Visual History

A record by design

Ian Doherty

It's not everyday a design book like this comes along; in fact, this one was 25 years in the making. It was published to mark Design Factory's silver jubilee year, but it is so much more than a just trip down memory lane for its founders.

The book is a fascinating insight into how Irish design has emerged from being a conservative necessity into a discipline that is appreciated for both its aesthetics as well as its ability to communicate and move.

It really is the story of Ireland and the Irish experience told through the eyes of some of the country's most influential designers who passed through the doors of Design Factory over the past quarter century.

The studio was founded in two rooms at 68a Grosvenor Road by four fresh-faced students straight out of NCAD; Damien Keenan, Terry Greene, Stephen Kavanagh and Conor Clarke. Despite the road's grandiose name, they only had use of one room.

They probably couldn't have started the new venture at a worse time, it was the mid-1980s and the country was, well, much like it is today. Most of their peers were heading to London, New York or beyond. But the four friends from college had a vision.

They wanted to create here in Ireland, the type of work that was being produced by studios in other countries where the potency of great design was recognised and appreciated both aesthetically and commercially.

From the start, two traits seem to shine through, their professionalism and enthusiasm to create great work. As Greene notes in the book, what set the partners apart during this time was not the fact that they all spent time abroad, Greene in Denmark, Kavanagh in Brazil and Keenan in the US, it was the fact that they all came back.

Clarke waited until his partners returned before he set off to spend time at the BRS Partnership in Amsterdam. The trip crystallised much of his thinking on what needed to be done in Ireland. It wasn't that there was a lack of talent to produce good work, it was just that there was little demand for it among those commissioning design.

The trip resulted in two influences on Design Factory's approach. The first was the start of Clarke's life-long obsession with Dutch design, particularly their use of type. As well as leading by example, by producing world-class work, they wanted to create debate in the industry through speakers and exhibitions they helped bring to Dublin.

The book itself is broken into four main chapters, each charting the work produced at the various studios they have worked in. The work featured in each chapter defines a time, but is also in many cases, as relevant today as it was at the time it was created.

What is even more interesting is how the work chronicles Ireland's new-found confidence from the late eighties on, as it builds its reputation both commercially and culturally. It is quite an achievement that the work produced by just one design studio could be considered by some, as a visual record of a changing Ireland.

Along with some great work for some of Ireland's best known brands and institutions, Design Factory have always been involved in work that they believe feeds the soul. While some critics believe design is a purely economic activity, Clarke disagrees.

“It is a very important cultural function. That's why we do stamps and books, speaker events and teaching. That's our soul-food, the reason we became designers in the first place.” There is plenty of evidence to support Clarke's claim in the book.

It was ably researched and written by MaryAnn Bolger, lecturer in design history and theory at the Waterford Institute of Technology. Kevin Boyle's in-house design strikes the right balance between its own design and the work it is showcasing.

The book has contributions from fellow designers, clients, educators and collaborators. What strikes me most from these and from talking to people at the book launch, is the genuine warmth, affection and admiration for what Design Factory and its partners have achieved over the past 25 years – no mean feat in the cut- throat world of design.

Though they are incredibly serious about the work they produce, they don't take themselves too seriously and that comes across in the book. Great importance is placed on enjoying the process, not just on the end result.

Design Factory is still run by two of its founders, Kavanagh and Clarke. Though the book chronicles their 25-year partnership, they both view it as a work in progress. They still have an incredible and infectious enthusiasm for what they do.

Anyone with even a passing interest in great design and how it is conceived and executed should read the book. It represents what it is possible to achieve, in the best and the worst of times, if you have vision and an appetite to effect change.

a changing Ireland

‘It's an achievement that work by one graphic design studio could be considered as a visual record of a changing Ireland' – Ian Doherty

Ian Doherty ( is managing partner, Bonfire

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