26th February 2021
Last week I had the pleasure of attending WRConf in Huddersfield, organised by Huddersfield’s design network Wilson’s Republic. The story of WR is very similar to my own, and one that I now presume is common in a lot of towns and cities in the UK. Directors Darren and Aidan felt there was a growing creative community in their hometown that was a little disconnected, so decided to do something about it. This led to casual meet ups and networking events in the hope that Huddersfield’s design network would know a little more about each other and collectively raise the profile of the town.
WRConf seemed the next logical step in that journey, something bigger and more formal, celebrating the exports of the city and people local to the region who had made their own mark on the wider design world.
I travelled up from Birmingham to join them (forgetting just how utterly horrendous the M6 is) and had a truly great time – making the 3 hour journey there and back well worthwhile, even though I was a little late.
It turns out Huddersfield really does have some pretty great exports. The conference opened with John Lee, a model maker and art director who has been working in TV & Film for the past 34 years. You’ll have definitely seen his work on Fantastic Mr Fox and the new Star Wars films. His lecture came in two parts, in the first John talked about how he got into the industry, which was a fascinating tale of perseverance and seizing opportunity. In the afternoon John delivered his second part talking through his work with John Lewis and getting into the more technical aspects of the model making.
We then heard from Tom Foley, Creative Director of one of my favourite type foundries Dalton Maag. I’ve worked extensively with a few of the Dalton Maag fonts over the years so Tom’s talk on the history of typography and language was fascinating, and as we came to present day delving into the anatomy of type and font structure. I had a good chat with Tom afterwards and got to geek out about science fiction letterforms, with Tom telling me Dalton Maag created a version of Klingon that’s recognised by Trekkies as the best composition of the language in font form. High praise indeed.
After a morning coffee break there was an opportunity to partake in some workshops / seminars. I resisted the urge to spend more time listening to Tom talk in his ‘logo refinement’ seminar and opted to put my business hat on and check out ‘accounting for creatives’. This was one of three business led seminars over the day, with ‘The business of design’ discussing maximising your commercial potential and ‘Know your copyrights’ being exactly what you’d expect.
Following on from lunch Eve Warren talked through her career, the design scene in Leeds and the excellent work she’s been doing with Robot Food. Eve’s producing some really nice stuff, and for someone like me who has their head stuck in the digital world, the opportunity to hear someone talk about interesting print design is becoming few and far between, so always a pleasure to listen to someone who does it so well.
The day finished with talks from Christopher Nunn and Craig Oldham sandwiching James Sommerville from Coca Cola. I’ve grouped Chris and Craig together because although they’re working in different mediums both had fascinating stories and it’s those stories I love listening to when attending design conferences.
Chris is a freelance photographer who’s spent the past four years in the Ukraine taking portrait photos of its people. The project initially started as a way to get closer to his heritage (Chris’ Grandmother is Ukrainian) and finished with Chris becoming a casualty of the war, damaging his eye. The pictures that came in between documented the country’s people as they attempt to live regular lives during conflict.
It’s difficult to say what Craig does, as he pointed out there are several terms he doesn’t like when describing what he does (like curator). I would say he makes books but that could incur Spiekermann wrath, so I’ll just say that he has some books that he’s designed, produced and now sells. One of the books Craig discussed was ‘I belong to Jesus’, a book documenting the now banned goal celebration of revealing a message underneath a football shirt. As someone who has produced one of those shirts the story hit home and I picked up a copy afterwards. There’s often fascinating tales behind the messages players chose to reveal, and whilst I know better than most how shallow football can be sometimes there’s a little bit of humanity that reminds you why you love it.
A story that I can’t relate to in anyway but became fascinated by as Craig discussed it was the book on the UK miners’ strike ‘In loving memory of work’. The book contains stories, imagery and graphic pieces produced by the people who were involved in the strikes in the 80s. It’s a wonderful reminder that you don’t have to be a trained designer to create a poignant piece of art that creates a powerful message.
James Sommerville’s talk was one that initially raised my eyebrows when I discussed it with Darren and Aidan a week earlier. James is Global VP of Design at Coca Cola. From Huddersfield, he wanted to come along to the conference itself but circumstance dictated that he’d have to weblink from Atlanta. I have to say I thought there was no way this was going to work well, even if the internet survived I presumed it would be really awkward with James not being able to address the room properly (we didn’t see his face for most of the talk). In reality it was one of the best talks I’ve seen (or heard?).
In a way I’ve only see a few speakers do, James crammed in so much thought, design consideration and application into his keynote slides that I completely forgot he wasn’t in the room. It was a seamless presentation of a history of design at Coke – past, present and future, touching on pitfalls, rationale, achievements and vision. It’s fair to say this is probably a talk he now regularly delivers, but even so it was very impressive. There were plenty of callbacks to Huddersfield, the people that got him to where he was today and the local design firms that still contribute to Coke’s brand. A+.
I stayed on after the conference finished to chat to some of the attendees and speakers, there were some very cool people in the room. Huddersfield’s design scene is certainly thriving, things like Wilson’s Republic are of massive benefit to any city – if one doesn’t exist in yours I’d highly recommend being the person to start one, and get down to the next WRConf for inspiration on how to do a conference well, with a small ticket price and a lot of value.