From Idea to Execution: The Story of Birmingham Design Festival

Birmingham Design Festival is a celebration of design and creativity that brings together designers, artists, and enthusiasts from around the world. Founded in 2018 by Luke Tonge and Dan Alcorn, the festival has become a regular feature of the UK design calendar. In this Q&A, Luke Tonge shares insights into the foundation of the festival, the team, the curation of the program, and the challenges of organizing an event of this scale. The festival is known for its diverse and exciting range of speakers, workshops, and events. This year's theme, 'Imagine', promises to inspire and engage attendees with new ideas and perspectives. Whether you are a seasoned designer or a curious newcomer, the Birmingham Design Festival [BDF] offers a unique opportunity to connect with the design community and discover the latest trends and innovations in the field.

Let's set the scene. How is the design and creativity scene in Birmingham?

It's fantastic, diverse, unpredictable, and exciting! There are something like 50,000 people working in the creative industries in Birmingham and the surrounding region, so it is hard, to sum up such a broad sector – but it is a community we are really proud to serve and support. Birmingham has historically had a less than favorable reputation, but there are generations of people working hard to challenge those lazy perceptions and instigate a bit of reappraisal.

What led up to organizing Birmingham Design Festival?

Dan and I care deeply about community, and we are not alone in this – we know the design community is full of amazing people who also love sharing their passion and getting together to be amongst like-minded people, online and offline. We were both busy dipping our toe in the events scene for years, both organizing and speaking, curating and volunteering, so I think we just reached a point where it felt like we had the right skill mix and experience, and Birmingham co-incidentally had a ‘gap’ we could fill – a ‘festival shaped hole’. Dan asked if I fancied helping him put on the first BDF way back in 2017, and so in 2018 with the help of some amazing friends, that is exactly what we did. Of course, we did not just jump in without taking stock of the broader picture, so we spoke to organizers of many other events that we loved, and spent time with them – to ensure there really was a need for another big design event in the UK, and how we could best serve our audience – and how we could also learn from their experience and perhaps avoid some obvious mistakes.

You and Dan are the friendly faces of the festival... Are you running it together, or do you have a supporting team around you?

The BDF team has naturally changed shape over the last 6 years. We have a brilliant core group who we call the 'Planning Team' (who year-round are responsible for shaping the program, etc.), and then we also have a 'Delivery Team' (a group of amazing folks who help put on the fest) – and of course heaps of wonderful volunteers, who also change from year to year, with many faces returning. Currently, the planning team comprises Dan and myself who are Directors, and Lisa Barrett, Andy Roberts, Dan Silverstone, Winnie Nip, Neeraj Kainth, and Lindsay Baker. The Delivery Team adds some fresh legs in the shape of Abbie Reilly, Beth Ingleton, Emily Caplan, Geen Jones, Grace Tomlinson, Matt Smith, Melita Berg, Ted Jones, and Tina Jiwa. One of the biggest joys for us as directors is the relationships we form with the various teams through BDF.

Birmingham Design Festival 2023 Speaker Announcement

How do you curate the program?

We have always taken curation really seriously, having long meetings looking at the program together as a team and debating various aspects of the balance – to ensure we are not just programming it for us but for everyone else! Our annual theme of course has a big impact on who we approach, and which speaker submissions we progress with. We take diversity, inclusion, and accessibility really seriously, and we want to make sure we are giving the opportunity of speaking from our stages to the right mix of people. BDF is made up of four ‘design districts’ – Graphic, Digital, Product, and Illustration. These are broad areas of practice, with a lot of crossover, but they help us cluster speakers into sensible line-ups. We have used up most of our ‘favors from friends’ so we spend a lot of time visiting other events, checking out studios work, connecting with designers online, etc.

How is the festival structured?

Usually, BDF is a 3-day festival, with 3 days of free talks at each ‘district hub’ – followed by 3 evening events which are low-cost and high-quality. This setup means we can appeal to everyone, anyone wanting to come can experience hours of amazing talks totally free, and those able to can enjoy a low-cost 3-day festival in full. This year we are doing something a bit different! We have wanted to get to an alternating pattern of the big festival and a more compact conference, so this year we are trialing – a conference-style approach – one day of workshops, followed by one day of talks in a single venue. BDF as a 3-day event gives folks a lot of choices, but it almost means most attendees also miss out on some of the program, because not many people spend all 3 days with us. This year we have effectively squished those 3 evening events into a single day of talks at the Birmingham Rep theatre. 8 speakers, two from each district, delivering talks on the theme Imagine.

This year we aimed high, and I am really proud of the line-up we have put together – Brian Collins, Gemma O'Brien, Oliver Jeffers, Lex Fefegha, Abbie Heppe, Marta Cerdà Alimbau, Sonal Jhuj, and Toby Olié. It is a beautiful mix of disciplines, backgrounds, ages, locations, outlooks, etc but all have a commonality which is their brilliant imaginations.

What are the challenges in organizing Birmingham Design Festival?

We have noticed from our own events and speaking to other event organizers (and those working in education) that there is been a general dip in engagement post-pandemic. This is to be expected I suppose, a collective trauma that has reshaped how we view risk, crowds, and how we value our time. Organizing any event is a big time-sink, and events of the scale of BDF are certainly challenging at times – we juggle BDF with our paid work, and we receive no funding from the government, council, arts council, etc. – so it always feels a little precarious, relying on industry sponsorship to stay viable. We won’t ever hike prices to try and increase profits, but in making everything we do as low-cost as possible that also presents challenges to what we can do.

What's your ambition for Birmingham Design Festival in the next five years?

Dan and I often discuss how we’d like things to go longer-term… the main goal is time to a happy rhythm and balance with the Conference / Festival alternating schedule, and to keep things stable and sustainable. We acknowledge there is still much work to be done in making our industry more open, accessible, and attractive to non-traditional audiences, so hopefully we can be part of the solution there, not the problem. There are also a few bucket-list speakers we’d love to bring to Birmingham, we have both already had a couple of ours, but there is plenty more out there…

What has been your highlights since you started as an organizer?

Impossible not to sound corny here – but it is definitely the friendships we have made along the way, and the impact we have seen BDF have on those who have engaged with it… First-time speakers who visibly grow in confidence, attendees who make a career change after an inspiring talk, volunteers cheering each other on, teammates becoming genuine friends… the list goes on. Of course, a lovely by-product is we get to spend time with some of our design heroes and showcase them to our audience, which is a massive privilege.

Birmingham Design Festival

📅 June 8th & 9th 2023
📍 Birmingham, UK
🎫 Tickets Conference £75 / £50 students (for the conference).
🎟️ Tickets Workshops £40 each / Students pay £25 for a workshop.
👩‍🎤 Speakers: Brian Collins, Gemma O'Brien, Oliver Jeffers, Lex Fefegha, Abbie Heppe, Marta Cerdà Alimbau, Sonal Jhuj, and Toby Olié.

Imbue TB 2022 CustardFactory190
Dan Alcorn (left) and Luke Tonge Birmingham Design Festival.
Dan Alcorn (left) and Luke Tonge.

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