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Unesco City: Why Dundee is shining the spotlight on its home-based design talent

As a new #whoisthedesigner #whoisthearchitect social media campaign launches in Dundee,  the Unesco City of Design Dundee lead officer and a local architect discuss the wealth of design talent in the area

Annie Marrs, lead officer of UNESCO City of Design Dundee. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson
Annie Marrs, lead officer of UNESCO City of Design Dundee. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

When a new virtual dome exhibit opened at Discovery Point last October, it was hailed as a “proud moment for Dundee”.

The Dundee Dome Experience takes visitors on a CGI journey through Dundee’s industrial past.

360° panoramic views of the city, waterfront, RRS Discovery and the River Tay today are then unveiled in stark contrast to the crowded and smoke-filled Dundee of 1901.

Visitors experience a sensory 30-minute journey narrated by Perthshire actor Alan Cumming in which the busy waterfront port and crowded streets are shown as they were more than 100 years ago.

Gaia, a striking art installation of Earth by British artist Luke Jerram, also spins above the new gallery space, which was previously inaccessible.

The idea is to get visitors to learn about Dundee’s time as one of the UK’s busiest trading ports and get them thinking about the fragility of the planet and climate change.

But how many visitors to the Dundee Heritage Trust destination are familiar with the award-winning Dundee-based designers Aim Design?

Does Dundee do enough to highlight the many home-based designers who contribute to its status as Unesco City of Design?

Unesco City of Design Dundee is shining the light on local designers

According to Annie Marrs, lead officer with Unesco City of Design Dundee, the spotlight doesn’t shine on the local designers behind iconic buildings often enough.

Building projects and the actual designs are often highlighted.

But the people behind the designs often remain largely unknown.

Annie Marrs, lead officer of UNESCO City of Design Dundee. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

Now, a social media photography project is being launched between the Unesco City of Design Dundee team and Unesco colleagues in Montreal, Canada to change that.

The idea is to showcase the people behind public design and architecture, putting faces to the buildings and spaces the public enjoy but may never know who imagined and created.

Dundee has six designers featured in the #whoisthedesigner ‘#whoisthearchitect project.

They are: Seabraes Viewpoint by Rachael Higgins & Callum McRobbie, Landscape Designers at Dundee City Council; Discovery Dome Gallery by Ged Young, architect at Aim Design; V&A Dundee Community Garden by Gary Kennedy architect at kennedytwaddle and Linsey McIntosh a co-design specialist; The Leaf Room by Jonathan Reeve, architect at Voight Architects; The Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve Education Pavilion by Kirsty Maguire, architect at Kirsty Maguire Architects, and Dance Studio extension at Dundee Rep Theatre by Alice Turpie architect at Nicoll Russell Studios.

What inspired the Dundee project?

In an interview with The Courier, Annie explained that Dundee had been inspired by the Montreal team, which first ran a similar initiative in 2020/21.

A Montreal architecture firm called Kollectif got “fed up of the issue whereby designers and architects behind buildings never really got credited”.

They started the social media campaign #Whoisthearchitect with the idea being that when buildings are used in campaigns, the authorities should also be saying who the person behind it is.

Now the Dundee team is “borrowing” the concept to raise the profile of local design teams.

Working with the president of the Dundee Institute of Architects, they identified six public buildings that had “Dundee based or near enough Dundee based” designers and architects involved.

Following the social media campaign launch on October 18, one of the profiled Dundee designers will be released on the @designdundee Instagram account every week until Christmas.

Information about all of the designers can be found on the website

Marking 10th anniversary of Unesco City of Design Dundee in 2024

It’s especially poignant with 2024 being the 10th anniversary of Dundee being named the UK’s only Unesco City of Design.

The idea is that the campaign will run again next year to mark Unesco Dundee’s 10th anniversary.

The Leaf Room – Jonathan Reeve of Voight Architects. Image: Grant Anderson

Then, however, they will ask people to nominate and suggest buildings that they would like to know more about.

There are also plans to put together design trails for the city next year, which will include pieces of architecture.

Annie revealed the programme and campaign next year will probably be called Dundee’s Decade of Design.

Dundee being named the UK’s first city of design by the United Nations in December 2014 recognised the city for its diverse contributions to fields including medical research, comics and video games.

Seabraes Viewpoint – Callum McRobbie and Rachael Higgins. Image: Grant Anderson

The designation had previously been awarded to 12 cities, including Beijing, Berlin and Montreal.

Dundee was added to the Unesco grouping of “creative cities” alongside European cities Turin, Helsinki, Bilbao and Curitiba in Brazil.

Today, Dundee remains the only UK city to carry Unesco city of design status.

The title recognises the design innovations Dundee has contributed to the world, including aspirin, biomedical research which has led to hundreds of new cancer drugs, comics including the Beano and Dandy, orange marmalade, and video games including Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto.

The city’s £1 billion waterfront regeneration project, which includes the now five-year-old V&A Dundee museum of design, is ongoing.

Showing off Dundee’s design talent

“One of the things we’re really passionate about is we really want Dundee to be the best place in Scotland to be a designer,” said Annie.

“We want the work that we do to make that visible, so that the people who live here or visit Dundee are really able to engage with our design story.

“They are able to buy pieces of Dundee design in shops.

“We run an initiative called Code Souvenir which is a catalogue of Dundee design souvenirs that are now stocked by six stockists across Dundee.

Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve Education Pavilion – Kirsty Maguire. Dundee. Image: Grant Anderson

“That’s one of the initiatives we’ve done to push forward Dundee designers and help steer them into new markets or new opportunities.

“But this kind of making Dundee visible thing, which includes the big one, the Dundee Design Festival – that’s really important to us because that’s bringing  Dundee local, national and international designers together in that festival context.

“The other thing that I think is really important to us is that we want to use design as a tool to improve lives in Dundee.

“When we say that, we mean involving citizens, the people who live here, in the decisions that are made that affect them.

Union Street, Dundee. Image: Steve MacDougall/DCT Media

“The Union Street pedestrianisation-transformation project is a good live example.

“That’s something where the businesses and residents that live here are at the centre of its redevelopment and the centre of the design decisions.

“Another project we are doing in 2024 is the Dundee Covid-19 memorial.

“That’s been designed by people who were most affected by Covid-19.

“They’ve been putting forward their ideas with designers on what they want that to look like.

“Doing stuff at community level is also important.

“But even just being a Unesco City of Design is helpful as it raises our profile and marketing and brings in tourists.”

What do the Dundee designers think?

One thing that’s changed dramatically over the past decade is a newer way of thinking about  the way design can have an impact on every day lives.

One man who shares this vision is architect Ged Young, the managing director of Aim Design, which was behind the Discovery Point dome gallery project.

Discovery Dome Gallery – Ged Young. Image: Grant Anderson

Originally from Monikie, the 54-year-old former Carnoustie High School pupil, Dundee University graduate and former window cleaner’s company has been operating in the city since 1996.

Specialising in museum and educational visitor attractions, Aim have been one of the leading design agencies in Dundee for some time.

The Unesco social media campaign is “really important”, he said, because it helps showcase the skill base and the talent the city already has.

“I saw Dundee in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and quite frankly, despite some initiatives, it was still not a desirable place at that time,” said Ged, who lived in Dundee for about 30 years after 1988 and now lives over the water with his family in Fife.

Dundee Rep Theatre extension – Alice Turpie. Image: Grant Anderson

“But really the last 15 years or so – or 23 years if you take the DCA into account –  the momentum was really kicked in with the introduction of the redevelopment of the waterfront.

“That is absolutely critical in terms of bolstering the creative industries within the Tayside region and the city of Dundee as it stands at the moment.

“It’s very difficult for what you might say ‘non-Central Belt design agencies’ to increase and expand their influence with their design work unless there’s a kind of national and international recognition of their work and where they are from.

“That exposure of the city that there has been quite positively over the last five to 10 years – that all assists with the process.

Dundee Community Garden – Linsey McIntosh and Gary Kennedy. Image: Grant Anderson

“So it’s very exciting I think being located and involved in Dundee and very much socialising in Dundee, whereas 20 years ago I probably wouldn’t have.

“I probably would have gone down to Edinburgh.

“We used to be the poorer cousin of Perth for a long time.

“Now people from Aberdeen, Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh come up here for weekend visits.

“That’s all great news and moving in right direction.

“But there’s still an awful long way to go.”

How to find out more

For more information follow Unesco City of Design Dundee on Instgram @designdundee and via the website