Experts explore how fairer funding might be the answer to making the industry “more accessible”.
Sarah Douglas, co-founder of consultancy The Liminal Space, has hosted a talk about steps the design industry can take to increase funding opportunities for marginalised groups.
The talk took place inside the Shifting Perceptions exhibition at Gallery Oxo – an immersive exhibition designed by The Liminal Space in partnership with Shift, a charity that halps young people to “break the destructive cycles of crime”.
The exhibition aims to tell the story of the charity’s work through the voices of young people and the Shift guides that they work with, across three installations.
Douglas was joined by Rooted by Design executive director Julian Thompson, Shift charity co-founder Sophie Humphries OBE, and London Science Gallery director and co-founder of the Grand Plan fund Siddharth Khajuria.
Rooted by design is a social design organisation that focusses on policy issues and bringing voices from black communities into design and the Grand Plan fund awards £1,000 grants to UK-based people of colour for their cultural projects.
When it comes to accessing funding, most of the panel agreed that a “people-centred approach” would increase accessibility to the industry.
However, Humphries argued that “if you do something effectively to create change” then a good financial argument for why you should get funding will come naturally. According to the rest of the panel, accessing funding is not as straightforward as this.
One major barrier cited was lengthy application forms. For independent designers or smaller studios, a long application process with no guarantee of funding could be off-putting.
London Science Gallery director and Grand Plan grant co-founder Siddharth Khajuria says that “more conversations need to be had” to simplify funding application forms and look for “ways of making meetings more human.”
Since 2021, Grand Plan has awarded 49 £1000 grants to people of colour to fund their projects. “At its heart it’s trying to replicate that invisible middle-class leg up,” says Khajuria.
The panel argued that, in theory, giving funding to social groups who would not otherwise be able to access the design industry, would make design practice and output more accessible and inclusive.
Khajuria also discussed the choices that larger bodies within the industry make when providing funding. “If you’re administering a million pounds you have a choice to give four £250,000 grants or a thousand £1000 grants,” he says.
Thompson adds that wider, fairer funding could open doors for social groups normally excluded from art and design.
He describes his own relationship with design as “love-hate” because of his awareness that certain spaces are “missing people and voices”, especially those with “lived experience”, due to lack of funding and resources. In his view, “thinking beyond constraints” is only possible if the industry becomes less consumed by “the right way, the status quo, and what we see as professional design”.
The panel also tackled education funding with Douglas commenting that more funding is needed in art and design education to “support the ecosystem that will create the radical designers of the future”.
In 2020, the pandemic triggered budget cuts across higher education, with the already underfunded art and design departments taking the brunt of the blow. In July 2021, government ministers were accused of launching “one of the biggest attacks on arts and entertainment in living memory” by a member of the University and College Union when they approved a 50% funding cut across art and design degrees.
Then education secretary Gavin Williamson admitted that funding was going to be redirected to “high-cost provision that supports key industries and the delivery of vital public services” or in other words, STEM subjects.
It seems that universities are still feeling the consequences of this decision. The University of Wolverhampton is reportedly planning to axe courses in design, fashion, fine art and social sciences, while the University of Huddersfield have threated to sack 37 staff in its school of arts and humanities.
Though the funding cuts have had clear negative effects nationwide, the panel talks of a silver lining that could come from new modes of learning and thinking that art and design students have been forced into.
Douglas used to work at the Royal College of Art in the innovation unit, which remains a “very well-funded space”. However, she adds that it was often the people working “at the edge of these spaces” that were doing the most interesting work.
“Real innovation goes hand in hand with resourcefulness,” she says. “This is not an argument not to provide funding as I feel all these things need to be better invested in [at all levels].”
Thompson highlights that most designers will come out of university and find themselves working in very small teams with little resources and low budgets. He explains that in cases like this, budding designers might have to stray away from what they have learnt at university.
“It’s about being able to think about the conditions and completely reimagine that practice itself and come up with new ways to engage people, which I think is very liberating,” he says. “Something really special can come out of having to rely on your own genius.”
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Industry wide change “needs to happen” to open up funding opportunities to all