Achieving relevance

My lecture to First Year students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD) on 8 October 2015 emphasised how the achievement of relevance is a fundamental aim to their four years of study. Find what is relevant to you and to the world around you; use this to guide your creative strategies and developing technical skills. The lecture wove together the themes of relevance, creativity and craft – and at the end of this post are resources to help you explore these themes in more detail.

But why listen to me about how you should be thinking about your next four years at Art School? I asked five remarkably talented individuals to give you their advice, all of whom studied at DJCAD. One graduated six years ago, while another graduated in 1993. Between them they embrace a range of creative disciplines. All of them are inspiring people, who needed no encouragement to share with you their advice on how to get the best from Art School.

James Donald is one of Scotland’s most successful weavers, selling his work all over the world – particularly in the United States. Based in Edinburgh he allies his creative practice to being joint-owner of the successful Concrete Wardrobe retail outlet. Here is a message from James to you:

Johanna Basford is a remarkably versatile illustrator who studied printed textiles at DJCAD. This year, as creator of the first colouring books for adults – she became one of the top selling authors on Amazon worldwide. Apart from designing the catalogue for the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, she has acquired an enviable client roster across many different industries from Channel 4 to Absolut Vodka. Her blog post 50 things I wish I’d known in art school is required reading. But below is her personal message to new DJCAD students:

Lauren Currie is co-founder of Snook – a social innovation and service design company based in Glasgow. Studying both Product Design and the Master of Design course at DJCAD, Lauren’s career has begun with a remarkable start, and she is now running a company that has the Chinese Government among their clients.

Joanna Montgomery graduated in 2010 in Interactive Media Design, is Director of Little Riot whose Pillow Talk product has proved a viral sensation on YouTube, as we saw in the lecture. In exchange for her valuable advice, Joanna asks that you vote for Little Riot in a national competition, to make Pillow Talk a reality. I am sure you will support Joanna in this competition. It will take you a minute!

Kate Pickering studied Jewellery & Metal Design and the Master of Design at DJCAD. Since graduating she has established Vanilla Ink, a highly acclaimed initiative to bridge the gap for jewellery students into industry. Kate won funding from the NESTA Starter For Six scheme to launch her initiative. An accomplished teacher in jewellery and design, this is her advice to you:

Why not follow these designers on Twitter? This will help you keep up-to-date with their activities and give you more insights into their professional practices. All of them use Twitter as a key part of their professional practice. Click on their names to access their twitter stream: James Donald, Johanna Basford, Lauren Currie, Joanna Montgomery, Kate Pickering. You’ll also find me on Twitter. Once you have set up a Twitter account, then you can follow them.

Achieving relevance referred to a number of artists, designers and events that you may wish to explore further.

Support Young Champions


I want your money. £5 will do.

This Saturday I am abseiling down the outside of a high building in Dundee. Holly Scanlan, Rod Mountain and I are among those doing this daring stunt to raise money for an amazing cause. Young Champions is a youth mentoring programme or young people in Dundee who have been failed by school and lack the skills and confidence find their way in life. They are mentored by some great students – design students from DJCAD.

Initiated by the remarkable Anthea Reid and supported by the equally great Kirsty Thomson, the project is making a real significant difference to the lives of those involved. But the point is, we need to involve more young people and make more – much more of a difference.

I saw the first cohort of Young Champions talk about their experience, and was so impressed by what they had achieved and how they now felt about their future. And I am lucky enough to know the mentors who had equally grown in confidence and ambition. Vitally, it showed them how they could apply their creativity in a sharing community-based context. This project can change lives.

You can help us to change more lives.

If we can raise £2,000 this Saturday then that will help us to gain additional grant funding, secure a few extra months for the project, and involve more of the city’s young people.
I would hugely value whatever support you can give to Young Champions. And if you fancy watching me hanging on a rope screaming silently to myself then pop along to the Tower Building this Saturday at 8.30am.

Visit our Just Giving page here and donate what you can. Thank you.

Discovery Walk


Kelly Marr and Suzanne Scott are the driving forces of a unique project launched in Dundee today. Discovery Walk is a series of bronzed plaques commemorating the innovators and social reformers of Dundee’s past, set into a paved area right in the heart of the city’s new waterfront development. Here is a video of the launch event.

A booklet detailing the project and including profiles of the ten prominent Dundonians featured accompanied the launch. I was honoured to be asked to write the Foreward. This is what I wrote:

It has been said that people make their own history – they explore and define alternative futures based on their hopes and aspirations. These are also given form by the ideas and inspiration transmitted to us from the past. We build on the history of others to create a new future for ourselves.

Right now in Dundee we have the opportunity of creating a bold, inclusive and ambitious future for our city, focused around the transformation of the waterfront with its world class design museum, new civic spaces and striking new architecture. We can be proud of the vision behind this and the impact it will have on Dundee’s future, but we also face some profound challenges of social deprivation and economic decline in too many of our communities.

The problems we face will not be solved by new museums, inward investors or urban planners (vital though all of these are). If history teaches us anything it is that cities are created, sustained and given new futures by the people who live in them – people who believe that things can be done better, people who focus their creative thinking on discovering new ways of doing things, people who come from all walks of life.

Discovery Walk connects us directly with some Dundonians from our past, all of whom had a significant impact on their own fields and especially on the city that they were a vital part of. Their work laid the foundations of those enterprises and activities that will take us into our future, such as the life sciences, medical research, education and the creative industries. The achievements of these ten remarkable individuals will be a source of inspiration for all of us.

We need to encourage and enable the city’s young people to be the scientists, social reformers, creative pioneers, technologists, educators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow, and the involvement of so many young people in the Discovery Walk project so far, is hugely propitious in terms of how this project can help to kindle future ambitions.

For Dundee and its people, this is no time to think small; no time for an austerity of aspiration. The people celebrated in this Walk took on big problems and big challenges, they took risks and embraced a sense of wonder. They dared to try something new.

Discovery Walk captures this spirit and embeds it permanently in the very fabric of Dundee.



Dundee Becomes European City with New Flight


Direct flights between Dundee and Amsterdam went on sale today from £25 each way. The taxpayers’ lobby may take issue with it, but this new flight could be a game changer for Dundee. While it brings some major opportunities, these do not come automatically – we need to work hard to ensure that the city (and the taxpayer) reaps the full benefit.

Connectivity is everything

So, why is this connection so vital for Dundee? In short, because it gives us a one hour connection to Europe, to the UK’s principal hub airport, and to the world. And in today’s global economy and culture, connectivity is everything.

Heathrow has long since relinquished its role as the UK’s main hub airport, as Tom Forth argued recently in City Metric. It connects to just 7 UK airports, while Manchester flies to 13 and Amsterdam’s Schiphol flies to 24. Any creditable UK hub airport should also offer good rail connections. Heathrow has one rail connection: to London. Manchester Airport, on the other hand, has rail links to just about every city in the north of England and Scotland. With a rail link to London, Schiphol draws equal with Heathrow in terms of UK rail connectivity, but provides direct rail connections throughout The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. Unlike Heathrow, it is a pleasure to use and easy to navigate.

There are three potential benefits for Dundee – an increase in tourism, more attractive for international students, and better international connectivity for businesses and the public sector.

Time to up our tourism game

When EasyJet launched its direct flight from Newcastle to Schipol in 2012, it was estimated that it would deliver 30,000 visitors to the city annually. For V&A Dundee to work and deliver fully to the city, and the taxpayer, it requires a significant hike in tourism. This flight gives us an opportunity to attract tourists from The Netherlands, Belgium and northern Germany. With this flight, Dusseldorf could be five and a half hours away door to door, which makes a weekend city break to Dundee realistic. You leave home at 3pm, and around 8.30pm you’re easing your knees under a table in the Malmaison to enjoy a brasserie that top critic Jay Raynor described as one of the finest he’d recently enjoyed.

In total, around 50 million people are easily within five hours’ door to door travel from Dundee with the new flight – indeed many of them are well within this time. That represents a lot of potential visitors, but we have to attract them with a totally unique offer. Our competition is Edinburgh, Newcastle, London, Paris and Berlin. With new opportunities come new challenges. Time to up our game.

Creating a unique offer requires a visionary, co-ordinated, targeted and enterprising approach. We also need to revitalise our street culture and service provision for tourists. Recent initiatives are a great start – but need to go much further. Imagine river taxis from the airport to Discovery Quay, welcoming visitors with one of the most spectacular entries that any city could offer. How about a cable car up to the Law? An iconic museum and a new flight is just the start. We must think very big if these are truly going to transform Dundee. The time for thinking small and modestly is over.

Benefits to our knowledge and creative economies

Both of the city’s Universities (and indeed the city itself) need a healthy stream of international students, but we fall short of fulfilling our potential. Think of it from the students’ perspective and you’ll see why. Those that come here love the experience of studying and living in ‘Britain’s coolest little city’ (GQ Magazine) – but they have a fair trek to enjoy it. Even if your port of entry is Edinburgh, there’s 30 minutes on the bus to Haymarket, and if you’ve just missed a train you may have at least another two hours until you reach Dundee. And that after a 12 hour flight from Shanghai and an hour (probably more) negotiating Border Control.

But assume that on arrival from Shanghai there’s a problem with your visa. If your port of entry is Heathrow or Edinburgh then it’s a safe bet that you’ll be on the next flight home, but if your port of entry is Dundee, then within five minutes a member of the University’s international team can be at the airport trying to sort things out. As well as being the UK’s coolest little city, we could be the most welcoming little city.

Dundee is big on knowledge and creative businesses – whether it’s our world class research in life sciences or our vibrant video games sector. These and other related industries in Dundee are all globally connected. The scientists, designers and technologists who work within them need to travel internationally to do their work on projects which often involve partners in different countries. Our connection with Schiphol makes this easier, quicker and quite a bit cheaper, enabling more of this type of work to take place (with savings for the taxpayer). Local designers like Hayley Scanlan have succeeded in developing world markets for their products – but opportunities increase considerably when the world starts paying you more regular visits. There is also Dundee’s aspiration to develop a film industry. International air links makes this a far more likely proposition.

But this is no silver bullet. One flight by itself will do little or anything for Dundee’s future. We need to be enterprising and flexible in bringing vitality to the streets of our city; we need a co-ordinated, visionary and ambitious programme to attract European tourists; the Universities should jointly develop and profile a ‘Dundee offer’ that fully exploits the benefits of the Schiphol connection; and the city should make the most of its link to Europe’s top airport hub when attracting inward investment.

We need to embrace service design as a means of ensuring that that the visitor journey to, through and back from Dundee is welcoming and pleasurable. Frankly, some of the city’s services – especially in food and leisure – need to take a long hard look at how they deliver to the customer. As the only UK UNESCO City of Design, then this is a great opportunity to really show how design can totally transform the experience of visiting Dundee.

All of us learning Dutch would help too. Tot ziens.

Dundee Global Service Jam


Next Friday – 26 February – at 5pm we begin the fourth Dundee Global Service Jam

This event is part of the Global Service Jam initiative, so the Dundee Service Jam will join people jamming in upwards of 100 cities, across countries worldwide.

The Global Service Jam movement began in 2011 and has grown ever since, with over 120 locations and nearly 3,000 people taking part around the world in 2014. Dundee participated for the first time in 2013 and hosted the 9th largest jam in the world, with more attendees than either Los Angeles or New York, and was the biggest jam in Scotland, second to London in the UK.

But while we were proud of the interest we attracted, we were clear that it’s not a world competition. The Global Service Jam is a unique way of bringing people together from across the global. Some of the best experiences of our jams have been live video link ups with others in Beirut, Mumbai, Helsinki and many other places. This is internationalism in spectacular creative action. Just look at this map of all the jam locations!

The main aim of the weekend is to have fun in a creative way!

Weekends often provide a much needed break from the working week, so don’t think of this as work. Instead envisage an action-packed design adventure. We will connect with a number of the global design jams during the weekend and by the end of the jam you will have the chance to present your design ideas to the world!

So what is the experience like? Well take a look at this one minute film by BAFTA award winning director Dylan Drummond who will also be our resident documentary film maker next weekend.

We also have a great line up of mentors – some are highly experienced designers, others well regarded design strategists and change makers. We also have some very successful local entrepreneurs who will encourage participants to make their ideas real through business or social enterprise start up!

To get your ticket (£10, £5 or free) go here. If you need any more persuasion, read on….

why jam

jam emp



It takes strength


Joanna Montgomery graduated from DJCAD in 2010 with a brilliant idea, an enterprising spirit and a huge sense of determination. The concept was a simple but powerful one that resonated with people worldwide. Indeed, while still a student she had thousands of likes on her Facebook page and a You Tube video that today has attracted 850,000 views.

She started out by entering pitching competitions to raise capital (which she won) and working the media to build interest including BBC, CNN, Huffington Post – of which she became one of their regular bloggers. And of course, most importantly, working out how to bring it to market – in design, technical and business terms. From the pitching competitions arose her reputation as an inspirational speaker, culminating in her TEDx talk earlier this year.

There were setbacks along the way, many of which would have caused others to have given up, but not her. Some of the challenges arose from her position as a young woman in a male-dominated tech culture. She not only took these on, but wrote powerfully about them, so that others could benefit from her journey.

Yesterday Joanna launched Pillow Talk on Kickstarter. I never doubted for one moment that Pillow Talk would launch. Joanna excelled in the three vital aspects of enterprise – creativity, communication and commitment. She had powerful, relevant and innovative ideas, she perfected the craft of how to inspire others in this vision and in her journey, and she was committed totally to that journey.

And just about every year throughout this difficult and demanding journey, she found the time to come back to Dundee and talk to my students for an hour (or put up with them visiting her), never failing to inspire and generate huge interest. And if that isn’t enough, this inspirational entrepreneur found the time to train and compete to become England’s strongest woman.

But watching her transformation from a person who lived in “a body that I didn’t like” to a confident woman who could pull large trucks up hills with her bare hands, demonstrated something else. Strength is a skill, and skills are learned. The reason my students (and of course many others) find her inspiring is because she shows that with determination and focus, then we can all achieve strength in our work and lives.

Alongside strength, Joanna has another quality which we rarely encourage in entrepreneurs, but which marks her out – honesty – which is often a quality many find difficult to deal with. Her best Huffington Post pieces exemplify this honesty: “I’m OK, You’re OK – But Are We Really?”, “How to Take Care of Yourself When No One Else Will”, “Pretty Face and Thick Skin: Flourishing in a Male World”. I’ve read a fair number of books by entrepreneurs, and very few (if any, frankly) display honesty, which is why I recommend these pieces by Joanna to my students.

Yes, it takes strength: the strength to get through failure and setbacks; the strength to be totally honest; the strength to stay the course.

And as a former tutor, I’m very proud of that achievement.


Design in Dundee – Autumn’s highlights


Dundee really is living up to its designation as the UK’s sole UNESCO City of Design. Even in just the next few weeks there’s is a whole host of events and activities that embrace design.

  • Friday 9th October 2015 – I am chairing ‘Design Experts in Discussion’ at the Vision Building, and we have some amazing design people taking part. It’s free but you need a ticket in advance.
  • Friday and Saturday – Scotland Re:designed, a new dedicated showcase of Scottish Interiors – within which the experts discussion is taking place – created for designers and makers to exhibit, gain mentoring, support and provide business opportunities, as well as an opportunity for design enthusiasts to immerse themselves in the best of Scottish design. There will be a unique pop-up shop to purchase beautiful design that may not be readily available on the high street. Again, free – but get a ticket. Details for both here:
  • For just this week (up to 10th October) Stagecoach is running an old Routemaster bus on the 73 route between Ninewells and Arbroath. This bus, that entered use in London during 1956, is a design classic. It was the first bus to use lightweight aluminium construction using methods developed from the aircraft industry.
  • The next Make/Share event takes place on Wed 14th October from 7-8.30pm at Dundee MakerSpace, also down at the Vision building. This time around, four speakers will give short informal talks about their experience, thoughts, inspirations around Collaborative Working. These include ex-DJCAD jewellery designer Scarlett Erskine, independent game designer Malath Abbas, and Becca Clark and Ruth Aitken who collaborate as a duo, Bhuntang Marmalade.
  • Make Works, a factory finding platform for artists, designers and makers and Creative Dundee are bringing Maker Speed Dater to Dundee on Thursday 22nd October. The event provides an opportunity for 20 designers and 20 manufacturers to have a conversation and learn about what can be made in Dundee. A bit like speed dating, but for finding new projects and contacts to work with locally. Tickets are £6, and worth every penny.
  • During Dundee Literary Festival I will be hosting one of the lunchbox talks session entitled Designing Stories and will be in conversation with Holly Scanlan, Dundee born hairstylist and author of popular blog GGBOBSHERHAIR. The focus is very much on blogging. Tickets are £5, but that includes lunch. Dinner and a show. What’s not to like? The whole Festival has some great stuff going on including Nick Frost and Jeanette Winterson. A preview of some of the best bits here.
  • Dundee’s Wasps Open Studios takes place at Meadow Mill on 24th & 25th October. In addition to going around and meeting the designers, makers and artists who work there, you can also attend workshops. These include: Design Demonstrations with Judith McDowall, Introduction to Sand Casting with Robin Bell, and a Drop in and Draw session. Details here.
  • The Pecha Kucha tickets for 10 November have gone on sale for £5 each – a great evening of talks! Details here.
  • Then of course there’s the Internet Yami-­ichi – a flea market where people gather and exchange “Internet­-ish” things in real life. Launched in Tokyo in 2012, since then it has travelled to Berlin, Sapporo, Brussels and Amsterdam. Now it will be in Dundee on 14 November. Book a stall and sell your internet-related things.
  • We are also just finalising plans for the next Dundee Touchpoint – an evening of creative service design open to anyone for free! Details will be posted on our Facebook page.