“This is the place a lot of creative people call home” — Darren Evans, Wilsons Republic
BY Daniel Chapman
From the inside, Huddersfield can be hard to find, because wherever you are within it, there’s always somewhere else to go, somewhere that might be even more Huddersfield than where you are.
We like to take new visitors to Cross Church Street, and tell them that’s what it’s called. Look up here, the Parish Church; look up there, St Paul’s; and here is the street, crossing and connecting. But which way to go? Left to the Parish Pub and open market, brimming with antiques; or right to the intense redefinition of the new university buildings, or the hidden modernist glory of Queensgate Market, the spectacular architecture of its roof, the hulking murals hung on its exterior walls, hidden by the trees?
At the railway station, do you drink while ignoring the trains appeals to take you away from the Head of Steam, surrounded by railway paraphernalia and the promise of travelling, or beneath the Jimi Hendrix sign of The King, in a hall of singers who promise to transport you?
Beyond the station, in either direction, do you head under the bridge and past The Sportsman to the twisted dead end terraces and tall old villas in the streets behind? Or do you head up the hill to the grand monuments in Greenhead Park, or past the bus station and through the subway to drink beneath the wall-high nude portraits in The Grove, or out along Manchester Road to Milnsbridge or Slaithwaite?
In town, do you head for Kingsgate, the Packhorse Centre, the Piazza setting for a decogothic library? Or plunge into the grid below John William Street, find Coffeevolution and Vox on brownstone corners like a mini Manhattan, the Post Office and the Media Centre both built on drastic scales, either side of a grandasmic street?
Stand in the entrance to Byram Arcade, and feel the pull of Westgate House’s burgundy-daubed palace of glass across the road, the rich, heavy marble of The Wellington pub like a stunted skyscraper drawing you to glory in the West Yorkshire sky. Venture into that sky, up through the estates and across fields to Castle Hill, to Victoria Tower, and the view there will give you the whole town, a small city really; but behind you will be Emley Moor transmitter, taller than you’ve ever seen, tempting you further away from Huddersfield because the view it promises of Huddersfield, from up there, has never been so near.
As you try to find Huddersfield, there’s always somewhere else to go. But what is there to do?
“It was a punt,” says Darren Evans, founder of design agency The Engine Room. “It was a massive punt.”
We’re in one of the new cafeteria spaces at the University of Huddersfield, where Aidan Nolan of A.N.D Studio teaches graphic design, talking to Darren and Aidan about Wilson’s Republic, the design network event for creative people — what it actually is, takes complicated explanation, because it’s so simple — that they’ve been running in Huddersfield for over a year.
“We just want to go to a really good event in Huddersfield, and we just want to listen to talented, inspiring people telling their stories,” says Darren. “So we set that event up, so we could go to it.”
The first event — the punt — had a temporary website, a mini-manifesto (‘Wilson’s Republic is not political,’ it said, ‘Although it could be’), a great speaker in Brian Minards, and forty-five people who came and enjoyed it. It still has those things, because it hasn’t actually needed anything else to be a success, and at Byram Arcade audiences for talks by Kath Shackleton, Mike Lemanski, Laura Slater, John Lee, Shay Moradi, Nick Bax, Benaiah Matheson, Anna Mullin and Peter O’Toole have doubled from where Wilson’s Republic began.
“We do have lots of ideas for it,” says Darren. “But we don’t want to plan it to death. We need to overhaul the website at some point, and we’d like to video the talks in a bit of a TedX way so we can have a channel.”
“People were saying at the last event that we need to start collecting what we’re doing into some sort of document, a zine or something,” says Aidan. “Which is really nice, and we ought to do it — maybe do two years and then collect everything.”
“We’ve had a few comments like that,” says Darren. “Someone said it feels like we’ve got something really special going on here. And there is quite a special atmosphere in Byram Arcade at night, when it’s dark outside and the lights are on; there’s something about the ambience at the events that is quite special.”
Maybe it’s in that ambience that Huddersfield can be found. The idea behind Wilson’s Republic is simple, but it is to do with Huddersfield’s soul, which does make it complicated. At heart, the idea is simply to invite people who live, work or come from Huddersfield to talk to an audience about their careers, their work, and how they were able to translate their talent into creative satisfaction and commercial success. Once upon a time you might have added, ‘In spite of Huddersfield’ to that; increasingly, they’re able to say, ‘Because of Huddersfield’, and that’s what Wilson’s Republic is designed to celebrate.
“I’ve worked as a designer in Huddersfield for twenty years,” says Darren. “And I’ve known for ages that Huddersfield has got some amazingly talented people. It’s the place a lot of creative people call home, and not many people know about it.
“So for me Wilson’s Republic is about trying to get some exposure for that, and some pride in what we have, and to get people to start talking to each other and collaborating.”
“That sort of thing has gone on in Huddersfield,” says Aidan. “But we want to bring people together a bit more, because things have been very spread out. You would have networks that would get together, but they would often become cliquey so that if you weren’t part of it from the get-go it was very hard to work your way in.”
“We’ve called Wilson’s Republic a ‘design network’,” says Darren, “But we’ve had conversations about whether we should call it a ‘creative network’ or something. But that just sounds like something from the public sector. We’re very open, though, to having lots of different genres and disciplines represented — the people we’re getting to speak are just really inspirational, but really quite ordinary and down to earth as well. And I love that.
“It’s always really interesting. I’m 42, and all the speakers are a lot younger than me, but I need that inspiration.”
“It’s about capturing their stories, and getting them heard by people,” says Aidan. “I love listening to design talks and learning from other people; you never stop doing that, and it’s a big part of developing as designers and as people in general. You’re never the finished article.
“It’s struck me with the students I teach saying to me, like, ‘Wow, you know everything.’ And I’m like, look, I’m 31. I know what I know at this point, and you might know stuff that I don’t know, and vice-versa. You need to get into the attitude of sharing what you know and everyone benefitting from that, and of not being satisfied with not knowing. I tell them that yes, graphic design is about aesthetics, but it’s also about ideas and almost being an investigator, so you’re figuring stuff out. The more you know, the more empowered you are as a designer.”
Empowering young designers is a key part of Wilson’s Republic, which is bringing a number of the town’s growing, central population of students together to hear not only what the speakers have to say, but to hear that there even are inspiring speakers and events in the town, and people you can have a beer with and talk about design with, or art, or creativity, or even just about the beer because Huddersfield is good at that, knowing that you have something of the above in common. Student numbers in town are increasing as the university and Kirklees College develop and old office blocks are converted to flats, and Wilson’s Republic is one way of helping them discover life in the town outside the nightclubs, life that you can build a life around.
“There’s always that thing at the back of your mind,” says Darren. “Should we be in Leeds? Should we be in Manchester? For a while The Engine Room actually was based in Leeds, and places like Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield do have different cultures and different things to offer in many respects.
“But we’ve thought about it a lot, because moving back and being based in Huddersfield hasn’t affected the business commercially at all. It’s had no adverse effect whatsoever, and in fact we’ve grown much more than we ever did in Leeds.”
“I consider it,” says Aidan. “A lot of my mates have gone to London, and there’s always been that thing of going to another leaving party to say goodbye. But I think a lot of people end up doing that for a while and then they come back.
“It’s something I remember talking to Darren about very early on when I had just started out; I remember us meeting for the first time, and Darren was very passionate about trying to keep talent up north. It’s a big thing. We don’t all have to go to London to have brilliant careers.
“For the studio I run, A.N.D Studio, I kind of like being that wild card, that ‘Huddersfield where?’ If you look at the work we’re producing, it’s over and above a geographical location. And it doesn’t really matter, because we’re well connected, bang smack in the middle of the country, a few hours up or down to anywhere; plus Skype and all those other things mean you can have a very large network of clients and collaborators and not ever have to see them.”
That freedom to roam the country and the world for clients and collaborators changes the emphasis at home, where networks can be built around friendships, interests and opportunities, rather than strict business.
“It’s a nice thing,” says Aidan. “Huddersfield is a nice town, it’s got some really great indie places to eat and go to events, and the countryside is so close. You’ve got the Pennines right there. If you’ve got enough friends and family and a nice group that you’re with, and you’re doing some nice stuff, then that’s where with the people and the place you can weigh it up.”
When we get Darren and Aidan talking about their own design careers, the value in having the right people around becomes clear. Not necessarily to work with, although part of the point of Wilson’s Republic is to make it easier for that to happen, but just to talk; to nerd up a storm about stuff that you love.
“The Engine Room is a brand agency,” says Darren. “Although I know there are about a million of those now. We’re fifteen years old, we set up in 2001; before that I joint ran an agency called Cut The Mustard for a couple of years, and had a three year stint at another agency in Huddersfield before that.”
Darren’s been around, thought things through, and gained experience that he’s keen, with a calm assurance, to assert.
“I’m a graphic designer by trade, but I guess working in a small business with other small businesses and business owners, I’ve become very interested in how businesses work. My core driver at the moment is design thinking and service design; how you work with business owners to transform their businesses and services, using creativity. It’s not necessarily branding, but it’s how companies can make themselves different, and brand is so close to that.
“We’ve won three DBA Design Effectiveness Awards, which for a company in the north is quite rare, and I’m pretty sure there are no other agencies in Huddersfield that have ever won that award. They’re the only awards that are given on the strength of the financial gains the client’s business gets from your work; it’s about aesthetics, yes, but then it’s about results.
“I’ve developed, and I spent some time in Amsterdam last year at the Design Thinkers Academy, which is a great, worldwide network; and I became a fellow of the RSA, which has opened up a few other opportunities in terms of how I get to use design thinking. So The Engine Room is on a bit of an upward curve at the moment.”
Aidan is just as thoughtful about design, but expresses it with a more sardonic edge than Darren, and concentrates at A.N.D Studio on graphics and branding.
“A.N.D is a very small studio,” says Aidan. “It’s mainly me, and then we’ll bring in other freelancers — web developers or photographers or copywriters — to build the team around a particular project. I’ve been doing it for seven years.
“I started working for myself straight out of uni. I went into business with another lad from uni; we wanted to be a multidisciplined agency and I wanted to be like Charles and Ray Eames — I had this idea of being able to design buildings and furniture, do surface pattern, exhibitions. But when I realised that was not going to happen, I realised how amazing Charles and Ray Eames were.
“What it did give me though was an interest in brand, in the sense that there are various touch points with brand that you can craft and handle and tell a story through.
“It’s interesting, it’s ever changing. You can be doing brand design one minute, then some editorial, then UX design. I like the variety of what I’m able to do, and I like being nimble enough to be able to do that, so we don’t have to bring in any massive contracts that in the end we wouldn’t want to have to do. It’s nice to be selective with clients.
“In the future it’d be nice to bring some of my students in to help out and grow A.N.D Studio that way; I never really want to have a massive agency. It would be more boutique, rather than a full service agency.”
“I think we started The Engine Room thinking we were going to be full service,” says Darren, “But we’ve gone full circle now, and try to be really niche. I just know what we’re good at. We’re really good at finding out what’s different about a company and making them live it, and there’s not many other agencies out there that really delve that deep.
“I just read a really good book,” says Darren, turning to Aidan. “Called Design is a Job, by Mike Monteiro. He was saying there’s no such thing as stupid clients, only stupid designers. It made me think about Wilson’s Republic, and that maybe part of the job of Wilson’s is to educate more people about creativity and what the benefits can be. As designers we complain about clients, but have we actually told them about good design?”
“It’s an interesting point,” says Aidan. “I came out of university with a very good idea about aesthetics, and what looked right, but it was only by working in industry and hearing some design talks that I learned it was about having ideas; not just aesthetics that have a shelflife, but an idea that will carry on going. And I didn’t have a senior designer to learn from, I just followed my nose, so it took me a while to get to a point where I was comfortable where I was at. It’s important to see other designers as fallible, and that they’re working things out while I’m doing the same thing.”
“They all bleed red,” says Darren.
“And they get difficult clients, and clients that they love. It’s almost cultural; you want to cultivate the nice clients, but the agency has to feel like the culture is for the client as well, and that should ideally mix.”
“That’s a really good point,” says Darren. “Because I think a lot of design agencies really struggle to explain what they do. To say we do it for a living, I think there is a bit of an identity crisis in the industry, because it’s really easy to set up a design agency. You just need a Mac, some software and some talent.”
“Or not even the talent, sometimes,” says Aidan.
“So we all get tarred with the same brush when people come up against bollocksy things like ‘transforming businesses’; like, what does that mean?”
“Or ‘brand essence’,” says Aidan. “Or ‘brand DNA’. Alright, that’s awesome. But I can’t talk like that.”
“It gets sucked up by certain clients, who are living in that bubble,” says Darren. “But the clients we work with are a bit further down the ladder, they’re straight talking, they’ve never worked with a design agency before. So how do you approach that? You can’t approach it any other way than just talking normally, in language people understand.”
Making creativity and the importance of design something that anyone can understand isn’t only the shoptalk of two design obsessives (“It’s a lifestyle,” says Aidan, “It’s not something you can help doing”), but a key to understanding Darren and Aidan’s plans for the future of Wilson’s Republic, and hopes for the future of Huddersfield.
As far as Wilson’s Republic goes, the plan is that there is no plan; but there’s a lot of lessons, applied through design thinking.
“The truth is that we’re not entirely sure where it’s going to go,” says Darren. “We’ve been doing it for a year and every now and then Aidan will ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’ We’re doing it for shits and giggles, really. We don’t make any money out of it; it’s free, although I suppose I’m in a bit of a privileged position where The Engine Room can bankroll some of the costs. But we’ve no idea where it’s going to go.
“We’ve got ambitions, though. Maybe different types of events, almost like a design conference in Huddersfield, but they’re really early stage ideas.”
“We could pull things in,” says Aidan, bringing the ideas to life. “A little bit of the Contemporary Music Festival, get the Bean Brothers for coffee, bring crafters and bakers and make it a really lovely festival. We’ve got Bates Mill which is beautiful and could be the perfect place to hold something like that — it’s got all the event spaces it needs. You could have a bigger conference, but not all about people speaking; you could run workshops and stuff that’s a little bit more hands on. It could be a fantastic weekend of things to do.”
“The honest answer is we’re just going to go with it and see what happens,” says Darren. “Originally we were going to use a different venue every time, but that’s quite difficult, and we’ve been really lucky with Byram Arcade. But now Wilson’s is becoming better known, it’s becoming less of a problem, and there are loads of old and abandoned spaces in the town centre that could be amazing. So people could discover those while listening to our speakers.”
“I think we’re lucky in that we’re used to thinking on our feet and following instinct and intuition and doing what we feel is right,” says Aidan. “I think that’s part of being a professional designer. You’re always striving to improve what you’re doing and make it much better.”
That attitude is what Wilson’s Republic could, if they can capture it and share it and convince more people that it’s as Huddersfield as anything, bring to Huddersfield. Darren and Aidan, and lots of people like them in the town and around, are itching to improve the one thing they all interact with every single day: Huddersfield; by introducing design thinking, iterative improvements, identifying a brand and expressing it through everything the town does, improving it aesthetically and culturally, at all the touch points where people interact every day with design. Which they do, constantly, whether they realise it or not.
“Shopfronts are number one on my plan for Huddersfield,” says Darren. “We have loads of clients who come here and come out of the station and comment on the architecture. It’s a beautiful, beautiful town. I love Huddersfield. But there is just shit everywhere. It’s like visual terrorism. Then you look above the shopfronts, and the buildings are gorgeous.”
“We could paint all the shopfronts the same colour and give them the same signage,” says Aidan. “York do it very well around the Minster, all the shops there are done in a very considered manner.”
“You can still have your own look,” says Darren. “There’s an opportunity for the town there. On some of the backstreets in Huddersfield you’ll find similar themes, where it’s very toned down, and they can still differentiate themselves through design.
“I’d really like to see designers and creatives getting involved in shaping the town. Huddersfield suffers the same problems other towns suffer, and it seems to me that creative people or designers or whoever are not not being asked to get involved, so things are carrying on as they always have. I feel we have a part to play.”
“Designers are always tagged on the end of a project,” says Aidan.
“‘Can you just make this look nice?’” says Darren.
“But if we were involved in the process we could come up with some better results than just adding the aesthetics at the end. There is a lot of design thinking that can go into helping things last longer, instead being just a two year project.”
“It comes down to vision,” says Darren. “There doesn’t seem to be a vision for Huddersfield. What are we? I’m pretty sure Leeds and Manchester have got some idea of what they want to be, but it just feels like we don’t really know.
“I don’t know whether that’s a confidence thing, or it’s just that nobody has thought about it, or whether we’re still actually trying to find out; but I think that’s something the creative community can develop and help.
“I think the fastest growing industry across Kirklees at the moment is the creative sector, so it feels like there should be some sort of representation. It’s not about being political; we’re not after seats on any boards. But towns and cities need creativity to drive them as much as they need industry and anything else.
“I guess that’s part of why we started Wilson’s Republic. It’s a chance to try, to grow something from the ground up, something that’s a bit more solid, something that’s not just here for a couple of years. We’re hoping this will grow.”
And if it grows, it could become anything, in any direction; just as, if you start in Huddersfield, and try to find it, if you look in any direction, you’ll see something that’s different, but always very Huddersfield. Because it’s something that’s built over years, something that’s beautiful, something that people love; something people love so much, they’re willing to work to make it better. ••