How a state-funded Design Workshop in Ireland inspired a generation…

FullSizeRenderI recently spent a week in Kilkenny, Ireland, working on a project with John Cleere, owner of Red Lemonade Creative (pictured, left). He was building an app all about the Kilkenny Design Workshops – a highly talented collection of designers from all backgrounds and trades. They were based in the iconic Castle Yard buildings opposite Kilkenny Castle, from 1965 up to 1988, exactly where John’s studio now sits. The KDW led the way in Irish design at the time, and I would say also inspired a whole generation of designers across the world, from the ‘Habitat’ generation in the UK, to American and Scandinavian designers. The KDW story is a great example of how good design can create jobs, influence and inspire. I caught up with John this week, to discover how he got involved in the project, and to tell us more about the story – and legacy – of the remarkable Kilkenny Design Workshops…

We love the KDW story, John… how did you come to be involved in this project?

The Design & Crafts Council of Ireland were putting together a Kilkenny Design Workshops Legacy Committee in 2014 and I was delighted to come on board. We are working to develop a permanent physical and digital record of the KDW’s history and legacy through the collection of objects, prototypes and designs. The KDW greatly influenced design practice and introduced modernist design thinking in Ireland and beyond. The app is a perfect platform and the iPad is the perfect format to express this story. Plus – 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the KDW…

You must be so proud that you work in the same town and actual working environment as all those Irish design legends back in the 60s, 70s and 80s?

Absolutely, it’s no accident that I’m here. I’m from Kilkenny and my love for the KDW goes back to being a child when I used to wander around the KDW studios. It’s a funny thing, as a child I was a chronic asthmatic and my GP was next to the Castle Yard where KDW was situated. So after every visit we would pop in for a look around. It was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stuff to me. In my teens I got a part-time job working in a ceramics shop there (KDW was gone by then). Every day I look out onto the yard where the studios once were, the epicentre of design in Ireland. Kilkenny owes a lot to the KDW and the town is known as the ‘Creative Heart of Ireland’.

You got to talk to some of the people who worked at KDW, and often see some of them around the studios – were any of them influential in your design career decisions and aspirations?

kilkennyslides7Yes, I always wanted to study graphic design, while in school – I was probably about 13 years old – I entered a design competition run by Telecom Éireann (Irish national phone company) and before submitting, I decided to get some feedback from Peter Dabinett (one of the graphic designers at the KDW) – so I called up to his office and there I had my first design critique. What made it even more special was that he had designed the logo for Telecom Éireann. Peter is still working in the yard and we often go for the odd sneaky pint of Guinness!
In the app there’s a video from 1969 of Damien Harrington (another KDW graphic designer), he designed such logos as P+T (National Postal Service). Damien is showing some of his packaging design work – and get this – the KDW app was built in the exact spot where he was sitting! The graphic design that was produced at KDW was groundbreaking and the technology was also very new. I like to think the app is an extension of this development and I feel part of the living legacy.

What do you think happened to KDW? Did the operation simply run its course – or were there other factors in its demise?

Where to begin, first of all from what I gather it ended quite abruptly and this I think is probably why we now have the need for a legacy committee. When building the app it was very difficult to get information, images, video and so on. Probably at the time the KDW was disbanded it required a body to collate all the work, a silo of all the intellectual property created.

But back to the question – some say the KDW had successfully done the job of bringing design into industry in Ireland. Others say the opening of the KDW shops in London was the cause. I honestly have not worked that out yet, but one thing I do know is that the KDW should have been kept going in some capacity. Design in industry is paramount for success, technology changes and so does the design and creativity that facilitates this change. Even today the Castle Yard in Kilkenny is primed for some sort of a creative hub that facilitates industry and technology. It really is an interesting question and I would love for that to be opened to debate. I also think the Irish government has now a huge role to play because as the KDW concept was set up by the Irish State (the first of its kind the world), all the work designed and built was under the KDW mark, not individuals so in essence its state owned intellectual property and part of our national heritage.

How did you go about collating the artwork, images and the wonderful archive video and audio content for the app?

That was easy, I didn’t! That was left in the capable hands of Ruth Mulhern who searched, collected and put shape to the story. Catherine Phibbs, Communications Manager at the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland project managed the app. I also appreciate the help from you on the DPS app build and successful submission to Apple when you were working on another app project with me at Red Lemonade Creative.

Identifying the content was in progress for over 2 years. In 2013 there was a gathering of KDW members in Kilkenny, the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland recorded voice interviews with former KDW staff which features in the app, we also found old footage from the RTE National Archives and were gifted an old reel of 16mm film from 1965. We had no idea what was on it apart from it was the founding member of the KDW, William Walsh, doing an interview in the USA about Irish exports. The film had some deterioration so it was fingers crossed when sent for digitisation. Gladly, it came out fine and is an exclusive for the app. I won’t give away too much away – but it was an interview on St. Patrick’s Day in a large American retail store with an iconic American female reporter.

You chose the Adobe Digital Publishing platform to tell this story interactively… what’s that experience been like?

DPS logoAdobe DPS is a great tool to work with. Adobe are leaders in providing training expertise online, and hosting industry case-study shows and events. DPS is market leader and for good reason. We used Adobe DPS to build this educational app but it can also be used for building apps for marketing sales tools, magazines, internal communications, brand awareness and even paywalls for monetization in publishing. One of the most powerful features is the analytics for tracking user data. I’m currently creating another DPS app to showcase some of these features.

Do you think apps are the way forward for story-telling and brand reach? Shouldn’t this story be told in print as well?

Yes, apps really are the way forward. Last summer, a comScore* report declared that not only was mobile now driving internet activity, but that the apps had won. Right now around 88% of smartphone activity is spent on apps. More and more content is going to be consumed on mobile devices, that now have over 50 sensors (GPS, touch, sound, camera etc). Your TV has two (picture and sound). By taking the mobile format and creating content to compliment this format we can create something quite remarkable for brands and story-telling.

There are two books on the KDW in existence called Kilkenny Design – Twenty-one years of design in Ireland and Designing Ireland – A retrospective exhibition of Kilkenny Design Workshops 1963-1988.  And now the iPad app version is free and can be downloaded anywhere in the world from iTunes.

In the year of Irish Design (#ID2015) – can you underline how vital is it that Ireland as a whole promotes its inherent and traditional creative skills to a wider community?

id15It’s funny, in the KDW app there’s a report you can read called ‘Design in Ireland’, 1961. A group of five Scandinavian designers visited to audit design in Ireland, which they did for no remuneration but in the spirit of bettering standards of design. One of the audit suggestions (there were many) was to hold a ‘Year of Irish Design’, so its now great to see us finally getting to this 54 years later! Joking aside, the Irish Design 2015 is a great opportunity for Irish design to be promoted on the global stage. There is an Irish diaspora of 70 million strong which will be a great help. Creating employment is one of the main targets of #ID2015 and it is the connection between the business and design communities that is going to create these jobs, plain and simple. Pretty much like the origins of the KDW.

512_iconYou can download the excellent (and free) KDW Kilkenny Design Workshops iPad app from iTunes here:


© Images courtesy of Design & Crafts Council of Ireland


About tabletdesigner

Mobile Product Consultant and Creative Director, consulting across design agencies, publishers and brands on digital publishing, apps, UX and interactive design. I also train designers how to use Adobe DPS, and inspire new ideas for getting content working on mobile devices...

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  1. Pingback: Back to the future for Celtic inspiration in the Digital Age… | subprimecanada

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