I was just archiving away some old designs and thought it would be a good time to write a few words about my thoughts on community and a designer’s role therein. I’m a big believer in the transformative power of community, and I consider myself very fortunate to live in a town where I am far from alone in this idea. A number of initiatives have been started here over the years, dragged kicking and screaming into existence by people with passion, energy and an iron will. From the groundbreaking community-owned Torrs Hydro scheme to the massive community two-week jamboree that is the New Mills Festival, there is clearly some magic at work here.
I arrived about eight years ago with a partner, a baby, and the matching cynical baggage of someone who had lived in London for over a decade. As a Southern softy blow-in I was perfectly prepared to hunker down in the house with the nappies and take the occasional long walk on a windswept hill like a scruffy Essex Wordsworth. It didn’t really work out that way though, as a couple of weeks after moving in, boxes barely unpacked, I heard some sounds of merriment outside, and saw people streaming past our street holding weird wicker & paper contraptions.
“Hold on,” I thought, “They’re on to me. Like in that film about the giant man made of wicker. I forget what it’s called.”
I shoved the baby under my arm and went outside to investigate. Following the crowds I found a massive throng of thousands all assembling by the station, buzzing with anticipation, lighting their paper lanterns. I had stumbled upon my first New Mills Festival Lantern Parade. I got chatting to some people, and found out they had been making their lanterns together in the Town Hall, and how it was all run by a small, dedicated team of volunteers, purely for the benefit of the town and its people.
The trouble with being confronted with this sort of intense all-round awesomeness, is that you cannot but help feel it getting under your skin.
A couple of weeks later a newsletter from the town council made its way into our hall. It contained the usual mundane announcements, probably about bins or dog poo, I don’t remember, but there was a small piece about starting a community orchard, asking people to get involved.
A few days later still, I found myself perched on a chair in the Town Hall chamber, volunteering myself to help get it up and running.
Over the following couple of years, I planted some trees, laid some paths, helped design a logo and design and erect some signage. That was my gateway into community volunteering. Since then I’ve inserted myself into a variety of local initiatives (and been dragged unwillingly into others).
So, while it might involve a lot of detachment, sitting in the dark, pushing pixels around on a screen, I have also found it is possible to actually tangibly increase your living conditions by doing some design in my spare time. I think we all flourish better when surrounded by things that have been crafted, rather than cobbled together. It creates order, signals commitment, and helps tickle the mind into action. You can, with just a little work, actually be a part of galvanising a community, be a force against chaos and decay. The big cities have known this for a while, Manchester’s appointment of Peter Saville being a case in point. But I think the role still exists, even in the smallest communities.
Milton Glaser once said something about the idea of beauty being the driving force that is key to human survival, that being delighted as well as informed makes us better as a species. In today’s world, this force is often harnessed as a means to enhance or invent needs, and thereby sell things, but I think in a local context in can also be about enhancing community. And we could all probably do with a bit more of that.