Design studio Agency of None has recently completed its first phase of D is For Design, an event and exhibition which celebrates the invaluable creative contributions made in Dundee. We caught up with its organisers to learn more about what the city has done for the arts and what people can expect in future.
Dundee-based design studio Agency of None has been working with brands for the past five years to create visual systems bursting with personality. But as its fifth birthday rolled around, the team decided to mark the occasion by doing something different in the shape of D is For Design.
Described as "an exploration of city identity through design", D is For Design takes a fresh look at the people, language, wildlife, weather and systems of Dundee. Prompted by the pandemic and how it led to questions about how people perceive design, Agency of None felt the time was right to explore how design creates a sense of identity, ownership and community.
"It was more than just a marketing tool or a post-it note exercise," Agency of None director Lyall Bruce tells Creative Boom. "This was something we began exploring as producers of Dundee Design Festival in 2019 and 2021, and it's something that still interests us greatly and the one thing we want to carry on from our tenure there."
The first phase of D is For Design saw the opening of a physical exhibition at Dundee's Gallery 48, where visitors could purchase specially-designed prints and merchandise. Alongside this, the D is For Design website launched, enabling people to immerse themselves in the project and buy pieces directly from the studio.
It's a suitable reflection of Dundee's distinct character, which Lyall describes as "feisty and spirited." He adds: "It's a small city, and it's easy to connect and know what others bring. The community in the city are supportive and collaborative, so you can make progress fast."
And it sounds like the people of Dundee appreciated the recognition, as the first phase of D is For Design was received very positively. "We had the exhibition of the initial design work in a restaurant, which was a little different, but it meant people who would otherwise not access our work saw it and became familiar with it.
"We saw this stage as a starting point where we could begin exploring some of the well-used tropes of the city through graphic design and present them traditionally as posters and prints. Most of the designs were conceived as a system that can expand and develop. The thinking behind this was that we wanted to grow the project beyond the studio and invite other designers to get involved. In time, we want other people in the city to use and take ownership of it."
Speaking of the next steps, Lyall is excited to host Open House events. "We are going to throw open the doors of our (very small) studio and invite other designers in for breakfast," he reveals. "This is partly to explore the challenges other creatives have in tricky times and how we can unite to be a stronger community. It will hopefully also bring them into the next stage of this project."
This allusion to tricky times speaks to a broader impression surrounding Dundee and its position in the design world. Lyall points out that while Dundee contains a large design museum and art school, as well as boasting the title City of Design, this does not paint an entirely accurate picture of its design understanding.
"It still has a very surface-level approach, in a lot of ways, and one of the things we are doing as a studio is to try and promote a different approach, one that runs deeper and is more strategic," he explains. "Our ultimate goal is for design, and its value, to be much more widely understood. To break it away from the associations with marketing and glamour and make it more about people, identity and being able to use design to affect the changes you want to see."
To achieve this goal, Agency of None developed a visual approach for D is For Design which is designed to make an impact, create a sense of vibrancy, and work with the space it was in. "We very much considered a wider system across all the designs by restricting the colour palette used and matching colours across digital print, screen print, offset litho and riso print," Lyall explains.
"Colours were also matched for paint, and we created some unique areas for the work to be exhibited. We had initially wanted to do more on the walls, but the reality of having it in a functioning restaurant meant we were restricted in terms of time to be able to install and paint. This all worked really well, and people felt comfortable in the space, and we had lots of feedback from staff and visitors about that."
He concludes: "It was less about the rediscovery of the city's cultural identity, this is very strong, and people are very familiar with it. We wanted to use Dundee's identity as a starting point and have fun with it, taking it in directions people might not have considered before. But ultimately, we see it as a stepping stone to a bigger, wider, and more focused system in the future."