Sharon Walsh

The Personality of Irish Design

9th January 2018
by Paul Woods

Cover image: Sharon Walsh

Up next is Sharon Walsh, a designer from Dublin who has been working in an array of studios - in an array of countries - since she graduated from IADT in 2012. She has worked on a host of different projects from tiny packaging projects to shaping the customer journey in one of Europe’s biggest airports. She's worked in a mix of tiny 3-6 people studios and massive international agencies, in Ireland and across Europe. 'These days though you can find me struggling on the daily, with typesetting German words in a little agency called, with a few friends, here in lovely Berlin!'


Do you feel that Irish design has its own personality? What attributes make it unique?

Yes! At this point I’ve worked in Spain, The Netherlands and Germany with teams of people from all over the world — and at first I shy away from this topic because I always feel it veers into dangerous national stereotype territory but in the same way you might nod when I say ‘the Germans are quite precise and pay attention to detail’ equally you'd accept that the Irish have ‘a bit of a mad sense of humour but are great with a story’. I genuinely believe that these attributes permeate our approach and also the work we produce itself.

In parallel to this and working with quite a few interns and recent graduates, I can see also the incredible advantage our design education gives us. In my experience, the balance between theory and practice that they beat into us in our degree days means a lot of the time Irish design can be fundamentally rooted in a thorough research process and executed through a competent and wide skill set – while still subversively taking the piss: this, in my experience, is uniquely Irish.

Is ‘Irishness’ important in our work, or to our designers?

This is an interesting question for me because as an emigrant, it’s something I think about quite often. I imagine it’s quite different for someone who has worked in Ireland consistently and never needed to define their work in these terms.

But then I have a distinct memory of being in Critical Theory class and having my mind blown by the realisation that even a postage stamp can convey notions of national identity. So in this respect, I’ve always been fascinated by this topic and felt it was a significant aspect that shaped my thinking about design. But this is clearly highly individual and I’d never want to speak for our designers. Nevertheless it’s a great question and definitely a conversation I’d love to have with more people.

Do you think it matters if Irish design is recognised as Irish design?

Personally I feel it’s very important. As an emigrant, you want to be proud of where you come from, of the education you’ve received and of the people who stayed to shape the country in this respect.

Let’s be frank, when I think about design in Ireland, I think of how young is still is, in terms of a broader societal acceptance and understanding. I think of hundreds of confused parents nodding when my own dad explains that I’m ‘over there, colouring with Angela Merkel’. Initiatives like Irish Design 2015 have made leaps in this respect and I’m very grateful to them. But this makes me realise how privileged am I to be working in countries where strong design traditions mean this isn’t an issue — and I personally feel that I would be doing a massive disservice to everyone back home if I wasn’t to encourage the work that I do and what I stand for as a designer to be considered 'Irish'.

How is Irish design perceived in Germany?

Part of what I’ve said in my last answer stems from the fact that, actually, I don’t feel like there is real definable perception of Irish design here in Germany, or certainly not in the places I’ve worked. This could be for a number of reasons, perhaps it’s because the Irish design community here is quite small that we haven’t managed to make an impression or perhaps it’s because all too often I get lumped into being ‘from the UK’ and so nobody makes that distinction.

I think it’s not like in London or New York, where being Irish in itself is enough to throw up positive associations – coupled with the great work of the many talented people who have gone before you. Because of the language barrier of working in mainland Europe, I think the Irish design pockets are considerably smaller and so it’s harder to carve out an impression.

In a really practical example, working as I do a lot now, auf Deutsch, makes it harder, for me to play out this wry Irish humour and for those around me to perceive that as my Irishness. So I think it’s difficult but it is something I would like to see change and I’m happy to keep spreading the word here.

When you think of ‘Irish design’, what designers/agencies come to mind and why?

Well now my focus is firmly on how I would ideally introduce a German friend to ‘Irish design’ and for this, three people spring to mind:

Eileen Grey — not only am I a massive fan of her career but because immediately it adds a gravitas and historical context to Irish design as a real thing. (Plus the Germans can appreciate good furniture design more than most.)

Annie Atkins — her talk at Offset was really defining for me. She had a simple goal, which was to open up students and designers to the possibilities that exist outside of ‘conventional graphic design careers’ – in her case filmmaking. But her work coupled with her passion to reach out and spread this message makes her, in my eyes, a wonderful candidate for an ‘Irish design’ ambassador. (If you get a chance to check out her talk, you definitely should.)

Kate Brangan — I first came across Kate through her Risograph printing workshops but quickly realised that she had an impressive array of self initiated projects and initiatives besides this. Kate’s actual (lovely) work aside, it’s this ethic — this DIY/sharing economy/nurturing a small community vibe — that I really miss about Dublin, value immensely as a designer and would want people here to get a sense of as a really core aspect of ‘Irish design’ culture.

And yes, they’re all female. How great!

In the past 10 years with the arrival of platforms like Offset and the 100 Archive, is Irish design is more recognised on the international stage?

Even though I’ve said what I have about my particular experience in mainland Europe, I do feel like this is definitely the case. I’ve been to Offset a few times now and you just have to look around or rather, throw an ear out, to hear the accents of the people it attracts, to know that these initiatives and platforms are getting out and reaching people further afield. I think there’s definitely still work to be done but in the meantime I’m grateful, and proud, that I can point people in Germany to the great work on the 100 Archive site, or the incredible Offset lineup. Keep up the good work!


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