Visiting lecturer Liam Healy: “I love being part of the open test-space of ideas that education allows”

Today, an interview with freelance designer Liam Healy, who got his BA in Design at Goldsmiths in 2009 and now teaches on the course:

Q: How was your own time as a Design student at Goldsmiths? What did you expect when you first started out and what do you think you got out of it in the end?

A: I wanted to study fine art during my foundation and found the design course after deciding that fine art wasn’t for me. My main expectation was the unknown! I found the course challenged any notion that I had of design before I joined, and it continues to do so now. I think the most important thing I took away from the course was a design process.

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The Birds wearable experience from Sets & Props workshop

Q: How did you find opportunities after you graduated, and what would you say are the pros and cons of carving your own path, as you did by founding Jailmake and freelancing?

A: I think we graduated at a funny time – there was a strange gloomy atmosphere, the recession had hit and there didn’t seem to be many options for us. Post-graduation was a bit of a downer. Jamie (the other founder of Jailmake) and I both discussed how we couldn’t find places to work that made the sort of work we wanted to do, or used a process that we wanted to use. After graduating we worked together at a new start-up in Spain, and that’s when we decided to set up Jailmake. We wanted to use the design processes and collaborative atmosphere of the studio/workshop that we were part of at Goldsmiths to realise projects through a process with making at its core. Setting up alone without much experience wasn’t ideal or easy, but we decided it was a good time, because we had nothing to lose. It was most difficult convincing people to allow us to do work for them – we had to try to win work without a portfolio.

After a few years Jailmake and I split paths (we’re still good friends!). Our intention was to be a design studio with making at its core, but we tended to be acting as fabricators for commercial clients, which I was less interested in.

Q: What is design to you, in a nutshell?

A: Design is everything!

Q: Can you think of (and describe) a particular project that represents your aesthetic as a designer and that you are very proud of?

A: The workshop I ran in Split in Croatia a few months ago embodied my current interests. I got the students to design new apocalypses and then re-imagine the architectures of Split for new post-apocalyptic societies. It was a week long project and the students really surprised me, some went with full-on disaster, others were far more utopian.

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Future Cities Catapult exhibition design

On the other side of my work, I recently designed with Kin a new exhibition space for Future Cities that I think demonstrates my working methods well. The space needed to be really flexible, so, borrowing cues from architecture, we looked to special bricks that join and build unconventional forms. These come together to make up ‘islands’ for display. We used lots of modelling and 1:1 prototyping throughout, and aimed to keep the furniture and other elements as light as possible to let the content speak for itself.

Q: What’s it like to teach at Goldsmiths? How has the context of being a Design student now changed since you were a student yourself?

A: Teaching is brilliant! I love being part of the open test-space of ideas that education allows. It’s an extra exciting time at the moment because of how students are able to use technology and how open and accessible that has become. Something as simple and accessible as digital SLRs means that the students can make professional films really quickly and easily. The processes are much less restricted, so students can make, test, prototype, produce and feed that back into their thinking between tutorials.

Q: What do you think is the value of design education for the industry nowadays? How does it prepare them for “life after University”?

A: I’m a little sceptical about a design education for industry – I think that the design industry is a strange, unconvincing place. To produce an education just to feed into that job market wouldn’t get the best from the students and certainly wouldn’t produce the most interesting work. I think that what a design education should do is give students the confidence to carve out their own idea of what an industry is or should be. In the same way that the students are taught to pull apart their briefs, the same should be done with the world that they’re thrown into after graduating. Having said that, I think the Goldsmiths design education prepares students brilliantly for industry, precisely because of that questioning and the creativity it produces. People in industry really want and need the level of thinking and professionalism that Goldsmiths encourages.

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Design the end of the world- “Men extinct”

Q: Your blog collects research on “The end of the world”- which is a vast concept that can range from the end of modern civilisation to the end of the Universe itself. What does thinking about the end of the world mean to you and the way you approach your work?

A: I’m most interested in how people design and make things for the end of the world. “The end of the world” is a fiction that has caught imaginations for millennia – individuals, DIY movements, governments, corporations etc. are designing and building for these fictions and have been for a long time. These present a very real material outcome to fears and anxieties of apocalypses (from insurance policies to massive fallout shelters to dog-training etc.). These architectures and objects reflect our relationship to the state, society and culture – how we imagine ourselves in the world. It’s a practice that is often made fun of in reality TV shows and so on. but I believe they offer quite fascinating, often disturbing reflections.

Images courtesy of Liam Healy