The big win for Irish design

Stephen McCarthy
3 min readFeb 10, 2015

This year Ireland is promoting its design credentials. It’s a good thing. On the back of the (almost successful) push for Dublin to be World Design Capital of 2014, momentum is building for design to be recognised as a core part of the new post-recession Ireland.

We are an island full of talented designers, crafts people and general creative minds not limited to either of those fields. In a broader context though, we (as a nation) have a narrow-minded view of what ‘design’ is and what areas it can or should permeate. To many design is seen as:

  • Furniture and Interiors
  • Fashion, Textiles and Jewellery
  • Products
  • Buildings and Spaces
  • Graphics, Packaging and Branding

Design is not seen as:

  • Something for everybody
  • A core part of our public/private services
  • User-centric

Design in Ireland (or the discussion of such) feels a bit like it’s something reserved for the middle classes. The Monocle Magazine effect — something we can buy into to show our good taste at dinner parties with friends. It’s the trimmings that makes things a little nicer. We are all guilty of this and that’s fine, up to a point. What isn’t fine is when we think this is where design ends. In general, many people (both designers and users) don’t see that it’s a core part of our everyday lives.

In the field of Graphic Design many designers are more interested in branding or packaging the ‘thing’, than the actual ‘thing’ itself. This is partly down to the fact that they are often only asked to package the ‘thing’ (whether that’s a brand, product or service), but it’s not the only reason. We as designers have to take some blame for putting our focus in the wrong place.

Let’s think of this hypothetical situation — Dublin City Council has put out a tender for 2 jobs. The first is to rebrand the organisation — a full, traditional identity roll-out — logos on vans, uniforms, bus stops … the whole nine yards. The second tender is to plan and design the Social Housing Application service on the DCC website.

The first job sounds a lot sexier, right? I guarantee students and experienced professionals alike would — in most cases — go for the rebranding job. What we really need though is more designers who understand and want to go for the second job, because that’s where the big win is. That’s the design that touches people in the most tangible way. Not the big bi-lingual logo on a Ford Transit.

The experience should be the branding. Designer’s and service owners need to understand this and push for design professionals to be engaged at an earlier stage of the process. They shouldn’t just be asked to intervene at the end of a costly/lengthy process to package something up and pretend it’s lovely and all works great. It’s not about putting lipstick on a pig and trying to make something fundamentally flawed look pretty.

ID2015 has some high level government backing. That’s great. My fear though is that what politicians and the public are seeing is a sort of ‘Irish Craft 2015'. A narrow view of design which seems to be skewed towards beautifully crafted, artisanal consumer goods, packaged and sold to the select few who can afford them.

There is a tendency to think the big, boring stuff is for the politicians, policy makers and big company consultants, not for designers. There are many designers in Ireland who would like to change this. I know some of them.

We need politicians and those in government positions to see design and designers as something that can have a positive effect and change public services for the good of the people. To achieve this they need to place users at the centre of public service redesign and build design capability across government and local authorities. This way good design can finally get to the people who don’t often engage with it, but really need it. That, potentially, is the big win for the year of Irish design.

Stephen McCarthy

Head of Product Design at Which? - Ex Head of Design for Government Digital Service and GOV.UK