Belfast Design Week

Belfast Design Week (BDW) is an annual week of design events and projects in and around Belfast.  A grass-roots festival supported by local designers and design entrepreneurs, it has grown from year-to-year. We chatted with co-founders of BDW - Christine James, Catherine McGinnis and Karishma Kusurkar about Design Week and how it all came about! 

Why did you decide to start Belfast Design Week?

Karishma - A group of us had formed a design community called The Design Salon and one of its aims was to come up with ways of promoting Belfast as a design destination. We held gatherings where we came up with lots of ideas and setting up a Design Week seemed one of the best ways to put Belfast up there alongside other cities such as Copenhagen, Portland and Dublin as a design destination. It was a natural and collaborative project that has grown year-on-year and we hope to continue that way!  

Christine - As Karishma said we were brainstorming ideas to make Belfast a better place to live and work for creatives and designers. We are all invested in Belfast and passionate about Northern Ireland and love living and working here and just want to make it a better place so were coming up with different ideas we felt could make a difference and really put Belfast on the map as a global creative and design city. Someone mentioned that most major cities have their own Design Week and it seemed a great idea and one that we were all passionate about. So we just decided to go for it! we figured if we wanted it to happen we needed to be the ones to put that into practice and make it a reality.

Catherine - We managed to get a small amount of money from, ID2015 - a Design & Crafts Council of Ireland initiative to celebrate a year of Irish Design, for our conference. Other cities on the Island where holding design weeks so we thought, why not?


How does your professional experience help you to work alongside each other?

Karishma - We all come from different professional backgrounds which makes us a strong team - together we bring to the table design, business, retail, community as well as our own networks.  What has been a learning curve for us is running a whole week of events which is not something you can learn how to do without actually doing it.  

Christine - I do a lot of work with the creative industries, small businesses and running different events and programmes, but don’t have an in-depth knowledge of design or the design sector in Northern Ireland, so wouldn’t have had the knowledge or experience to make the week relevant for designers and design enthusiasts on my own. I also think working collaboratively within a team gives you confidence you wouldn’t have on your own, to try new things and gives you a support network to help you through the challenges of starting something new and on a practical level being able to split the workload between a group of people means something that would be impossible and unachievable on your own becomes possible. 

Catherine - As Karishma said we are all from different disciplines which complement each other. We have a good mix of skills, talents and contacts.


How long have you been working together for?

Karishma - We have been working together for around 3 years on Belfast Design Week after our initial Design Salon meet ups.  I first met Christine way back in 2010 when I attended some of Blick's amazing startup workshops and subsequently Creative Camp and I first met Catherine in 2013 when I was told by someone that there was a great new design-led interior store called Maven based on the Lisburn Road.

Christine - We have been working on Design Week for just over 3 years.


How do you think the creative industry has changed for female designers/creatives in the last 10 years?

Karishma - The creative industry is changing - there are more female designers and creatives in leadership positions, speaking at conferences and setting up their own businesses. However, there could be so many more and we hope to encourage this with what we are doing at Belfast Design Week.  This year we had 3 fantastic female design speakers at Design Camp in the fields of Multidisciplinary Design, Graphic Design & Illustration.    

Christine - I think the internet has opened up so many possibilities for everyone including women to work more flexibly and remotely, you can be based anywhere in the world (including NI) and have a global client base. This makes it much easier for managing life and family commitments alongside work. However we still see low levels of female entrepreneurs within Northern Ireland and need to do more to encourage women to feel confident, inspired and ambitious to go out there and follow their dreams!

Catherine - Equality for females in the workplace, regardless of industry still has a way to go. Things are getting better but it’s slow. I’m proud of being part of a festival which makes sure that females are fairly represented and celebrated.


How do you manage you work life/home life balance when you're working on so many projects?

Karishma - Very badly usually! It can be incredibly challenging finding that balance. Not many people know that we work on Belfast Design Week outside of our main roles as designers and entrepreneurs which means that in the time period before and during the Week, our work lives can be all-consuming!  I think it's important to make time for friends and family even when you are busy and that it's good to spend some time on your own on something non-work related that you enjoy, whether that is cooking (me), horse-riding (Christine) or yoga (Catherine) to help de-stress. 

Christine - Haha, that’s the most challenging aspect, especially when there are so many exciting projects you could be working on. Seriously though I consider myself very fortunate to be passionate about my work and to genuinely love (most of) what I do, so much of it doesn’t feel like work. I’m not very good at balancing my time and energy or  switching off after work during the week, so I tend to work very long hours during the week, but try hard to keep most weekends (except in the run up to Design Week) free for spending time outdoors and enjoying the beautiful countryside we are so fortunate to live so close to in Northern Ireland.

Catherine - It’s not easy. This year has been particularly hard for some reason. Owning a relatively new business takes up so much time and energy and then finding the spare time to run a festival is hard to manage. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I absolutely love being a business owner and being involved in a festival that is really important for our community and city. There’s not much work life balance in October / November but it’s worth it. 


Do you have any advice for females who are looking to collaborate with other designers/creatives?

Karishma - Put yourself out there, share your ideas with other folks and don't let your ideas remain in the ideation stage. 

Christine - I think collaboration is a wonderful way to meet new like-minded people and to learn new things, something I definitely recommend. I would advise anyone looking to collaborate to see what events are on within their industry/local community and to make an effort to attend those events and chat to new people and push yourself to get involved with the community through volunteering, competitions, speaking at events etc. If you have a specific idea check out the Design Salon Facebook group  post your idea and what you would like help or support with.

Catherine - Do it. Pick up the phone instead of sending an email. Phone still a bit 90’s? Get chatting on Instagram stories. Get out from behind your desk and go to events, you never know who you are going to meet.