Three years ago, Edinburgh College of Art students Beth Wilson and James Gilchrist wanted to do something about the fact that graphic design was extremely underrepresented in their country. Instead of settling with taking the train down to London to visit the countless festivals the British capital has to offer, the pair decided it was high time to bring graphic design to Scotland—so they founded Graphic Design Festival Scotland (GDFS) in 2013 during their final year of school. While juggling end of year college projects with pitching for finance and organizing a stellar list of speakers, the duo launched a festival that’s now considered one of the UK’s very finest.
This year’s GDFS is its largest program to date (visitors have doubled since last year), with Wieden+Kennedy and Alan Kitching on this year’s bill, alongside design darlings Nous Vous, PUTPUT, and Grilli Type.
Starting out with no money, no venue, no reputation, no support, no experience, and end-of-year college deadlines to boot, what GDFS has achieved in a very short period of time is extraordinary. So how did two students manage to secure their festival as one of the most anticipated graphic design events in Britain in just three years?
“With a lot of determination, naiveté, and confidence,” says Gilchirst. “There was a huge amount of luck at the beginning.” In its first year, the festival partnered with Deutsche Bank, it was sponsored by Innis & Gunn, and had Eike König, Kesselkramer, 44 Flavours, and OK-RM running workshops. “I think setting a high standard from the beginning has been integral to the success of GDFS.”
The partnership with Deutsche Bank came about as Gilchrist and Wilson won its Creative Business Award, for which they wrote a comprehensive two-pronged business plan carefully detailing the hows and whys of GDFS and their design studio, Warriors. This start-up money covered studio rent for their first year and got the festival off the ground. Gilchirst and Wilson also managed to convince their university to count the project as schoolwork (the pair must have received top marks). “We were also offered an amazing business mentor for 12 months, who we still work with today and comes to our events,” continues Gilchrist. “Thanks Jill!”
With start-up money sorted, everything else followed organically; a good idea fronted by a compassionate and determined duo is difficult not to fall for. “We were completely open with what we were doing and why we were doing it, and I think people connected with our genuine, if perhaps ambitious intentions, and saw something they wanted to be a part of,” says Gilchrist when asked about garnering a committed audience and securing big-name guests. He also describes the design world as “relatively small,” so word of mouth and social media was crucial for connecting with people.
“One of the best tips at the beginning was from our friend Ali of studio Recoat. His golden advice was to piggyback on those who are involved and grow through association,” adds Gilchrist. And what advice would he now offer to students or designers looking to start their own festival? “Make sure you have some favours banked because you’re going to need them,” he cautions.
GDFS has always been aspiring, but it has a charming community feel to it each year. You can tell its been organized by a bunch of friends, and this is part of its appeal. Close acquaintances of Gilchrist and Wilson work the ticket booth and help run the event, and I’ve also heard that one of their moms runs the bar. The event aims high, but the team is smart—like all of the best businesses—with the way that it operates.
For this year’s event the preparation has been entirely different, and the team has grown from two to three, with junior project manager Victoria Donnelly on board as an additional “Warrior” helping to manage what Gilchrist describes as “the GDFS beast.” This year there are three ambitious new offerings on the bill: an International Poster Exhibition featuring 200 posters from around the world, plus exhibitions by Design Displacement Group and PUTPUT.
“We’re definitely feeling the pressure from these, and spatial planning is a whole new world to us,” says Gilchrist. “We’re also considering logistics, electronics, and AV more carefully this year—boring but crucial—it’s the stuff they don’t teach you at art school!”
Ultimately, the success of GDFS comes down to the vision and passion of its founders, and whatever question is fired at Gilchrist, he always comes back to the same thing: “The more we can raise the profile of the practice and bring graphic design into the public conscious, the better.”