Global Design Forum’s ‘In Conversation with Es Devlin’

Whilst this year’s London Design Festival may predominantly only be a virtual one, the Global Design Forum’s ‘In Conversation with Es Devlin’ has been a refreshingly honest and insightful highlight of the week.

With a remarkable credentials list and endless accolades to match, including an OBE, 3 Olivier Awards and Royal Designer for Industry distinction, Devlin’s work is renowned throughout the design and art industries. From her work at the Serpentine Gallery, the Mirror Maze warehouse installation in Peckham and the previous LDF iconic installation ‘Please Feed the Lions’, to an endless list of renowned set designs, theatre and concert collaborations and of course her future work designing the UK Pavilion at the 2021 Expo, Devlin thrives from creating meaningful mass gatherings. Unsurprisingly therefore, lockdown has proved particularly tough for her, given these mass gatherings have become a temporarily extinct art.


Six months spent alone in a studio however, has enabled Devlin to step back, richly self-reflect and explore the processes that underpin her work. Talking about the temporarily extinct species of ‘the audience’, Devlin admitted that the lack of available audience has changed her perspective on design. Her wealth of expertise working with and for audiences, made her uniquely qualified to share insight into how they work.

Lockdown has caused her to reflect on the issue of time. The passing of time that isn’t governed by the mechanical or technical, but the quality of time passing when you tell or listen to a story. Storytelling is in our biology and has underpinned our means of survival. She noted how we all have a collective investment in shared fiction. As a result, the audience are experts in receiving and critiquing stories. She discussed the skill of being able to control any given audience at the same time – noting how if you concoct the precise fusion of music and narrative correctly, you can access the audiences’ collective compassion or delight. The audience is one connected beast. She went on to discuss the different mediums through which she has experimented to show the passing of time on stage. The line of light and rotating cube being two of her most iconic.

Storytelling is in our biology and has underpinned our means of survival. We all have a collective investment in shared fiction.

At a time when we’re all missing quality of time, it was a particularly interesting topic to better understand. The art of storytelling is at the heart of everything, especially when it comes to our world of design and experiential exhibitions. To connect with an audience on any sort of deeper level, we need to get better at exploring different tools that enable us to do so.