Grand Designs

Graphic Design in NI can compete on the world stage, says Jason Walsh

Although Belfast is hardly known on the international stage, it has a thriving graphic design industry which is serving the needs of local industries ever more concerned with issues like identity and branding. But does Belfast's design industry ever reach out beyond its commercial purpose to become, well . . . art?

According to Christopher Murphy, subject director in interactive multimedia design at the University of Ulster, there is no such thing as a vernacular design in NI.

‘Graphic design has become homogenous,’ he says, explaining that designers working locally prefer to consider themselves as part of an international industry than purveyors of a unniquely Irish or 'Ulster' imagery.

This is perhaps unsurprising. NI's history of violence and civil strife may make for rich art, but it takes an unusual organisation to be willing to incorporate it into its marketing strategy. A few have, though - the corridors in the Malmaison hotel on Belfast's Victoria Street are festooned with images of the city's political murals, loyalist and republican. Whether these exist as grim memento or ironic artefact for tourists remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, in their personal work – work created with no client in mind – designers can express themselves in freedom.

‘Personal work represents a sea-change. Companies like Tomato [in London] maintained their private work alongside personal work and that has proven quite liberating for young designers,’ says Murphy.

Pixel Alliance, an exhibition forum for designers, was set up in 2002 by Niall Smillie and Rory Jeffers in an attempt to level the playing field between 'Art with a capital A' and its profitable, though sometimes scorned cousin.

Gearing up for its third annual exhibition, Pixel Alliance assigns a single-word brief to its participants. A world away from the involved process of pitching, meeting with clients and discussing every aspect of a job from the typography down, the single word briefs free the designers from their usual restrictions while also offering them some direction.

But is it 'design'?

The question of when design becomes art is a difficult one. Undoubtedly, art and design share many of the same basic skills but design is typically performed to a client's specifications whereas art is traditionally the result of an individual's internal vision. That graphic design and illustration were once referred to as 'commercial art' is now virtually forgotten.

Of course, the tension between personal and commercial work is only one aspect of the reality faced by designers today. The main question facing designers in NI is: who is going to pay for their work?

During the conflict and the negative economic growth which accompanied it, businesses – and customers – had other things on their minds. They weren't thinking about 'branding' and logos.

Despite this, the reality is that someone is buying design. Belfast and its environs are now home to dozens of design studios, from tiny one and two person operations, to major firms like Triplicate and Rodney Miller Associates. Leslie Stannage Design can exist alongside relative newcomers such as Frank or Front.

Damian Cranney founded Frank in November 2004.

‘I spent eight years away from Belfast. I was in London for three years and Dublin for five.’ According to Cranney, Belfast has seen an explosion in awareness of visual culture in the last few years, but still has some way to go.

‘A company like ours couldn't have worked here five years ago. It's got to do with NI's industrial past and something in our psyche. By the 60s there was a healthy advertising industry in Dublin. There wasn't here.

‘Amsterdam, Milan, Barcelona – these places have a rich visual culture, so does the Republic of Ireland,’ he says.

Of the problems facing Belfast's design industry, Cranney feels that two are the most pressing: a lack of commitment to design by local business and too many young designers.

‘NI companies have a shortfall in marketing,’ he says, arguing that any serious design firm in the city must look outside NI to the Republic, to Great Britain and further afield if they want to sustain themselves. ‘[Meanwhile], there is a a gross oversupply of design graduates.’

One of Belfast's best-known design houses is LSD – Leslie Stannage Design. Founded in 1991 by Leslie Stannage, the company has grown continually over than last fifteen years giving Stannage a view of the changes in NI's  visual culture.

‘Guys here are perfectly capable of doing top-level design, including in the up and coming discipline of game design.’

It comes as no surprise that Stannage happily extends graphic design beyond the worlds of print, advertising and web design. Coming initially from a fine art background, he continues to exhibit as an artist.

Stannage also has a history in comic-book art and to this day continues to ink comics for publishers including DC Thompson.

He sees high-design as being vitally important to culture.

Raygun was one of the most interesting, groundbreaking magazines ever,’ he says. Raygun was an American music magazine during the 1990s which pushed back the boundaries of visual design.

‘If you think of abstract art in the fine art world, Raygun was that kind of deviation in the commercial art world – abstract, broken-down typography. Human curiosity forced you to work harder to read it,’ says Stannage.

For Stannage, the influence of cutting-edge design is visible in NI today. ‘Young designers particularly take ideas from way-out things like Raygun, and implement them themselves,' he says.

'They soften them to pass them by the board, but the ideas are still present. It's like Haute Couture, it filters down to the street.’