Bag designed by care-experienced children and young people

Creating a design studio with young, care-experienced designers

A group of care-experienced young artists from South Tyneside and Stockton have had their first taste of working as professional designers, creating a range of limited-edition bags inspired by the North East.

14 young people aged between 14 and 21 worked with printmaker Michelle Wood and graphic designer Nicola Golightly to design the bags which are for sale in Blue Cabin’s online shop and will raise funds to help improve the lives of other care-experienced children and young people.

Michelle and Nicola share their experience of working with the young designers.

What were the standout moments for you for this project?

Michelle: Definitely the printmaking sessions where everybody got their hands dirty and got stuck in learning printing techniques. We did woodblock printing, fabric printing, we used the printing press and did some rubber stamping. They were a great way of breaking the ice, chatting and going through the process.

Nicola: The young people I was working with – there was a particular young person who was about 18 and had been creative at school. For every challenge, every prompt and every resource I got out, she took that away, worked in her sketchbook throughout the week and brought something back with her. She really brought her own twist to it. Other young people really thought about what we were doing in terms of typography. They all thought it would be nice to have a quote on the bag and came up with their own wording. It felt like a real joint effort.

When you were asked to work on the project, was there anything you thought might be tricky?

Nicola: When you’re collaborating with other people, it depends on working together properly – really genuinely cooperating. And so leaving the opportunity to explore things and prompt responses from whoever you’re working with is really important. I tried not to make it too concrete and structured, so not all of the ideas were coming from me. We got to know each other as a group, we thought about our studio rules and our values in that space, and also what we’re working on together and that final outcome. It’s one thing to work on something as a designer ourselves but to work with other individuals is quite a different ask isn’t it?

Michelle: To coax out responses and to get people that might be feeling quite shy and a little bit reluctant to speak up and to get them to share – so mixing activities, thinking on my feet and thinking, ‘well, maybe this approach isn’t quite working, let’s give another prompt or let’s do another activity to change up the energy’.

One of my worries was that the young people might not come or they might not enjoy it – and they did come and they did enjoy it! There was lots of encouragement, lots of patience, and it was important that we had a really good Arts Award adviser. Working as a team – the young people, the Arts Award adviser, the social worker, and me as the artist – we were all in it together and we all got stuck in. That was really vital.

What did you hope the young designers would gain from working with you?

Michelle: I hoped they would enjoy it and feel relaxed enough and safe enough to bring their own point of view and creativity to it. It’s key that they enjoyed it because that leads to their creativity coming out. My other hope was that they would be up for learning about printmaking, which they were, and that they would be able to get their Arts Award as well as coming out with a lovely bag design.

Nicola: I hoped that by working with us as practicing artists and designers, they’d get an insight into what it really means to make a living out of creative practice. It’s not just making work all the time – it’s working to commissions, it’s thinking about clients and collaborating with other people. Maybe around the table there are some new artists, some who might be interested in studying art or just being creative generally, for their own health and wellbeing.

Can you give a quick rundown of how the process worked and how you structured your design studio?

Michelle: We did three intensive, full days. I took my own sketchbook along so I could say ‘this is the kind of thing you could do, but you can bring your own creativity to it’. We did sketchbook activities to warm up – choosing colours, looking at different bags, mood boards etc – and there was focused discussion about the Arts Award criteria.

Nicola: I did six workshops which were evening sessions at the ARC in Stockton. We talked about lots of different design aspects: typography, pattern-making, vectors, shape and colour. We experimented with lots of different materials each week and then we brought all of that together to come up with a design.

How did it feel to see the actual bags that your team came up with printed and produced?

Nicola: They’re just a fantastic thing, aren’t they? It’s not really about the bag, it’s about working with the young people, but equally we created a really beautifully-made bag. We extended the print so it went front and back and right to the edge so it doesn’t look like your usual tote bag. We’ve pushed the boundary on that and, visually, I think they’re really appealing, but just to honour the young people’s work is a wonderful thing. These bags are available for people to purchase, and then that’s going to go back into the pot to enable more work with care-experienced young people, which is fantastic?

Michelle: I love both of them and it’s a combination of the legacy of the young people and their energy and creativity.

What’s your advice for any other artists or designers working on a project like this?

Michelle: Be patient, it’ll happen. Lots of encouragement. Keep it positive, have fun. Be able to mix it up in the moment, think on your feet and be adaptable.

Nicola: Trust the process – through conversation and working together, you will come to that final conclusion. And if you’re really enjoying it and put all your energy into that process of thinking and making and experimenting, something wonderful happens.