Embracing Inclusivity at the London Design Festival
Discover initiatives and exhibitions at this year’s festival aimed at boosting diversity and inclusion
Read how the talk – and action – around inclusion in the world of design and architecture is playing out across the London Design Festival (LDF), which runs 16-24 September. Dive in to discover the details and meet some of the participants.
Why is inclusivity important at design festivals?
Design festivals have a large and global reach, not just in terms of physical visits (in 2019, there were 1.1 million attending LDF), but also via social media and other publicity, and word-of-mouth at a hyper-local level. LDF, which has expanded this year, now hosts a geographically inclusive range of events, exhibits and installations across 13 demographically diverse design districts in the capital, from Park Royal to King’s Cross, Dalston and Southwark.
As such, the power that major design events like this wield in terms of changing outdated narratives and raising aspiration is considerable. Put simply, the more inclusive they feel to emerging talent, the more talent they will attract – and, further down the ladder, the more the next generation may be inspired to pursue a career in design because it feels accessible to them.
And, of course, the more inclusive an event feels, the more people will also want to visit it.
According to LDF’s organisers, the design industry is “a powerhouse of the UK economy”, having grown 1.5 times faster than the wider economy over the past decade, contributing £108 billion in GVA (gross value added) annually.
Despite this, there are long-term sector challenges, including the number of students opting to take design subjects at GCSE and A level, which continues to decline. Not only are fewer students getting involved in design, those who have pursued design as a career may not be in a financial position to be able to take part in events such as LDF; participation can be an expensive prospect, usually with marketing and display materials to pay for as a bare minimum.
As such, the event’s director, Ben Evans, stresses how this year’s programme “provides opportunities for emerging talent and promotes inclusivity in the sector”. To this end, the festival is introducing a new initiative called Launch Pad, which aims to elevate designers who typically face barriers to being part of the event and its partnership scheme. Launch Pad invited designers, recent graduates, charities, not-for-profit organisations and small businesses to apply, giving them an opportunity to share their work with new audiences.
Almost 70 successful Launch Pad applicants are appearing at LDF 2023 and receive reduced rates as well as partner benefits, such as promotion on all the LDF channels and publicity via the PR team. They range from Opificium, a small interior and garden design studio and boutique, to Osmose Studio, which is showing its inaugural range of mycelium furniture made from 100% organic agricultural waste and hosting talks and sustainable design workshops.
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Ceramicist Ruth María Robledo of Entes Mapal Design Studio (pictured) is also a Launch Pad participant. Ruth is hosting clay coiling workshops at her east London studio for LDF. Why is Launch Pad important to her?
“I’m at the start of my career,” she says. “I come from Mexico and recently graduated from Central Saint Martins. Having to create a network of creatives has been my priority and it’s been a challenge to connect. Being part of Launch Pad has opened multiple doors for me, connecting me with people in my local vicinity and people who are able to sponsor spaces where I can display my work.”
She says she’s been surprised at quite how effective and enriching the partnership has been so far and that the link with the festival has reduced the feeling of emailing out introductions and information “into the void” and given her legitimacy in the eyes of others, making connections easier to build.
For Tihara Smith, who runs a lifestyle and fashion brand inspired by the Caribbean and the Windrush generation, Launch Pad has enabled her to gain support from the British Institute of Interior Design and Better Bankside, and to work with an official LDF Design District (Bankside).
“The biggest barrier [to getting into design] is financial,” Tihara says. “If you’re not from a background where you’re financially well-off, it’s really difficult to get started, as you usually have to make a big financial investment for materials, equipment, sampling, photography and so on.”
She’s pleased the event is supporting and including smaller brands and designers and says she’d like to see more initiatives along the same lines offering mentoring and advice.
As well as Launch Pad, there are other events under the LDF umbrella that help to build a sense of inclusivity.
The design duo 2LG, aka Jordan Cluroe and Russell Whitehead (pictured), are hosting the inclusivity-driven You Can Sit With Us (YCSWU). The installation is at one of LDF’s group exhibitions, London Design Fair (formerly Tent London) in east London, which runs until 24 September.
YCSWU is a two-part installation that celebrates the idea of collaboration and inclusivity. There are new designs made in partnership with old friends, as well as a (real) table to which the duo have invited new friends from various design and creative disciplines with a variety of diverse backgrounds and experiences.
How did the idea for YCSWU come about? “It was born out of our experiences many years ago when we began our careers in the design industry and how welcoming – or, sadly, in some cases unwelcoming – certain places and people could be,” Russell says.
“It’s hard to find a way in and this space serves many purposes. It’s a platform for emerging designers we’ve invited, but also a safe space in which we can build on our existing creative relationships and celebrate those who have been part of our journey so far,” he says.
“It’s easy to feel left out, ignored or invisible if you don’t see yourself represented or if you’re not allowed to sit at the table with certain groups. We wanted our space to show a broad range of identities and materiality from various perspectives, so that each visitor hopefully has the opportunity to see something of themselves in one of the pieces,” he says.
“I hope it leaves visitors feeling hopeful, feeling seen and feeling a little bit of joy,” he adds.
“Being inclusive to us means we try to be open to new ideas and identities,” he says. “We actively seek out understanding and embrace identities beyond our own experience. So we try to actively listen and learn from each creative voice we meet.”
What about awards at LDF 2023?
Each year, the Festival recognises the contribution made by leading design figures and emerging talents to London and the industry with four London Design Medals. It’s great to see four stereotype-smashing winners this year.
Among them are the social enterprise/design practice, POoR (Power Out of Restriction) Collective, who have won the Emerging Design Medal. The social enterprise engages young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, with design and architecture projects. It’s dedicated to driving positive social change through the development of communities within the built environment.
POoR was founded by architectural designers Shawn Adams, Larry Botchway and Ben Spry, and accountant Matt Harvey-Agyemang. After winning the award, Larry told the Evening Standard newspaper, “None of us knew architects growing up.” He recalls a university module during which students were required to design social housing and he realised he was the only one to have lived in a council home.
On winning, he says, “Our design approach allows us to act as a conduit for young people. This award reinforces that there is value in championing young voices and providing opportunities for others.”
How can the industry capitalise on this progress?
“I think the design industries are doing wonderful work on [inclusivity], but there’s still much more to be done,” Russell says. “However, we should perhaps talk less about the shortage of inclusivity and more about how we fundamentally believe it’s the role of the arts and creative industries to celebrate diversity and representation and to be a shining light of inclusivity.”
What’s your experience of inclusivity at design events? Let us know in the Comments.