The play’s the thing

Speakers at this year’s Offset conference in Dublin championed creative play and the ability to turn failure to one’s advantage

In the weeks leading up to this year’s Offset conference, a series of intriguing artworks appeared in Dublin’s streets. There were graphic murals, a pop-up restaurant for two, pink road signs with disco balls and a painted vending machine dispensing various free treats to passers-by.

Each of these installations was the work of local creatives: since its launch in 2009, Offset’s organisers have worked hard to ensure Dublin’s design community is involved and this year’s line-up included talks from a number of Irish speakers as well as international ones.

One of the key themes to emerge in talks this year was the importance of creative play. On day one, designer Jessica Walsh urged her audience to “get off the computer and make shit”. Having taught herself to build websites as a teen and then studied painting, sculpture and woodwork as well as digital design at university, much of her work at studio Sagmeister & Walsh is inspired by her love of tactile craft, and she regularly undertakes self-initiated projects. Walsh’s 40 Days of Dating experiment attracted global attention, for example, and the studio has since sold the film rights to Warner Bros.

Berlin-based visual artist Sarah Illenberger also spoke of a need to play and experiment. Based in Berlin, Illenberger has used toilet rolls, pretzel dough, vegetables and wool to create some fantastic illustrations and sculptures and she regularly works with new materials to develop her craft. “Play is a huge part of what I do. It expands the mind and helps you problem solve,” she said.

Other speakers discussed the importance of learning from failure and having faith in your ideas. Jeff Greenspan, a former creative director at BBDO and communication designer at Facebook shared his personal mantra, “find your own individual voice and speak it very loudly”. The creator of viral stunts such as New York’s Tourist Lanes, Hipster Traps and the World’s Most Exclusive Website, Greenspan discussed how he refuses to be discouraged by rejection. Many of his most successful projects were self-initiated or born out of an idea that was originally rejected by brands.

While working at Facebook, for example, he pitched a platform allowing users to draw and upload others’ profile portraits but the company turned it down, so he built it himself and attracted thousands of users. “If people don’t trust me, I just keep trying,” he said.

Mark Waites from Mother offered a similarly positive outlook on rejection, claiming that the agency would never have been able to make the film Somers Town for Eurostar with Shane Meadows had it not lost an initial campaign pitch to Fallon, while Neville Brody implored designers to ignore their fear of failure and take risks.

“We are stuck in a place of fear – fear that we will lose our jobs, that we will lose our clients, or that people won’t like our work,” Brody said, adding that creatives must be willing to “try something new and empower others to do the same”.

Equally defiant was photographer Richard Mosse, who said his stunning series capturing conflict in Eastern Congo was inspired by a desire to break the conventions of “generic photojournalism”. While images documenting human suffering are often consciously “de-aestheticised” or shot in grainy black-and-white, Mosse’s, which are shot using infra-red film, picture children, rebel soldiers and victims of violence against vivid red and pink foliage. “To de-aestheticise is still a conscious aesthetic decision, so I thought why not just embrace it?” he said, in one of my favourite talks from this year.

Richard Turley was another highlight, providing an amusing and candid look at the process of creating impactful covers for Bloomberg Business Week, sometimes in just a few hours. Tom Hingston provided a fascinating look at his creative influences spanning music, art, design, fashion and film, while Marian Bantjes discussed projects inspired by heraldry, codes, grids and objects found on eBay.

On smaller stages, publishers, illustration agencies and Ireland’s Institute of Creative Advertising and Design held some thought-provoking debates on book cover design, the notion of good design and getting commissioned and published, while journalists and designers interviewed some of the headline speakers. Attendees could also have their portfolios reviewed on stage or take part in stylus wars (essentially, a digital Pictionary battle).

With such a busy line-up, it was impossible to attend everything but the choice of three events each hour meant there was something for almost everyone. We received some criticism after the conference that some talks were too informal, but I think this is a little unfair: Offset’s intention has always been to create
a relaxed event that people attend to have fun as well as be inspired, and organisers struck a careful balance between serious reflections, Q&A sessions and light-hearted looks at studio life. It’s a formula that has clearly proved successful, and it’s little wonder that in just a few years, it has become a sell-out event. 1


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