What will happen to our town centres?

Musings on the first lockdown, creativity and the future of public space. 

It’s now almost 40 years since we started our design business and perceptions of the creative industries have changed hugely over that time.

I grew up in a household where my mum and my nan were always making clothes and my pop was always making furniture (or toys for yours truly). Despite this constant creativity and craft in our home, keeping the family dressed and the house furnished, the idea of design as a career would not have been remotely accepted. I think my nan was disappointed that I didn’t go all out for a job at M&S and it was only when our first brand Red or Dead started to appear in the papers that she felt her grandson was doing something decent with his life.

Even though our Red or Dead collections regularly addressed societal issues –  the environment, animal welfare, mental health, diversity, global conflict –  I was never comfortable being called a designer and preferred to be known as an entrepreneur. In fact part of the reason we sold Red or Dead in the late 90s was to move on from being known as “just” fashion designers, and to start a multidisciplinary creative studio. We started HemingwayDesign and made our mission explicit with the motto “design is about improving things that matter in life”. Our first project was on impactful workplace design at The Institute of Directors, rapidly followed by the infamous Staith’s South Bank housing development in Gateshead.

It wasn’t until 2005, when Hilary Cottam won the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year award, that I finally realised our skills at HemingwayDesign could be recognised as more than just “fluff”. Judges lauded Hilary for her “application of design to a wide spectrum of issues, ranging from improved exam results for school students to lower reoffending rates among ex-offenders”. And that was it – official recognition that design could have genuine impact on lives. At the time judges called Hilary’s work ”using design as a strategic tool” – but in 2020 we finally just call it ‘design’.

The current crisis is leaving the world with an awful lot of problems to solve, and creativity and design is essential to achieving that.

Lockdown has demonstrated how access to open space is vital to our wellbeing, and highlighted the fact that overcrowding and multi-occupancy homes create hotspots for illness. Urban design, housing design and interior architecture can fix this. Businesses have struggled to make decisions on how to deal with the crisis – how to act best for their employees, their consumers and their shareholders. Carefully designed brand values can help this. Governments and councils are needing to get messages out to citizens as quickly and effectively as possible; visual design and creative comms strategies are essential to this.

But I keep thinking about an even bigger ongoing problem – our town centres. These places have been hit by a lockdown sledgehammer which for many couldn’t have come at a worse time. Over the past year we’ve felt that councils were beginning to buy into the fact the future of our towns lay in supporting forward-thinking independent retailers, creative programming in public spaces, encouraging community and social action and developing night-time economy. But the Covid-19 crisis threatens all of this, with events being cancelled, public spaces unusable and smaller businesses and independents hit disproportionately hard.

Much creative problem solving is going into combatting the dual threat of our current situation – both the virus itself and that of living isolated lives. Brilliant minds have developed apps for testing and tracing, as well as people all over the world thinking up new ways to keep us happy, entertained and educated through digital means. But it’s going to take some very creative thinking to rebuild the attraction of town centres; to make people feel safe at large celebratory gatherings; to ensure that we don’t spend even longer interacting with screens rather than do what has enabled human life to prosper – physically get together.

Now isn’t the time to put design to one side while the world focuses on ‘more important things’ in the recovery process; it’s essential to making sure we come out of this better off as a world.

We hope that the enlightened councils we work with on place branding will continue to live up to their values when we emerge from this crisis; creating better places to live and to work and prioritising public space, education and skills development and culture-lead regeneration. At the moment there’s an argument for just making sure town centres survive, but with creative thinking and thoughtful design they can thrive.

We hope that the large companies we work with to develop values and company culture won’t reel back on their journeys towards doing better for our society and our planet.

We hope that the government don’t allow irresponsible developers (and there are plenty of those still around) to continue to ride roughshod over planners and forget about what we have learned these past decades about good urban design. Whilst the country will need to get building again as soon as possible, it mustn’t be at the expense of the well-being of future generations.

Whilst this crisis has rightly brought science and scientists into the limelight, we have to remember that the creative industries have been outperforming other sectors, creating more employment and being the fastest growing export sector for a number of years now and proving that creativity is more than just important for our mental well-being but vital for our financial well-being. We can use what we’ve learnt during this time to work even harder towards designing a better world for ourselves – we have to.