Founders of Design Manchester tell us how to make a festival

Design Manchester, the annual festival dedicated to design and creativity, is now a cornerstone of the city’s cultural calendar. Ahead of announcing details of its fourth edition, which takes place in October this year, we talk to co-founders Fiona McGarva andJohn Owens about what it takes to launch a festival from scratch, what they’ve learned over the course of three events – and where DM is heading in 2016

Why did you start Design Manchester and what were your aims for it initially?

Fiona McGarva: When we started the festival in 2013 there was no grand plan. Like a lot of startups we set off with passion, enthusiasm, lots of contacts and a talent for persuasion that we’d need every ounce of. John and I both have other businesses – I have Sundae Communications, a PR and events consultancy specialising in film, TV and creative industries, and John heads up design practice Instruct Studio. So, in the beginning, this was a fun side-project.

John had experience in running design conferences and a talent for bringing together inspiring and like-minded people that had caught the attention of Professor David Crow, then Dean of the Manchester School of Art. He’d been working with Malcolm Garrett RDI to devise an event to launch their new Benzie building and mark 175 years of MSA. David introduced Malcolm and John with the idea of putting on a one-day event for their students and the wider design community, bringing world class speakers to the city.

John came to me with the proposition, and on talking it through, we were all of the same mind – we’d be very happy to do it, but with a vision to turn it into something really special. It was important to put our hearts and souls into something that would reach a wider audience; a city-wide festival celebrating design in all its forms. It was ambitious, but coming from very different backgrounds we realised that between us we’d have the skills and interests to cover off everything from design and marketing, to event production and public relations.

Manchester Design Festival
Workerbee Exhibition hosted by One69a at Design Manchester

How important was your relationship to the Manchester design community in terms of getting the festival started?

John Owens: Manchester has a penchant for punching above its weight and shouting loud. I had seen its design industry shoot up post-recession and I began to forge relationships with people and agencies doing genuinely amazing things from small beginnings. Why did we have to travel to Barcelona or Brighton to be inspired (apart from the sunshine and beaches)? An important influence was Tony Wilson’s In The City [the music conference Wilson co-founded with Yvette Livesey in 1992]. He’d shaken up the music industry and done things completely differently to anyone else – why couldn’t we do the same for design?

That first year we produced the world class conference that we promised, with Malcolm as our ambassador, in Manchester’s iconic Town Hall, featuring Mark Farrow in conversation with Angus Montgomery of Design Week, Kate Moross and Peter Saville. On top of that, with Malcolm’s support, we also produced a week-long festival with talks, workshops and partner events from D&AD, The Sharp Project, Feilden Clegg Bradley and more.

One vital element for me was working with Manchester’s talented creative community and putting it centre stage. Whilst in those early days the conference was rooted in graphic design, this was our opportunity to work with people across all disciplines, on a project that had appeal to the general public. This idea became DM 10 × 10, an exhibition of ten collaborative works on the theme of ‘longevity’ – produced by local artists and designers including mosaicist Mark Kennedy, paper artist Helen Musselwhite, designer and maker Liam Hopkins and performance poet John Cooper Clarke.

The Fred Aldous art and design materials shop in Manchester
The Fred Aldous art and design materials shop in Manchester plays host to an exhibition of work by designer and typographer Swifty during the 2015 festival; Fiona McGarva and John Owens, co-founders of Design Manchester. Photos by Sebastian Matthes.

Did you learn anything from the first installment of the festival that made you approach things differently going forward?

FM: A key turning point was when, after a successful DM14, we formalised our relationship with Malcolm, who had brought in his own partner in the design group Images&Co, the writer Kasper de Graaf. Together we formed Design Manchester Ltd, a not-for-profit company of which we’re all directors.

With that in mind, is it important to establish specific roles when putting a festival together?

FM: Crucially, we all have very different skills and roles. John is an intrinsic part of the Manchester design community and a driving force in our creative and audience development, and Malcolm is, of course, incredibly influential with a brimming contacts book, and together they co-curate our events. Kasper is our partnerships director. He’s developed our relationship with Manchester City Council, obtained vital Arts Council funding and built our partnership with the Co-op, who this year we’ve been delighted to announce as our headline sponsor. From my perspective, I’m the one that makes sure it actually happens, so as festival director I produce and promote our events, look after staffing, insurance and all the other fun stuff.

There’s still a lot of crossover and we all have our own projects. Kasper produces our Great Debate each year; this year I’m co-curating a film season at HOME with Malcolm; and John looks after all our design. I think it’s incredibly important to question each other; we definitely don’t always agree but we all have a profound amount of respect for each other, which is why the dynamic works. Importantly, we also have an advisory board of very clever and well-respected people to keep us on track, including Lou Cordwell of magneticNorth, and John Mathers, the chief executive of the Design Council.

Manchester Design Festival
Closing party hosted by Manchester Moleskine at Design Manchester. Photograph by Alex Mead

You’re well into preparations for DM16. What’s next for the festival?

JO: We’re honestly overwhelmed by where we are now. We’ve worked with some fascinating people and I’ve been honoured to host some of my lifelong design heroes as part of the festival. In 2014 we partnered with adidas on their SPEZIAL exhibition, and in 2015 Swifty installed not one, but three exhibitions across the city. Our 2016 programme will be announced on July 28 and it currently feels like the only limit is the sky. We are, as always, showcasing Manchester’s home-grown talent and have some incredible international speakers lined up.

FM: During DM15 over 20,000 visitors came to 17 events including exhibitions, film screenings, a design fair, workshops, talks, presentations, performances, parties, coding clubs and debates. We also started to introduce music, fashion, animation and film, and had a Q&A with Stephen Morris from New Order, a talk from the people behind the film Northern Soul, Phil Chalk from animation studio Factory, plus we screened Made You Look followed by a Q&A featuring Helen Musselwhite and DR.ME. Now, in 2016, we’re planning our fourth festival, and we’ve come a long, long way.

JO: On a more strategic level, we now have a business plan that lays out our aims and objectives for the future. Design Manchester Ltd has become an overarching organisation that supports and promotes design thinking and practice and will produce a range of programmes and events throughout the year in Manchester and elsewhere. DM, as our annual festival, forms an incredibly key part of that. We’re dedicated to driving forward, partnering with new and exciting people, growing our audience, and ensuring Manchester has global design recognition it deserves.

Design manchester's print festival 2015
Chris Shearston of Textbook Studios manning their stand at Design Manchester’s Print Festival in 2015. Photograph by Sebastian Matthes

What key pieces of advice would you give to someone interested in setting up their own festival or conference? What have you learned over the course of running Design Manchester?

FM: Find the most experienced and informed people you can, listen hard and take on board what they have to say. Chances are you can learn from their mistakes and they’ll open your mind to a different way of doing something. From personal experience, collaborating with people with a wide range of skills is hugely beneficial, that way everyone has their own area of expertise and brings something different to the table. Finally, from a practical side, I’d recommend being the biggest nerd you can. Organisation is the most important element of a smooth running event.

JO: Document absolutely everything. Moving forward, being able to show what you’ve accomplished will be essential in growing the event. Surround yourself with incredibly talented people that constantly surprise and inspire you. Have a plan, but be prepared to be flexible as when exciting opportunities come your way you need to be ready for them.

Design Manchester 2016 will take place from October 12–22 in venues across the city, featuring exhibitions, screenings, a design fair, workshops, talks, performances, parties, coding clubs and debates. For more details on the events schedule and festival line-up, keep an eye on the site at and follow @designmcr. This year, the Co-op is the headline sponsor of the
festival, see

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