Is design having a second coming in Manchester? Lynda Relph-Knight reports from Design Manchester

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's consulting design editor and the former long-serving editor of Design Week. Follow Lynda on Twitter.

The Design Manchester 2014 conference. Pic: Sebastian Matthes

Is design having a second coming in Manchester? That is certainly the belief underpinning Design Manchester, the eclectic creative festival currently in its second incarnation. And the city’s leaders are citing the upsurge of the creative industries in the former industrial northern city as key to its possible devolution from Westminster control.

Controversy rages over the ongoing cost of the BBC’s move to Salford Quays’ Media City in May 2011, but the move has undoubtedly enhanced Manchester’s reputation as a creative hub and bolstered the city council’s support for the creative industries. Couple this with the renaissance of Manchester School of Art within Manchester Metropolitan University led by pro-vice-chancellor professor David Crow, also dean of the Faculty of Art and Design, and you see a new energy for design across generations.

In part, Manchester is looking to its past to fuel its creative future. The powerhouse that was Factory Records ensured the city’s dominance on the music scene in the 1970s. This was not just through bands like Buzzcocks and Joy Division, but through seminal album sleeves by the likes of Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett. The Hacienda club with interiors by Ben Kelly brought all elements together with its massive fanbase. Indeed, Manchester School of Art’s 175th birthday celebrations in 2013 honoured seminal alumni including Thomas Heatherwick and Martin Parr, as well as Saville and Garrett – now London based, but a driving force behind Design Manchester (DM).

The city’s creativity is once more cited as a core strength by local design activists and politicians, not least in the devolution argument. The topic was addressed by Manchester City Council deputy leader Sue Murphy last Friday at the opening of DM 14’s conference, The Science of Imagination. Describing the conference as ‘a forum for Manchester and the north west’, Murphy proclaimed that ‘devolution is coming’. Her job involves fostering international links and employment within the city, she said, and Manchester’s pioneering activities in technology and as a centre for creative industries is attracting overseas links with emerging nations such as Brazil.

The theme will recur on Wednesday evening when an impressive array of influencers convene for DM 14’s 'North: The Great Debate', to consider how the creative industries can stimulate and create a prosperous and successful northern economy in the wake of the One North plan by five northern cities.

Crow explained why Manchester is a hub for the creative industries at last week's conference. "Things are interconnected up here and design is high on the agenda. Design and education are important here."

He, Garrett and other DM 14 organisers have built in the notion of interconnectivity. They cleverly aligned the 10-day event with the Manchester Science Festival and peppered DM events with technology as well as artistry – not only politically expedient, but totally relevant for contemporary design.

Thus technology innovator Daniel Hirshmann of Technology Will Save Us appeared alongside graphic designers Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook and artist Rob Lowe at the conference; fashion designer Helen Storey displayed the Dress of Glass and Flame at Manchester Art Gallery; and Adidas blended design, technology and cult status with its Adidas Spezial show for collectors to drool over. A more tangible link with the science festival is the 3D printing exhibition at Manchester Metropolitan University on which the DM crew collaborated.

As ever, it takes a visionary or a clutch of like-minded folk to effect change, as happened in Manchester in the 1970s through Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. That determination remains. "If we didn’t have something here, some brave soul would step in and make it happen," Crow said, coyly side-stepping his own significance in getting DM off the ground.

But while the music industry ploughed its own deep furrow back then, design has enlisted the support of the establishment now. The city council’s part in the bid is palpable, but DM activists have also drawn national bodies like the Design Council and the all-party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group into the DM festival. The Design Council is hosting a talk on Thursday by The Chase founder Ben Casey, while APDIG is backing the north debate.

And they are shaping a future for creativity in the city. Apart from the art school’s involvement in DM, the Sorrell Foundation introduced local schoolkids to its National Art and Design Saturday Club and DesignDojo offered a creative workshop to young people at the Sharp Project digital hub.

In its second year the one-day DM conference still relied heavily on London practitioners in its ‘international’ line up, but that does not undermine the local commitment to bringing world-class creative acts into the city. Links with Brazil and California are in the offing for the art school and these could have spin-offs for the city. Manchester is very much open for business in design.

Lynda Relph-Knight is The Drum's newly appointed consulting design editor. You can follow her on Twitter @RelphKnight

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