Thursday, 10:00am
30 May 2019

Three design days in June

The second Birmingham Design Festival is packed with workshops, speakers, and most events are free. Luke Tonge explains who, what and why

Dan Alcorn and I initiated Birmingham Design Festival out of both frustration and amazement, writes Luke Tonge.

Frustration that Birmingham, with all its talent and ambition, didn’t have a city-spanning design event in its bursting festival calendar, and amazement that nobody had beaten us to it. As it turns out, the festival is a huge undertaking, which is probably why there was a gap we could fill, but it’s also a total joy, a lot of hard work, and well worth it.

Florence Okoye, UX Designer at the Natural History Museum, in the Birmingham Design Festival’s ‘Digital Hub’, 2018.

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After approaching friends and peers that had been involved in similar endeavours in their cities, and gleaning what we could, we set about building a team to help us deliver the vision of an accessible and exciting design festival that wasn’t an overpriced, exclusive industry love-in.

Tina Francis of Quartermasters leading a tapestry workshop in the festival’s ‘Product district’, 2018.

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In our first year (2018) we were blown away by the response, having no clue whether it would just be our trusty local audience who would turn up, or if we could attract an audience much wider. Fortunately the word got out and we filled most of our 30 venues across four days with more than 7000 tickets ‘sold’. While that figure may have something to do with BDF being largely free to attend – thanks to the generosity of our sponsors and partners – it seems that people had a really great few days hearing from around 100 of the best designers in the world, all here in Birmingham.

A lettering workshop with Jim Kerr (aka Seven9Signs) in his Birmingham studio, 2018.


Last year’s programme included a mix of talks (staged in three ‘design districts’: Graphic, Digital, and Product), exhibitions, screenings, and workshops. This meant that attendees could either fill their days with engaging activities or just sit back and listen to the wise words of speakers such as Anthony Burrill, Astrid Stavro, Jim Sutherland, Aaron Draplin, Marina Willer and Trevor Beattie.

Astrid Stavro. Detail of photo by Philip Sayer.

Astrid Stavro crop. Feature_Atlas_Portrait

This year we initially planned to scale things back a little, but we already have more than 70 talks lined up. We have, however, slightly edited what we’re doing, both geographically (to make moving between district hubs easier) and chronologically (trimming down to three days and slightly later starts).

Devita Davison of Foodlab Detroit in the festival’s ‘Impact Hub’, 2018.

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The big evening celebrations are the only talks that attendees will have to pay to attend, and this is just to help cover the travels costs of our speakers, who this year are a much more international bunch. Rather than having one or two ‘big name’ celebrities, we have a spread of designers speaking on our theme, ‘Truth’. Our opening event is all about ‘community’, featuring Chris Do, Blacks Who Design, SuperHi and AIGA; the second is about ‘storytelling’ in film and television, featuring some of Hollywood’s finest; while the final evening takes a look into some of the design talent in the studios of Adobe, Sony, Google, and Apple.

Dan Rhatigan, who is speaking at this year’s Birmingham Design Festival. See ‘All about workflow’, an interview with Rhatigan in Eye 84. Portrait by Phil Sayer.

Dan Rhatigan

In addition to these, there will also be a series of free talks from the designers such as Verònica Fuerte, Liam Wong, Michael Johnson, Dan Rhatigan and Alice Tonge, plus presentations from Extinction Rebellion and Commercial Type.

A (heaving) Aaron Draplin merch table at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 2018.

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BDF2019 kicks off on Wed 5 June 2019 with the Black&White exhibition
curated by PHORM at the Custard Factory, Digbeth.

Talks run from 6 to 8 pm at venues across Birmingham and information about them all can be found here.

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