GRINtroducing: Daniel Alcorn & Luke Tonge

Creators of Birmingham Design Festival and Birmingham Design, Daniel Alcorn and Luke Tonge join us for a chat

It’s time for another GRINtroducing, and this time we have some fabulous local guests who are championing Birmingham’s creative community, Daniel and Luke. Founding the very successful Birmingham Design Festival in 2017, the pair also run Birmingham Design as well as Glug Birmingham. Alongside this, Dan works at Substrakt and Luke works as an independent designer whilst also lecturing at Birmingham City University. We got chatting to them both…

1) Hello Dan & Luke! First of all, thank you for taking part in our GRINtroducing series. For those that don’t know you, could you introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about you both and how you met?

Dan: Thanks for having us! Sure – I’m Dan Alcorn, I’m a Designer and front-end developer at Substrakt, based in the Jewellery Quarter. We produce digital products for arts and cultural organisations. In addition to that, Luke and I run Birmingham Design with our amazing team of volunteers, helping the local design community through events, advice and support. Luke and I first met a few years ago at a meet up called Badego and continually bumped into each other at various design led events.

Luke: I’m Luke Tonge, a graphic designer originally from Nottinghamshire but now calling Birmingham home. My background is a mixture of big-brand agency work, and indie magazine passion projects. Now, I split my time between my own practise, lecturing at BCU, and helping Dan with the running of Birmingham Design and its associated tendrils – a mixture I like to refer to as ‘funlancing’. As Dan mentioned, our paths crossed a number of years ago through our shared love of the design community here in Brum.

 

2) Congratulations on the success of Birmingham Design Festival! Take us right back to 2017 – how did it all begin?

Dan: When I first moved to the city in 2012 I was amazed at how quiet the design scene felt. There was lots of great work being done but not a huge sense of community or too many events going on. I remember thinking that festivals in places like Manchester and Cheltenham had really helped establish a reputation for design in their respective cities that didn’t currently exist in Birmingham.

At the time, however, Birmingham wasn’t ready for a design festival (nor was I ready to put one on). Over the years we watched as design events such as Badego and Glug became more prominent and the appetite for creative events happening in the city was growing. I too was growing in confidence, delivering events with our small Badego team that were well received.

In 2017, as we sat watching people spilling out the door of a very packed Glug Birmingham, I felt the time was right to look at putting something together on a larger scale. I had thoughts around how I’d love to deliver an event that brought lots of the great smaller events together in one big celebration. A festival that was truly accessible from a financial sense, that showcased lots of different creative mediums sectioned into different areas of a venue so people could fully immerse themselves in a particular practice. This later became our design districts of Graphic, Digital and Product.

With these ideas in hand I got in touch with Luke, knowing how well connected he was with folk in the industry. We shared a disdain of design conferences pricing out students and people just starting out, so over a lunch got to work sharing ideas of how we could deliver something at such a large scale that was affordable and brought together a team of people we knew and trusted to help us.

Luke: Dan’s right that it came together over a lunchtime cuppa in Urban Coffee in the JQ, that’s the visible beginnings, but the reality is that for me preparation for BDF began waaaay back in 2009 when I joined Formfiftyfive and started making industry connections across the UK, and beyond. These relationships would prove invaluable when it came time to reaching out to some of our speakers – and those years of connecting and practising were certainly invaluable when we decided to take things up several gears with the first BDF!

3) All of us at GRIN are so excited to see the line-up announcements and all the fantastic talent you get to attend the talks and events. How do you go about choosing these people and getting them on board?

Luke: Speaker selection and line-up curation is probably the most complex and overlooked aspect of what we do, and we take that responsibility very seriously – knowing whoever we’re inviting we’re giving a platform too over others. I’m usually lead firstly by the events theme, and then within that framework we’re always trying to achieve a balance – not just of representation across gender, location, socio-economic and ethnicity – but also in terms of mixing well-known crowd pullers, and fresh talent who deserve the opportunity.

Dan: Luke and I have different networks in terms of who we know but also who we want to bring to the festival and that works really well. Luke’s much more versed on designers who are doing really great work in a traditional sense and I’m very into pop culture and get inspired by design for film & tv. We don’t just stick to those niches though, as we both contribute to the programme in a multitude of ways, all the same we have different tastes and skillsets that compliment each other with everything we do. It’s this collaboration that helps create a diverse festival that caters to hardcore design enthusiasts and people with a more casual interest.

In terms of getting them on board it’s mainly a lot of emailing. We list the people we’d like to bring, with contributions from the team and wider community and start to get in touch with them. Sometimes we’ll make personal visits if we know they’re speaking at an event, sometimes we’ll see someone speak at an event we weren’t aware of and approach them afterwards because we enjoyed their talk so much.

 

4) Organising a multi day festival of events must come with a few hiccups. Has there ever been a time where you thought “OH NO!”?

Dan: There’s a constant spinning of plates and its quite incredible how much things go up and down in the course of a couple of days. From having no headlines speakers to suddenly having 4 confirm. I’ve had weeks where I’ve been feeling very worried or low because some things haven’t fallen into place (or have fallen out of place) only for something to come up and be even better than what we’d planned.

The biggest actual ‘moment’ where I thought ‘oh no’ was during the opening night of the 2019 festival. We held an event based around community at Mama Roux’s where we typically hold Glug Birmingham. For some reason, despite the fact we didn’t sell any more tickets than we normally do for a Glug (the event sold out), there seemed to be so many more people there than we had had in the past. Way too many in fact. I’ve been in there when there’s too many people, it’s not a fun experience and I’ve always said we’d never do that. I was worried that people couldn’t see properly, it was extremely warm and people were tired from walking around all day. About 20 minutes into the opening talk of the night someone fainted. It was like a rock concert, but not in a good way.

Fortunately things settled down. Some people left, which we felt terrible about, and some people got refunds. It’s a shame, I still don’t really know why it felt so full. We’re putting it down to less dropouts due to the nature/price of the event in comparison to a normal Glug.

Luke: For me there’s been plenty over the last few years! The biggest squeaky bum moment was probably in our first year, having gently persuaded Aaron Draplin (one of my fave designers) he should take a punt on a big trip to the UK to attend a festival which didn’t exist yet – we had some major issues with flight availability, followed by a weekend of ‘this is happening!’ moments, which were then followed by ‘this is never going to happen!’ rollercoaster of emotions. Fortunately the stars aligned (eventually) and Aaron made it – brought the house down – and all was well that ended well. No-one saw those panicked days Dan and I spent behind the scenes.

“…we have different tastes and skillsets that compliment each other with everything we do”

5) Birmingham Design – we LOVE that there is this hub for the creative community of the West Midlands (so thanks for that!) What would both of you say is your favourite aspect of Birmingham Design?

Luke: For me, it’s that perceptions are actually changing – and while we’re only playing a part in that, it’s really rewarding to hear students and professionals from others parts of the UK refer to Birmingham as one of the places which has a vibrant and active design community. In terms of what I enjoy about the Birmingham Design community, it’s the can-do and have-a-go attitude – there’s ambition here for sure, but not at the expense of the character of the place/people, and I love that mix.

Dan: I think having a platform to be able to easily show people everything that’s happening in the design community is really useful. When someone moves to the city and wants to know what events are happening, who are the cool people doing great work or where they can go to meet their colleagues – we can point them to the website for everything they need.

 

6) There were some really interesting stats in the first annual Birmingham Design Survey, was there anything in there that surprised you?

Luke: On the first page of results was a frustrating, yet not unexpected stat about the gender gap – that 70% of our student responders were female, yet when you exclude students from our total, it falls to 42%. That tallies with the national stat that 70 per cent of graduates are women – but then there’s a worrying drop off, even in the first year of employment. As someone involved in both education and industry i’m passionate about playing a small part in addressing this.

Dan: Touching on Luke’s point, one of the reasons we put this survey together was to gauge trends in the industry and work out where we need to focus our efforts to make it feel more inclusive. I hope that the number of young women in the industry translates to more working in senior positions in 5-10 years time and that those numbers don’t stagnate. It would be great to see the survey evolve to show that progress being made. This goes for ethnic diversity as well, which showed an even greater imbalance.

7) Let’s talk about local talent! There is so much new and emerging talent coming from the West Midlands – does anyone spring to mind or anyone we should particularly watch out for?

Luke: Haha you’re not wrong! How could we choose? With my lecturer hat on, I find it very hard to pick because all my students are rad, and there’s so much talent coming through. I’d say keep your eyes peeled on our BD Insta particularly (and that of LWDBirmingham and FuseBirmingham) and watch out for a very motivated and resilient talent pool to break out into the world this Summer! I’m so proud of them given the disruption and obstacles they’ve faced – they deserve our respect and support.

Dan: Due to COVID I’ve been far less involved with what the students are doing this year, so it would be really difficult for to comment unfortunately. I can’t wait to get back to regularly engaging with the Uni and the students themselves.

That said, we’ve seen some amazing freelance talent come out of the woodwork since creating our ‘Find a Freelancer’ tool on the BD website. Some amazing animators, illustrators and designers that we’d not heard of have submitted – so it’s great to know they exist and we look forward to collaborating with them in the future.

 

8) If you could give one piece of advice to someone joining the creative community – what would it be?

Dan: Pay it forward. So much of what we’ve been able to do is a result of the kindness of others and I hope people feel we’re reciprocating that back. No matter where you are in the ladder you have a role to play in lifting someone up. I hate it when the design community is negative about each other, anyone can critique another’s work and there’s plenty of keyboard warriors out there to tear down a logo. Instead, shout about the people who are doing great work and make people feel our industry is a space where you can thrive.

Luke: Dive in! Please give it a try, get stuck in, engage with us, come to an event etc. I know some places can be a bit exclusive or cliquey but that really isn’t our vibe at all, we pride ourselves on being inclusive, affordable, welcoming and safe. Networking isn’t just a tactical thing, its really important we have a support system and feel understood. Oh, and don’t be a jerk – please.

“Networking isn’t just a tactical thing, its really important we have a support system and feel understood.”

9) What does the future hold for Birmingham Design and BDF?

Luke: More late nights probably… but we’ve got some big plans, short, medium and long term. In general terms we want to really further establish Birmingham on the national map as a place to study, live and work in the design industry. We also want to play a role in improving things so we have a range of projects and plans we probably shouldn’t mention just yet… watch this space.

Dan: We’ve just launched the Find a Freelancer section of our website, where people from a broad range of skills can list their services and hopefully get snapped up by a business looking for someone in particular for an exciting project. This will be extended into an agency directory, showcasing the great teams out there in the West Midlands.

We’re also collecting data for the second year of our annual survey and just around the corner is our BFF mentoring scheme which is also in its second year.

Event wise we’ve got some more digital events planned this year, eagerly awaiting the point where we can get back under one roof again and enjoy each others company in 3D.

 

10) Plan B – If you weren’t working in Graphic Design, what jobs could you both see yourself working in?

Dan: I like doing anything creative. I’d love to illustrate children’s books, but that’s probably a bit close too my current job to be an interesting answer. I think a video games journalist would be good fun, though having worked for Aston Villa I’m far more hesitant to mix business and pleasure.

Luke: Great question! Probably in young peoples mental health, or mediation of some sort – I always wanted to be a hostage negotiator when I was younger – so that’s probs as close as I’d get in the real world!

To find out more about Dan and Luke, visit:

Birmingham Design: birminghamdesign.co.uk
BDF: birminghamdesignfestival.org.uk
Dan: danielalcorn.com
Luke: luketonge.com