Design Routes/Roots


Ask Lecture Series: Manchester School of Art, 18th May 2016

Professor Martyn Evans

 Design Routes -Revitalisation Through Design

I attended this lecture with an interest in how as artists, designers or students we respond through drawing / making to objects. Partly in reference to (unrealised) project ideas developed previously with Louise Clennell in MMU Special Collections, Specifically the way in which objects may contain implicit or unknown histories; be they collected in museums and galleries, the paste tables of second hand markets or the pick and mix of the charity shop. The disconnected way we usually stumble across these objects and why they speak to us or we connect with them, implies that we may be responding to a significance or memory, or perhaps we are imposing or reimagining a history?  For the most part we are content that the story (if there is one) resides within the object regardless of the depth to which we  choose to reveal it.

Professor Martyn Evans lecture on Design Routes described an AHRC funded design research project that explores ‘revitalisation through design’, by focusing on and searching for ‘culturally significant, design products and practices’. Objects that are rooted in both making practices and usage. They may be disconnected from our contemporary life experience but in a tangible way will have (had) social, historical and aesthetic characteristics that have been or are valued by a community and location over time. They will have evolved from local making processes that can be authenticated and as such provide the opportunity the Design Routes project requires for the potential of revitalisation through design.

What was not immediately obvious was what this project excluded i.e what it is not, this would include food, drink, architecture, music, theatre, books…so that the design routes investigation is primarily focused on objects shaped and formed around a function or need around practical use. From my own point of reference this became much harder to find a direct practice connection with that I could recognise. The lack of immediacy is maybe the point though? the very act of rediscovering what you do not know you have lost within the familiar?

However it does indirectly link to projects we have tried to generate out of the Special Collections archive, which whilst not fulfilling the criteria for design routes, we look at a broader definition of the archive/artefact as the container from which we can potentially generate visual responses which will then lead the reader/viewer back to the original source. Our purpose is to reveal archives as resources we can respond to/ link to and restore relevance to, through a drawing/design response.  A previous Unit X lecture in 2015 by MA filmmaker Kristen Marshall elaborated on the same theme and connected students directly to the Special Collections archive through research, response and making. Student practice blogs contained many positive references to this lecture in 2015.

Expanding on the connection between archives and the generation of research projects, this also connected back to 2014 when I invited illustrator William Grill, winner of the Kate Greenaway medal 2015 for the picture book ‘Shackltons Journey’ to visit the course in December 2014.  William took us through the process of generating the picture book from early research sketches and layouts in small sketchbooks and journals through to resolving designs for the final published artwork. What was most revealing, although not immediately obvious in the final outcome, is how far the hand held cine film footage and the surviving black and white photographs generated on the voyage by Frank Hurley, informed the formation and composition of the artwork. The soft focus of old film stock is translated in the imprecision of the coloured pencil marks and page layouts, to some extent owe a debt  to the camera. This takes nothing away from the artwork or the skill in translation William has created, but where it connects back to design routes is in the value of unlocking and reimagining/re-presenting a specific archive/object so that it transcends a time locked space and reanimates (literally) to a new audience. It travels forward, it revitalises, it is not static.

The lecture raised interesting questions around authenticity, and how far in revitalising we need to be bound by historic processes and tools? for example the use of non powered, traditional means being linked to low volume and high value productions. How to avoid a faux revitalisation trapped in reverence? also the assumed authority of history and tradition – referencing tartan and paisley patterns. It seems important that the idea of cultural relevance is not a static proposition that it can evolve and be appropriated, but raise the question around who arbitrates the authentic? and who decides which contemporary revitalisation has integrity and which does not? (ref training shoe with traditional beadwork).

From a personal perspective where this can perhaps lead is towards the exploration of the ‘local’ the museum or collection based in a specific location trade or culture as the potential repository of untold stories and latent objects and practices for storytellers and picture book makers. These sites are recognised as in need of exactly this kind of revitalisation to new audiences.

Related research links:

Professor Martyn Evans: Academic Profile

ASK: ASK Lecture Series

John Hewitt’s daily drawings, often focused on collected domestic scale objects.

The Beauty Thing’ Group 6 Press conversations with Alan Garner re objects and significance.

Silk Museum Macclesfield, Lion Salt Works Northwich, Hat Museum Stockport.


Author: Ian Whadcock

Senior Lecturer Manchester School of Art, BA(Hons) Illustration with Animation course.