply about aesthetics, or making a product look or feel better; it’s about design being used from the start with clients. When eliciting requirements from a client, we’re not sitting opposite with a pen and paper.” Instead, this process involves “a comfortable and safe environment to engage with each other.”

Also based in Forres is InDI’s Senior Production Manager Kate Hooper. Expanding on the value of design processes in wider applications, she uses the example of prototyping, a process which allows stakeholders to come up with solutions, whether product, service or interaction-based. As she explains, it's vital to these solutions that people “can relate to and respond” to them.

This is one example of the methods InDI uses to swivel design practice to face the most pressing issues and contemporary technologies. At the moment, on their list of research areas they are looking at problems relating to neighbourhoods, work, online banking and even healthcare. In terms of the latter, McIntyre is particularly concerned by such matters as the disproportionately high mortality rate for prostate cancer. “It’s not discussed in the same way breast cancer is talked about,” he explains. The key to addressing these problems with design, he continues, lies in understanding “the societal condition that makes people struggle to communicate.”

As well innovating through design, Hooper and McIntyre both explain that InDI is just as concerned with the innovation of design. Reconsidering the relationship of creative and client, McIntyre makes his feelings clear: “Everyone has inherent creative capabilities. It’s just that some people chose different routes at school for whatever reason.” Essentially, he wants the world of design to make a real culture of innovation possible – “to unlock the creativity of everyone, from management to shopfloor.”

Positioned at the vanguard of design research, InDI is currently in collaboration with some powerful and well-known organisations, whether that’s Hitachi, the Scottish Government or Royal Bank of Scotland. 

With plenty to report back already, the Forres Institute of Design Innovation will present its distinctive research direction at XPo North this year. They’ll share their most exciting new findings via two panels, a workshop and a keynote presentation, as well as an opening ceremony showcasing design from different areas.

For the opening ceremony, Hooper’s excited to see the current GSA second year fashion students up in the Highlands. “They’ll work with Highland and Island models,” she says of their future plans, “and collaborate with the young people here.”

She also looks forward to an inspirational keynote from GSA's head of design, Irene McAra-McWilliam, which promises to explore “the evolving nature of design, prioritising solutions that generate preferable futures.” McAra-McWilliam will also talk about her work across business and the public sector, including partners like the Scottish Government and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

InDI’s XPo workshop, meanwhile, will take the form of a 'Digital Maker’s Café,' with 3D printing technology to be made available for locals to have a go. For Hooper this kind of try-me event comes from important questions like, 'how can traditional craft use digital fabrication technology to their benefit?' and 'what is the role of technology in traditional craft?' It’s a neat example of the possibilities of GSA’s presence in the Highlands, and she's keen to stress the importance of getting to know designers from around the region and the creative framework they work from. “The worst thing,” she explains, “would be if we came in and just said, 'This is how it’s to be done.'”

Just the same, the teaching process is measured against InDI’s commitment to continued improvement, and as McIntyre says, “the research directly informs the teaching of design here.” In this way, there’s no need for the dual researchers and teachers to change hats, as the question remains of how to cultivate the optimum experience for stakeholders – in this case, the students’ learning experience.

Also informing the learning experience in Forres is the Design Network, of which Hooper is also in charge. Just the same as the InDI itself, the Design Network is a collaboration between GSA and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Supporting the Highlands and Islands’ already strong design community, Design Network is another promotion of the importance of design to businesses and communities.

Already, the Design Network has a bundle of successful initiatives under its belt. These different events and workshops include an ambitious Winter School Event, where local businesses met with the Copenhagen-based Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, and Køln International School of Design. Closer to home, in Inverness, the Design Network also presented some of the InDI’s ideas on how designers can apply their skills to cross-industry strategic consulting.

While there may be miles between Glasgow and this particular facet of the Glasgow School of Art, the strong responsibility to the local area is secured by complete commitment to socially-engaged and business-minded design innovation. Up in the Highlands, they’re looking far ahead to well-designed futures.

Read more about XpoNorth 2016:

• Art and design: XPoNorth's design programme
• Books: LG Thomson on Northern Noir
• Fashion: Jewellery designer Heather McDermott
• Film: Filmmaking in the North of Scotland
• Music: Lional on swapping Inverness for LA
• Tech: How a solo developer won the 2015 Moray Game Jam

XpoNorth runs 8-9 Jun, Inverness http://xponorth.co.uk