School’s (not) out for Summer

How a trip to Design West Summer school at ATU was the perfect opportunity to reset and recharge our creative batteries

3 mins
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How a trip to Design West Summer school at ATU was the perfect opportunity to reset and recharge our creative batteries

Stefan Sagmeister’s design team takes an entire year off work every seven years to rejuvenate and refresh their creative outlook. Design West Summer School in ATU, Letterfrack is like a mini/extra lite version of this and, for Alessandra and I, no less effective.

For two weeks during July the programme affords an amazing opportunity to meet an incredible bunch of thinkers and makers in a gorgeous part of our little island.

As part of the Red Dog team I got to enjoy week one – ostensibly the research block where students begin to think about their response to set briefs, inspired (or not), by the particular beauty of the Connemara landscape. An engaging series of talks from the best International and Irish designers, a book binding workshop, a climb to the top of Diamond Hill and map making field trip to Inis Oirr were all designed to sow the seeds for the following ’making’ week.

DW images4 Creativity in the landscape with Peter Sheehan
DW images5 Diffractive Mapping Exercise Survey on Inis Oirr with Clyde Doyle, Co Programme Chair MA Design for Change

At first, surrounded by younger, and livelier graduates from all over the world, I felt out of place – although I’ve been working successfully in the industry for over 20 years (and winning the odd award along the way) I saw myself as an older, married mother of two gatecrashing the kids party (albeit warmly welcomed). Would it be possible to teach an old (red) dog new tricks? Turns out the answer is…always.

DW images3 ATU, Letterfrack, Connemara. Anni Seligmann, Studio Mut and Job Vogel, Buro.

Day-to-day, leading my team in the studio, my creative output is a well thought out idea, a crafted response to a specific brief with quantifiable results. It is transactional and bordered. I don’t often get to spend more than a couple of hours thinking/creating something ‘just for the sake’ of it and if I’m totally honest, personal work blurs the line uncomfortably for me between artist and designer.

The ‘thinking’ week in Design West made me reassess this reluctance to create something personal but, more importantly, reminded me that as creatives, our brain is our most valuable asset. It’s also something we can’t control. It gets tired and stuck and needs to be recharged. Essentially, we need to see opportunities to ‘rest/reset’ as necessary work – something invaluable to our future creativity and mental health.

Sitting quietly in a wood, I found my own way back to creating. I felt brave enough to work with new materials and record my emotions in a way I’ve never done before.

Whilst chatting to the locals about the idea of using colour and nature to record emotions (or as one local described it ‘a stick with some thread on it’) is not for the faint hearted (spoiler alert they did not think it was a good idea), it did remind me that design is fun, imperfect and not so serious after all.

The generosity of other fellow creatives on the course is also part of the magic of Design West. In the main my own creativity is so often funnelled into something transactional – at Letterfrack speakers, tutors and students were generous and giving of their time and thoughts. Impromptu design conversations and jumping off the pier were the order of the day.

While my early departure at the end of the first week, before Alessandra’s arrival for the second ‘making’ week, didn’t leave a lot of time to craft something, I did make a piece which was exhibited at the final pop up exhibition. I left Letterfrack secure in the knowledge that this reset brain can create something personal, fragile and beautiful. A change of scenery, new connections and conversations are all it needs.

DW images6 In response to the Creativity in the landscape brief I decided to create a series of ‘journey sticks’. I found a stick in each place I visited and recorded the emotions I felt there by wrapping thread around the lower half of the stick. The slow task of winding the thread made me focus on my surroundings and take note of how I was feeling. I assigned a different coloured thread to each emotion and the sticks became infographics of the interactions between where I went and how I felt.
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DW images12 I plan to continue collecting sticks and recording data so I made bookends and dividers to keep the cards together and ordered. I chose wood as the cover and contrasted this with man-made acrylic dividers to reflect the man-made and natural material of the sticks. The acrylic adds colours to the wood and images in the same way that I coloured each journey I took.

Susan Carberry

Design Director

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