In this edition, we have some ideas on place, space and community from Agency of None, a local design agency formed by Lyall Bruce and Ryan McLeod. Informed by the experience of producing Dundee Design Festival; this blog highlights a problematic lack of grassroots creative spaces and reflects on how collaborative environments may lead us into new, exciting and unknown creative futures!
Design is mostly about solving problems, it’s a great skill to have, and an even greater asset for cities and communities when developing ideas for the future. Any city that has creative ambition should value, champion and aid the development of its designers, particularly if said city is the UK’s first and only UNESCO City of Design, Dundee.
From our perspective as designers within a small design studio in Dundee, we want to see more freelancers and small scale studios emerge and progress in the city. By growing the community living and working here, we can learn from each other, demand higher standards and develop new activities which can have a positive impact on the city.
Local designers often contact us in the hope of gaining some insight, help and advice and undoubtedly the most frequent question we get asked is about studio space in the city. At this moment it is not an easy question to answer. In the not so distant past there were several grassroots enabling spaces like Tin Roof, Fleet Collective and Unit 5 at Vision.
These spaces acted as an important catalyst for many successful creative and cultural activities, realtionships and projects; like the UK City of Culture 2013 engagement, creating and launching Creative Dundee, bringing PechaKucha Nights to the city, developing Open/Close, running the Creative Chit Chat podcast and many, many more.
These spaces were meanwhile spaces; temporary and precarious, with investors subsequently taking notice after seeing the creative potential, thanking us for our hard work, then turning each into profit-making spaces – the familiar, age-old model of economic growth. Without these vital spaces in Dundee, we are rapidly losing support networks, opportunities for collaboration, new ideas and in some cases new businesses.
Our own studio, Agency of None, came directly out of working together as freelancers at Fleet Collective. Working in a shared creative space allowed us to see the potential of creating a design studio with a model that supports a larger network of designers and creatives.
Agency of None assembles teams around specific projects and briefs meaning we can be much more flexible and scalable to client needs. It also gives us opportunities to work across a multitude of areas of design, room to collaborate with an array of designers and the capacity to support more people with creative practices.
As we slowly move into a time where we can enjoy each other’s company in person, we need to consider the importance and benefits of collectively creative space for individuals. but also observe the ripples of positive impact on the community and broader city as a whole. So where do we look to find these spaces?
Through our role as producers of Dundee Design Festival in 2019 and again in 2021, we have explored the potential of empty and underused spaces. Due to the decline of industry; high street retail and large scale offices are in abundance. In 2019 we explored the reuse of the long sidelined and iconic Keiller Centre, imagining how Design might fit inside this space, coexisting and working alongside local businesses.
In 2021 we spread the festival across four vastly different community-based spaces; from temporary spaces in parks to unused retail units, and old industrial buildings. We did this to explore how we could engage the wider population of Dundee with design, broadening our reach beyond the usual demographic of typical Design Festival audiences.
The two festivals we produced were very different in approach but both were about community and expanding the knowledge of design. Which they succeeded at in the short term, the festival frameworks were designed as prototypes of a vision for a city that thought about space differently and the benefits that it could bring long term. This was not a simple achievement, for example, the 2019 festival taught us that no matter how much effort you devote to showing different possibilities, the safety net of tradition cannot be easily untangled.
In completing these projects it has become clear that you need to work with a landlord who has an understanding of the creative sector and one that is open to alternative business models or open to the option of property stewardship. Either way, it has to be a whole system approach by all involved in the issue, so that vacant spaces can have a life and value far beyond.
We need to consider how to rezone existing retail space, making it useable for creative businesses and reduce the timeframes for doing so. Spaces can be reimagined and transformed relatively quickly, navigating the regulations and red tape is one thing, but we also need to look at solutions that have long term sustainability for all, at their core.
There is a huge opportunity for Dundee to be known as a place where small and ambitious creative businesses and freelancers can thrive and grow, however, we need to cultivate better physical spaces and conditions for this to happen. Not just three-month temporary spaces, and vacant shopping units which close at 5.30 pm, but dedicated spaces that enable our creative communities to thrive.
By building on all we have and from the ground up, we should be a city that is not afraid to take risks to make it happen. By listening to what the community needs and finding opportunities to say ‘yes’ more, we will influence an unimaginable positive impact on our city’s future and creative communities.
Design is about solving problems but it’s also about working with, creating and adapting existing rules, systems and structures. If Dundee is to move forward and forge its own design path we must be careful not to mimic other cities but be bold and take charge of its identity as a city of design. Not only creating physical spaces for these ideas to flourish but also making space for design at the centre of its actions, thinking less about public relations and more about public collaboration.
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