I joined V&A Dundee when the foundations of the building had just been laid and my job back then was to develop the next national outreach project. From the very beginning, I was motivated to develop a project which would engage young people with their design heritage in an active way, working with exciting contemporary designers from a variety of different disciplines.
A critical conversation one dreich afternoon in Glasgow with socially-engaged design practice Ice-Cream Architecture allowed my wee seedling of an idea to blossom into the Scottish Design Relay (SDR). That was almost three years ago and, with the exhibition about to come down in the Michelin Design Gallery, I wanted to reflect on this project, transformative not only for me, but for many of the participants who took part.
The SDR was developed in collaboration with cultural and industry partners all across Scotland, all of whom were integral to making this project such a success: Caithness Horizons; the GalGael Trust in Govan, Glasgow; Gray’s School of Art and North East Scotland College in Aberdeen; Michelin, with support from the Dundee Heritage Trust in Dundee; the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney; and Shetland Arts. Phew! My colleague (and Communities Producer) Peter and I got to travel to these amazing locations, meeting incredibly inspiring people in each one. I will never forget the November nights I spent in a böd in Shetland or the sociable home-made lunches in GalGael.
The six different locations formed each leg of the SDR. In addition to the partners mentioned above, we worked with a designer in each place too. They were the drivers behind each project and it was a privilege to gain insight to their unique approaches and design processes (find out more about them here). The SDR was a chance for the young people to work intensively with these designers one-on-one and to solve a problem or explore a theme that they defined together, inspired by their local design heritage. I must admit, I was a little jealous and would have loved this opportunity when I was starting out.
Participants’ confidence grew over the course of the SDR. Everyone had something to give and to gain. The inclusive power of co-design only works well if people are willing to bring their existing talents and also to be open enough to learn from others. The skill-exchange which took place between the textile students at North East Scotland College and the 3D design students from Gray’s is a nice example, epitomised in their paper tower sculptures which use both traditional needle and thread with CNC laser pattern-cutting techniques.
With all the hard work that the teams had put into their designs, by the time it came to pull together the exhibition I had hundreds of sketches, diagrams, doodles, post-it notes and prototypes to rifle through. From paper and plasticine to found materials like china cups and party-poppers, I had asked the teams to keep everything…and they really did! It was clear to me, as I looked at all the material spread out over the entire boardroom table, that the exhibition should give a glimpse into the distinctive creative processes that each team had taken on their journey.
The material naturally lent itself to be pulled into an exhibition in the form of an ‘exploded sketchbook’. When I go to museums, I love peeking into the minds behind an idea, understanding what inspired them, the research involved and how a concept evolves through failure and experimentation. And not forgetting those light-bulb moments when things fall into place.
One person alone could not make the final selection for the exhibition. Through workshops with the participants themselves and our very own Young Peoples’ Collective, the exhibition designers Design Kollektiv and I were able to identify what would be included. Then ensued many hours of agreeing the groupings and layouts, using pin-ups in the museum sometimes late into the evening.
I was excited that the SDR exhibition was in place as the museum opened to the public for the very first time. Fragments of the inspiration and creativity behind each team’s process were on the wall, centred around the respective design-heritage object; the starting point for each team. The teams’ developed ideas, well on their way to becoming a final product, artwork or solution, were displayed on tables or in cases.
A film was made during the fast-paced workshops as the project travelled from place to place over six months. Amusing and honest, the film captures the voices of the participants and their personal hurdles and achievements. Much of it was filmed by the participants themselves. You can watch it below.
The exhibition is only a snapshot of the SDR though. Not so much an endpoint of the project, it’s one stop on the journey for many involved and I’m excited to reflect on its legacy, some of which has come about because of the exhibition.
One of the prototypes developed by the apprentices from Michelin Dundee team (a polar bear alarm), has since gone to Greenland on an expedition with real-life adventurer and explorer Craig Mathieson. Don’t worry: we ensured Craig had a tried and tested alarm as back-up with him! Inspired the RRS discovery and working together with the travel-product designer Kevin Fox of LAT 56, Craig was the key end-user whom the group collaborated with from day one. At the time of writing, they are still in touch.
The large-scale paper towers from the Aberdeen leg are heading back up to Gray’s School of Art to be exhibited there, while many of the students are taking inspiration from the project into their third and fourth years.
The visitor assistants have lost count of the number of times they have been asked where they can buy a NOAK scarf (the result of Shetland’s leg of the SDR), and Shetland Arts and NOAK are planning an exhibition at Bonhoga, Shetland, to showcase new work.
One of the Orkney participants has now started as an apprentice with a local joinery specialist, and Kevin Gauld (The Orkney Furniture Maker) helps him out with his own creative projects in his Kirkwall studio.
Emails from visitors to the exhibition asking where they could buy the pencil grips produced as part of Govan’s SDR project has encouraged GalGael to develop their idea further. They are now meeting with 4C Design to explore the possibility of going into manufacture, profits from which could benefit their charitable work.
There have also been some touching moments, such as our first minister tweeting a picture of herself standing in front of the exhibition and one Orkney participant coming up to me at a skill-share event to tell me that he had just accepted a place at Gray’s School of Art, spurred on by his experience in taking part in the SDR.
But it is not all plain sailing. Since the exhibition opened, I am saddened to hear that two of the companies who were integral to the SDR are going through hard times, with workers facing uncertain futures (Michelin in Dundee and Stoneywood Paper Mill in Aberdeen). This is a reminder of the tough reality of manufacturing in the UK right now and why encouraging a young workforce to gain interchangeable creative skillsets to build their resilience is critical.
The SDR was an unforgettable, enjoyable and valuable experience. The energetic teamwork and true co-design ethos behind each project meant that teams took ownership of their work. This was always an intention behind the SDR but it only happened as a result of the dedication and enthusiasm of those involved. The intellectual property and copyright of the prototypes remains with the teams meaning they can take this forward and one day make their idea a reality. Thanks to all the participants and designers who took part: now the baton is handed over to you.
Mhairi Maxwell is an Assistant Curator at V&A Dundee.
The Scottish Design Relay was made possible by funding from the Mathew Trust and Peoples Postcode Lottery.