Design Initiative Revisited
“Do you want to talk to your old boyfriend?” says Eric Gristwood, before passing his mobile to a tight-lipped Trevor Hatchett. Hatchett holds the phone silently for a couple of seconds before Gristwood wrestles it back.
“That was Trevor,” he explains. “He wouldn’t talk to you.”
“She was talking,” smiles Hatchett, after a brief pause. “She was asking when I was coming back.”
Laughter reverberates around the room. The smoke clouds quiver, the glasses (definitely half full rather than half empty) shake, and I look forlornly at my Dictaphone, well aware of the transcripting nightmare that lies ahead.
It was 19 September and The Marketeer was an interloper, sat amongst eight old friends. Over a decade ago the same group sat together to discuss the same sort of topics. As the wine and laughter flowed it was easy to think that, for them, nothing much has changed. Over the course of the night it became obvious that almost everything had. What’s more, they were the ones who had changed it.
The group were just some of the founding fathers of the Manchester Design Community (MDC). Those contributing to the smoky bonhomie were: Stuart Wilson of Creative Lynx, Richard Morris of Race, Barron Hatchett’s Trevor Hatchett and Geoff Royle, Eric Gristwood, formerly of Spoken Image, now course leader in Graphic Design at MMU, and Geoff Gradwell, once of BDP and now Gradwell Corporate Design. Lynne McPeake and Ernest Connell, previously of Buxton Wall McPeake and now resident at Axon Garside, were better late than never after an impromptu bout of evening shopping.
Each of these individuals believes that together they’ve played a bit part in the compulsive drama that’s been the rejuvenation of Manchester.
Since banding together in 1989 with the rough objective of publicising the standard of design available in the North, the group has been involved in Olympic bids, the Commonwealth Games, the education of countless students and the alleged burning down of one (unnamed for legal reasons) tennis and country club.
Richard Morris explained how it all started (the MDC, that is, not the famed post-party conflagration).
“If I had to pinpoint one moment, it would be the first Olympic bid in 1989. I remember being so pissed off that the work went straight down to London without anyone here knowing about it. But, to be honest, it was our own fault.”
Reaching for one of Stuart Wilson’s cigarettes (he very considerately didn’t want to smoke his own cigars – something to do with the ventilation apparently), he elucidated: “I got in touch with Bob Scott and Rick Parry, who was chief executive of the bid at the time. I asked if he (Bob) would come round to explain to a group of us why he hadn’t been in contact. He did this and he said, ‘Well, to be honest, I had no idea you even existed.’ It was at that point we thought, ‘He’s right, we’ve never shouted about ourselves or what we’re capable of doing.’”
Their collective invisibility when the bid officials were identifying design talent was a sufficient enough slap in the face to provoke a reaction. At the time, they stress, there was no semblance of a design community within the city, leading to hundreds of separate voices that forever struggled to be heard. If they were ever going to succeed in shouting, they needed to join forces first.
What followed was an “amorphous blob” in Hatchett’s words, or, as he added later, “an amoeba – because we had no brains.” This rather harsh bit of self-deprecation hides the start of a movement that would “aim to make people look to the North West first when design of whatever nature is required.”
“Initially, it was just really good to talk to designers about the sort of problems designers had,” said Hatchett, reminiscing about the early days. “At first we didn’t want to tread on each other's toes, as far as clients were concerned, but once we danced around that we found we were all in the same boat.”
“There was a real need for it at the time,” added Stuart Wilson. “Not just so we could talk to each other, but also so we could get other people talking about Northern design. At the time the city was really vibrant, with the strong ‘Madchester’ music scene, and I think that what we wanted to do was to say that there were other tiers to that – that there was a strong creative scene too.”
From the anecdotes and smiles that ricocheted round the room it was easy to tell that the formative days of the MDC were as much about fun as changing the world’s perception of Mancunian design.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the buzz that was invigorating the designers to filter through the business bedrock and touch the clients. Hatchett was first to acknowledge this: “We spoke to our clients and over time they began to come to terms with the fact that the city had a lively scene. They spoke to each other, moved around, and a grapevine was established that started to give the community a profile.”
The new profile brought with it new projects. “Barron Hatchett certainly got a new kind of work through its association with the MDC,” admitted the quietly focused Geoff Royle. “I remember we ended up working with Manchester Visitor and Convention Bureau. Now, that work may not have gone straight to London, but it could have easily been given to some hack designer. We were able to turn it into a good job and produce some good work – I don’t think that would have happened without the MDC.”
The crumbs that were starting to fall from the client table were soon supplemented by a tasty job that all the MDC were eager to get their teeth into. As Royle explained, “It was when we were asked to help on the second Olympic bid that we knew we were getting somewhere.” Richard Morris then took the story-telling baton and ran with it:
“Bob Scott came back to us and said ‘Right, now’s your chance. You’ve rattled the cage so let’s see how good you are.’ So, we all got together, sat down to do a round of scribbles, and then we went away and worked on them. Then Trevor and I presented all the ideas, with him (pointing at a smirking Hatchett) presenting ours.”
“How many times have you heard of something like that happening?” interjected Geoff Gradwell. “About eight or ten design groups getting together to brainstorm an idea, then working the best ones up?”
“I remember everyone saying it would never happen in London,” observed Hatchett.
The result of this communal approach to the brief was that Race’s idea was chosen, effectively after a Barron Hatchett presentation. A realisation that elicits an “Oh God, I’m going to get a bill for this now” from Morris and a cheekily provocative “So, was it a good design or a good presentation then?” from Wilson. The strand of conversation becomes frayed by uproar.
Regardless of which design triumphed and whether the presenting skills helped win the day or not, the key observation must be that the community opted to work together, irrespective of individual commercial interests, to produce the best work to promote the city they loved. It was a utopian concept that unfortunately failed to help win the city the games, but ultimately won the MDC a great deal of respect.
Over the next few years (the bid was officially made on 23 September 1993) the MDC continued to strive for “a good design environment where good design could be created” (Hatchett) whilst nurturing nascent talent with “portfolio clinics, lectures and work experience for students” (Wilson). The body also worked tirelessly to promote initiatives such as the national NVQ in design, particularly through the endeavours of Geoff Allman. However, as with so many other trail-blazing groups from Manchester, the MDC eventually appeared to fall victim to its own success. Its numbers swelled, it became a formal business operation rather than a well-meaning social club, and many new designers applied to join with seemingly disingenuous motives. As Wilson ruefully observed, “Effectively, it got too big for itself. People only started joining it at that stage because they wanted to get something out of it.”
“It was never meant to be like that,” stated Morris solemnly. “I remember using the word ‘altruistic’ – that’s what it was originally about.”
Reeling from the final disruptive blow of “all fancying the same secretary”, the MDC was quietly subsumed into the Liverpool Design Initiative, leaving the founders to concentrate on their own businesses. The date of the demise is hotly debated, but believed to be around 1997 - leading to Hatchett’s “so where have I been for the last five years”. A suggestion he’d been cryogenically frozen then thawed for the occasion was denied.
Something that isn’t a contested bone between these design "top dogs", is the high point of the whole MDC experience. Stuart Wilson started a Mexican wave of head nodding when he said, “For me, it has to be what’s happened in Manchester. I’d like to think we’ve played a part in its transformation. We tried to change the image of the city and attitudes towards the creativity on offer. I think we must have contributed to what’s happened since.”
Confucius’s sage teaching "it may only be a drop in the ocean" springs to mind, but in terms of actually shaping the city’s design scene the MDC’s impact was more akin to a munificent tidal wave than an imperceptible droplet.
Without its commitment to giving the local industry a voice and a profile, both within and beyond the city, the design scene might still be stumbling along with an insular mindset, rather than sprinting forward with national and global gongs in its grasp.
If those present round the table hadn’t challenged a client that saw London as the only option in 1989, who can tell how many would still be blinkered by the bright lights of that big city today?
With that in mind, folks, I think the old friends deserved a drink or two on the night. Don’t you?