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School of Design students in Glasgow and Singapore resolutely focus on global issues with creativity and imagination

4 June 2020

The School of Design at the GSA comprises the departments of Communication Design, Fashion Design, Interaction Design, Interior Design, Product Design Engineering, Silversmithing & Jewellery and Textile Design. Its annual degree show is a highlight in Glasgow’s cultural calendar, but this year, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the graduates’ work is first being made available for anyone to view online in the form of a self-curated and constantly evolving Digital Graduate Showcase.


Despite the disruption to their final year of study caused by Covid-19, the graduating designers have delivered projects that are exciting, provocative and timely responses to key political, societal, environmental and technological concerns. The Graduate Showcase does a superb job of presenting the outcomes of the graduates’ main projects, as well as providing a platform for some of their personal thoughts and insights into their processes, which the designers can add to as they begin the next stage of their professional development.


As Patrick Macklin, Head of Department for Interior Design, explains: “The Graduate Showcase is dynamic, its contributors have the opportunity to nurture their presence in it over a sustained period of time. As we move forwards it will persist during our transitions beyond the limitations of lockdown.”


The online format has other benefits, too, as it can be viewed globally and unifies all of the content created by the GSA’s graduates across various Schools and Programmes in one place. “This raises awareness of the location of the myriad subject fields in relation to each other,” Macklin adds, “setting up opportunities for visitors to make fresh connections between things, in both artefact and discipline.”


As part of its introduction to the Showcase, the GSA reached out to members of its creative network and invited them to comment on their favourite works. Dr Catriona McAra, University Curator at Leeds Arts University, picked out Eilidh Munro from Silversmithing & Jewellery, who created an intricate music box containing two detachable rings that replace the main tumbler in the mechanism. From the same programme, Yitong Zhang is presenting a series of playful works that encourage viewers to reconsider their relationships with everyday objects. Her work is highlighted by curator Amanda Game, who says: “Given that most of us have been more in our domestic spaces in recent months, these works really stood out for me.” By recreating artefacts such as plastic drinking straws or yoghurt pot lids in precious metals and giving them new functions, Zhang attempts to raise awareness of otherwise subconscious habits and behaviours.


Dr McAra also mentions the work of Scottish-Mongolian fashion designer Melody Uyanga Ramsay, whose work focuses on the intersection between fashion, heritage, ethics and sustainability. Her graduate collection explores themes of British identity and Americana, with references to post-Soviet aesthetics. The work is presented using carefully considered scenography, casting and graphical techniques to accentuate its unusual narrative.


The GSA’s Design School offers a unique environment for students of Fashion Design and Textile Design, as both programmes are delivered in the same studio. This proximity provides opportunities for collaboration, such as the partnership between Textile Design graduate Ella Fletcher and womenswear designer, Zoë Ward. Their Smock project saw them work together to develop a knitted garment with a smocked texture that stretches and bounces as the wearer moves. Fletcher is displaying a range of sculptural knitted fabrics as part of her individual showcase, while Ward’s work explores innovative uses for traditional crafts such as hand smocking and appliqué. Her collection uses secondhand, up-cycled and found materials to imbue the clothes with a richer story and more sustainable credentials.


Key issues that will affect all of our futures inevitably feature prominently in the work of the School of Design’s graduating students. Sustainability, health, wealth, inequality and technology are all examined in projects that embody deeply held beliefs and concerns. Graduates from the Communication Design BA(Hons) and MDes programmes are particularly well placed to raise awareness of some of these issues, and the work presented on the Digital Showcase demonstrates their ability to do so using a variety of media and methods.


One of the most powerful examples is Leda Bartolucci’s project documenting a year of climate strikes and protests in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and Italy. Bartolucci’s reportage photography transports the viewer into the midst of these events, with her accompanying narration describing the scenes in captivating detail. During her two years studying on the MDes programme, Bartolucci managed to combine her multidisciplinary practice with activism, volunteering as a graphic designer and uniting with youth strikers to support their environmental campaigns.


Throughout their studies, the Communication Design students explore how traditional skills such as drawing, printmaking and photography can be supplemented by video, sound, animation and other multimedia techniques, providing them with a broad range of skills that they can apply to the specialisms of Graphic Design, Illustration or Photography. Eimear Coyle, who hails from Derry City, uses various unusual media to tell a very personal story about her experiences of growing up gay in conservative Northern Ireland. She created a film using phonotropes – a technique consisting of images attached to a vinyl record that become animated as it spins on a record player – which combine with music to capture her feelings in an inventive and deeply personal way.


Communication Design is also one of the programmes taught at GSA’s Singapore campus, where this year the graduates are presenting their final projects alongside their peers in Glasgow as part of the Showcase. Looking at the work produced by these graduates, it is clear that the same universal issues are aggravating young designers around the world. For example, designer Dharrshiyni Panirselvam has tackled social and environmental issues including veganism, animal rights and excessive waste in her provocative projects. Her #Wouldyousaveme campaign confronts viewers with uncomfortable imagery and asks if we would treat our pets the same way we treat livestock, while a poster drawing attention to the issue of animal contamination depicts a human mutating into the creatures they consume.


The traditional art of typography remains an important area of focus for Communication Design graduates, as evidenced by the work of Swedish designer Bianca Winberg, who created an Arts & Crafts-inspired typeface that references Glasgow’s history of carpet production. Winberg’s other projects also showcase bold uses of typography, including designs for the department’s Work-in-Progress exhibition, held in February 2020.


The MDes Communication Design class offers up further examples of creative type design, particularly from Alessandro Prepi Sot and Apolline de Luca, who have teamed up to launch their own type foundry. Their first collaboration is a display font called Diaspora that references Italian immigration to Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The font’s design emphasises traditional and iconic characteristics of lettering from both countries.


Our increasing reliance on computer software and the way in which our relationship with machines will evolve in the coming years informed the work of several graduates from the Interaction Design class of 2020. In her self-initiated project, French-Australian designer Valentine Scherer critiques ideas of making, production and consumption in the networked digital society. Beyond Flatpack Culture: Towards a New Ecology of Modularity uses machine-learning algorithms to create new hybrid furniture designs based on standardised graphics taken from Ikea instruction manuals. These auto-generated, semi-functional artefacts ridicule the way flat-pack furniture is made and valued in modern society.


Zach Mason’s work also uses algorithms and machine learning to explore questions including ‘What does digital materiality look like?’, and ‘How do we collaborate with machines?’ He uses computer code to interpret real-world objects, including images of people, which are reproduced repeatedly between physical and digital space, resulting in bizarre but still vaguely recognisable 3D-printed mashups.


Graduates from the Product Design Engineering programme have also tackled pertinent global problems in projects that examine how developing technologies can improve our quality of life. Morven Graham chose to design for death, creating a more sustainable alternative to traditional practices of burial or cremation that involves composting the body inside a futuristic-looking chamber. Sustainability also inspired Jay Van Den Hoven’s Post-Fossil Toolkit, which comprises demountable energy generation modules that provide the public with renewable energy, while Ignacio Amui presents a portable solar charger that utilises dye-sensitised solar cells to create a lightweight, foldable power generator.


Lastly, interior designers are also looking for innovative ways to use precious space in increasingly populated urban centres, and are reimagining existing environments in response to shifting societal needs. In Glasgow, Heather Davie outlined how a derelict 19th-century mission hall could be used as a space to facilitate the integration of refugees and asylum seekers into their new community. Her proposal accommodates a range of important functions along with social spaces intended to provide a comfortable and convivial atmosphere.


At the GSA’s Singapore campus, interior design graduate Samantha Sam also focused on the importance of community, creating a concept for affordable rental flats in high-density buildings. Interaction between residents is central to both the configuration of the building and the design of the apartments. Enclosed corridors and communal gardens provide spaces for socialising, while limited views into the living areas are permitted so occupants can keep an eye on vulnerable neighbours.


This brief overview of selected works from the Graduate Showcase affirms that this year’s graduates have overcome exceptional circumstances to deliver some truly innovative and important ideas. Their creativity and imagination remain unwavering and it is great to see that they are resolutely focused on the global issues that will determine the future direction of our fragile species and of our planet.


Alyn Griffiths specialises in architecture and design journalism. He is a contributor to leading print and online publications, including CNN, Style, Wallpaper, ICON, Blueprint, Dezeen, Dwell and Interior Design.


Image: 2019: A Year of Climate Strikes – Leda Bartolucci, MDes Communication Design 2020


Words: Alyn Griffiths