In the Making: Deirdre Breen

In the Making

2nd September 2020
by Deirdre Breen

Cover image: In the Making: Deirdre Breen

Collaboration, critical thinking and a willingness to pivot are all factors that fuel Deirdre Breen’s practice. The Cork-based designer and printmaker shares with us some of her experiences to date, the learnings she’s taken from them and some hopes for the future.


At the beginning of this year, I made the decision to go back to education so I’m currently undertaking a Masters in Art and Process from the Crawford College of Art and Design. It’s a taught Masters and the course offers individual studio spaces. I moved into the new space in January, but when the restrictions were announced the campus closed and I had to move everything home. I’ve always maintained a workspace at home for design projects, so it wasn’t a huge adjustment, but as the weeks rolled on the real-life social connections and the influence that has on my motivation and inspiration definitely became apparent. It’s made me realise that it is an important factor in my creative process.

For the last year, I’ve been working with my friend and long-time collaborator Eimear Gavin under the moniker Manual Made. What began as an outlet for personal projects, has developed into a collaborative graphic design practice. It was originally born from the shared desire to explore new ideas and work processes that didn’t necessarily sit within the 9 to 5 and is grounded in a mutual passion for lively, irreverent design. That foundation has meant that our approach has remained cooperative and supportive, with a less top-down structure. This works well for us as it’s a very open and joyful way of working. We live in different parts of the country but still collaborate daily on commercial projects that span visual identities, brand strategy, packaging and digital projects.

I also work as a Visual Artist. My art practice developed in 2016 when I was living in Dublin and I enrolled in a screen-printing course in Damn Fine Print. I was hooked on the process from the get-go and the effects that can be achieved — beautiful clean lines and intense depths of colour. Since then my work has developed to comprise of screen-prints, site-specific murals, rug designs and lately I’ve been exploring sculpture and 3D pieces.

Various projects #1 (Collaborators: Eimear Gavin (Manual Made
, Set Design: Vivienne Quinn, Photographer: Ruth Connolly).)

The year I graduated (from Visual Communications in Limerick School of Art & Design), Ireland had descended into a recession, so jobs were few and far between. I had always wanted to live and work abroad, so this gave me the added impetus I needed and I moved to London where I lived and worked for 4 years. While I was there, I worked in-house for a corporation which paid well but wasn’t creatively fulfilling. I made a point of engaging with design organisations to grow my network, and this also presented the opportunity to get involved in interesting projects that I was passionate about.

I voluntarily became an active member of the organisation Graphic Birdwatching, a platform and network dedicated to promoting and supporting women in Design. I was part of the design and curatorial team for the organisation’s ‘Graphic Design Walk’, an open studio walk celebrating the work and practice of female creatives in East London. The walk showed visitors how varied studio set-ups can be. We had a typographer who worked from a café, a graphic design studio who worked from a garage and a book designer who worked in-house for Penguin Books, amongst lots of others. The response to the walk was tremendous and it was featured in Creative Review and Slanted Magazine. The experience was invaluable and I made many friends and professional connections along the way.

Various projects #2

I came to a point last year where I needed more flexibility to pursue both aspects of my practice, and also felt that I needed a better foundation for how I want my practice to evolve. So I made the decision to go back to college and work for myself. I’m definitely in a transformational stage at the moment, but I believe that giving myself this time and space to research, develop and position my practice will be beneficial in the long run.

As a student (and throughout my career) I’ve been inspired by designers who maintained a practice in both art and design — people like Max Bill and Johannes Itten. The interplay between conceptual and graphic art has always been a source of inspiration, and I think to-date it has had a big impact on both my design process and aesthetic choices.

Along the way, I’ve found it’s crucial to develop strong critical thinking skills. Design isn’t just how well you know your programmes — but the individual perspective you bring to a project. It’s good to have opinions and the right workplace will want to listen to these and discuss them openly.

My decision to go back and undertake an MA was also to engage with design in a more critical way. One of my lecturers recently directed me to a passage in a text that I feel sums up how I want to approach projects in the future, and what I’m hoping to get out of the next few months;

“Designers are always understood as solving a problem. Artists, intellectuals, and writers are expected to ask questions, to make us hesitate, to see our world and ourselves differently for a moment, and therefore to think. Why not design as a way of asking questions. Why not design that produces thought-provoking hesitations in the routines of everyday life rather than simply servicing those routines? Why not design that encourages us to think? Design as an urgent call to reflect on what we and our companion species have become.” — ‘Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design’ by Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley.

Akimbo rug for Ceadogán (Photographer: Bríd O'Donovan

Collaboration is an important aspect of my practice — whether it’s been working with Ceadogán Rugmakers on rug designs, Concrete Forest on concrete artworks or the projects with Eimear through Manual Made — it’s been so valuable on many levels. It’s very invigorating to be amongst such talented people who generously give their time and advice when it’s needed. When you have the right mix of people, working together on a project, it can generate new modes of thinking and knowledge. It also cultivates empathy and respect and has made me a more self-reflective and self-aware person.

Working closely with people from other creative areas with different skillsets and expertise has also made me realise that it’s good to pivot — a linear career trajectory isn’t the be-all and end-all. I’ve realised collaboration and being involved in a variety of work suits my personality and keeps things interesting. And the key to this for me has really been understanding that we need to feed our passions, because often (with a bit of luck and hard work) these passions can become the ‘thing’ that you end up doing.



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