Design as storytelling: Blair Francey

Blair Francey is a 2012 MA Design: Critical Practice graduate at Goldsmiths; when it came to chatting to him about his work here and beyond, we had to resort to Skype, as he has already returned to his native Canada. We had quite a bit to talk about: Blair runs his own design startup, BFDesign, offering branding, print media, consultations and social media planning services. The firm has been going for 4 years and Blair told me he was very pleased with how it was going. He also had good things to say about his time at Goldsmiths, which he called an “eye-opener”, expanding his idea about what a designer is and does, and giving him the chance to be around designers from so many different backgrounds and specialties, and…well, here’s some of the actual chatting:

Nadia: Tell me more about your graduation project, “Public Transit Remixed”.

Blair: The more politicians talk about expanding the transit network here in Toronto and the province, the more I realized how little they talked about the actual experience of being on transit. It was always centered around moving people further and faster. So I wanted to approach public transit from the experiential standpoint … what does it mean to ride transit and how can it become more than just jumping on a train to get somewhere? How can it become engaging for everyone, more inclusive, easier to use …

Public Transit Remixed Exhibition.013

Nadia: What ideas did you come up with?

Blair: Well … there were quite a few. I looked at what a completely integrated system would look like – what if the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) took over all forms of transit in the city – walking, cycling, ferries, auto-share cars, trams, etc – and created a seamless network accessible through one card?

One idea is to create walking maps that look like the Underground network to encourage people to walk through a city – so instead of saying walk to Bay Street and then down Yonge, you’d say, take the Red line across and change at the Blue line (or something to that effect.) This would also be applied to things like bike maps and signage for cycling so that it becomes easier to navigate through the city streets.

A lot of our subway stations here are single-use buildings that are one level – so why not build them up? Multi-story subway stations would then become community hubs with space on top for shared workspaces (so people didn’t have to commute all the way downtown and clog up the subways), or a cafe, or a community centre, or a rooftop garden with an urban farm on it. I basically looked at various aspects of the current system and tried to approach it from a holistic standpoint as opposed to the fragmented way it is at the moment.

Nadia: How does one go about implementing such ideas? Have you tried pitching them to authorities who could do that?

Public Transit Remixed Exhibition 2.022

Blair: Implementing a concept like the one I’ve proposed would take a lot of political will-power. Unfortunately we suffer from a consistent lack of political foresight when it comes to transit in Toronto and are currently facing the longest commute times for drivers in all of North America – which is staggering. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in 2007, we’re also losing $3 Billion dollars worth of productivity because of these commute times. I would very much like to talk to people at the TTC and City and see what kind of interest there is in beginning to shift focus and thinking about the design of the network to something like this project, but in all honesty, it’s a bit of a long shot that anything like this would get picked up right away. But I think moving forward, the City and Province (and Federal government) need to think about this type of work alongside the infrastructure.

Nadia: Now, looking at the client list of your firm: most of them are from the field of theatre and performing arts. You have studied playwriting yourself, so you understand both aspects of the story, the art and the branding and marketing of the finished work. Is it an advantage for you to be “one of them” to a certain extent?

Blair: Yes, I think it is. I started out in theatre and was thinking that was the direction I was headed in and then decided to change careers when I started BFdesign. I think that having worked in theatre certainly influences my work as a designer today – because of the understanding of narrative. It’s important that you can visually tell a story for your client and engage them through the design of whatever it is you’re selling.

I think there’s a bit of a lack of understanding of this in the theatre community … here in Toronto anyway. The bigger musicals seem to get it and London does it pretty well – marketing shows – but time after time I see posters for shows here that are a bit too … ‘artsy’ if that makes sense. Because we are constantly bombarded with advertising everywhere we go these days you really have to stand out in the crowd. Hollywood does a good job in marketing movies with very interesting and engaging images on posters – I think the theatre community could take a cue from this type of marketing better …

Nadia: You mentioned that you take a storytelling approach to design. But what is design to you?

Blog interview images

Blair: Design is … a process. It’s a reimagining of something that exists or the imagining of something that can enhance our lives (talking in broad strokes here). I see design as a way to better ourselves be it through print, the environment, transit etc. Design tells a story – it has an inherit narrative. We as humans are constantly striving to better ourselves and it’s through design that we can achieve this – and so design is an ever-evolving process. We may answer a problem through design but that answer will inevitably offer more questions.

Nadia: What else would you like to tell people about yourself and your work?

Blair: That it’s awesome! Just kidding. My work is in flux at the moment. I’m taking this year to re-evaluate what it is I want to do in the future as a designer. Graphic design will always be something I’m interested in and will continue to do, but after I completed the MA it gave me a chance to think about what I could be doing beyond the computer. I’m very interested in projects like the public transit one and engaging with communities on a more human-scale.

Nadia Barbu

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