“I don’t really subscribe to the notion of the designer as a problem solver; sure, finding the solution to a brief at hand is the lion’s share of design work, but I think the role of a designer can transcend that, too. Design can initiate and anticipate; it doesn’t just have to react. Design can be the brief as well as the solution, it can even be the ecosystem that the two operate in.”
Robin Howie is a graduate of both Kingston University and the Royal College of Art, and since 2010 has presided over an ecosystem known as Fieldwork Facility, a studio that takes on design projects concerned with both communications and experiences, with a particular focus on making work with a social impact. This has led to work with a number of local London councils, developing initiatives to support regeneration projects and encourage residents to participate in the evolution of their surroundings. It’s also meant working on briefs that raise awareness of environmental issues, to shed light on problems that design alone cannot solve.
“I’ve been carrying around this notion for a while that design is a role of citizenship,” says Howie. “Before I’m a designer I’m a citizen, but being a citizen doesn’t require me to do anything other than live somewhere. Citizenship however, is a far more interesting idea. Citizenship implies having some sort of proactive role where you live; for me ‘design’ and ‘citizenship’ are very closely related. In my design work I aim to have the most positive impact possible. Not every project will be trying to save the world, or even be overtly socially conscious, but if you can make a positive contribution through your work, even just by leaving something better than how you found it, then that becomes your responsibility.”
To this end Howie often works at a small scale, creating branding and identities for local businesses, the impact of which can immediately be seen. In Hoe Street, a road in the London borough of Waltham Forest, Howie created branding and signage for 10 local businesses, including a grocer, barber, tattoo parlor, plumbing merchant, and alternative healing center. Although not typically clients who could afford to engage the services of a designer like Howie, working with the local council allowed them to revitalize their brands. And of course, Howie treated them no differently than his regular clients.
“To be honest,” he says, “I’ll often start the conversation with the same simple questions that I’d ask a CEO or director of a much larger organization. It’s about connecting with an organization on a human level and understanding what makes a client tick; getting them to articulate who they are, what they do, and the challenges they’re facing.
“I guess where a local shopkeeper might differ, though, is not immediately seeing the value of differentiation in their sector, or even in their neighborhood. If you live and work on your local high [main] street, your frame of reference may be limited by what your direct competition is doing, and so by extension that shop might think it’s too risky to do something a little different to their competitors. So along with the conversation you might want to jump in a car and explore some analogous references, or bring samples and designs along so they can start to see there’s other, possibly more appropriate, ways of doing things.”
Where projects initiated by local councils are concerned there’s often a large number of people that need some persuasion; the buck doesn’t stop with the shopkeepers themselves. “For example, if a council is paying for shopfronts to be improved, they will want the best for the business, but they will have their own motivations, too. The project might be for a specific shop, but it stitches into a wider program of work. That’s just where you need to be honest and make sure your stitching doesn’t have any invisible seams.”
Most recently Howie has produced new branding for a sustainable initiative based in Oxford, helping Low Carbon Hub grow from a small-time startup into an active part of the local landscape, working within schools, businesses, and communities to help initiate and realize renewable energy projects that are community-owned, investing 100% of their profits back into their schemes. Even a project with a message as positive as this needs help communicating their goals to outsiders.
“The first project to kick off was the manifesto; telling the story of how community-owned renewable energy schemes can bring a public benefit. The concept that was chosen was called ‘Postcode Power’ it was all about showing the energy inside local postcodes [which is what we call zip codes in the UK]. When you dig into how and what Low Carbon Hub do, there’s lots of technical jargon. We knew that we needed a more engaging and more immediate way to talk about the organization’s work—we needed to make it local, and relevant to local people.
“Our nighttime photography approach came out of an observation that it is easier to understand energy by seeing how it is used, rather than being told how it is made. Light painting was used to further this idea and communicate messages in Oxfordshire towns and villages.”
Although Low Carbon Hub was already named and partially branded, Howie was faced with the challenge of helping them transition into a new stage of expansion. Do projects like these feel constrained when a designer inherits another’s work, particularly within green initiatives that have a tried and tested visual language?
“It’s the rub between work that is appropriate and work that attempts to be appropriate whilst pushing things forward, says Howie. “We had explored a name change that would have resulted in a new logo for Low Carbon Hub, but decided that a change of name was the right move but the wrong time (the Conservative government has just changed legislation and made renewable energy’s landscape very precarious). So with the rebrand we retained the logo and that came with colours that we fleshed out into a broader system.
“It’s a great difficult question though. Sometimes I find myself thinking about things like the packaging of economy food; do the graphics and packaging communicate an economy price point in a unbiased way, or do they manipulate our perception of quality? If it does affect how we think about food, whats’s the cost?”
The opportunity to ask these kinds of questions is what Howie looks for in a client, but most importantly he’s interested in finding people who are happy to place their trust in him.
“I look for clients that want me to get under the skin of their organization and peer beyond the brief. Working with me I think is perhaps quite personal; I often work independently and most of the time I’ll be the sole contact on a project. I think it must take a lot of trust for a client to enter that scenario. In terms of what I think they get from me, it’s about the opportunity to explore making a meaningful impact, working with a designer that brings independent thought and rigorous investigation, with equal measures of idealism and pragmatism.”