Crisis artist Lucy tells us about her experience of a new project, Design To Sale.

The Design 2 Sale Course: A Comprehensive Guide

The Design to Sale course is a brand new, innovative scheme where members of Crisis Skylight Oxford design and create products for the shop at The Old Fire Station. It first ran from January 2020 until March 18th, when we were forced to stop prematurely due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite this setback, we were able to complete finished designs which will be available as products when The Old Fire Station re-opens.

The Design to Sale course combines creativity and business. It aims to turn artistic visions into tangible, money-making endeavours. Or at least, offer a glimpse as to how this can be done.

The shop at The Old Fire Station is open five days a week, Tuesday-Saturday, under usual circumstances. The course runs every Monday. In this, we were able to use the shop space, properly examine the merchandise and learn about how items are ordered, the systems that are used and the values and ethics which control the shop environment.

Arts at The Old Fire Station (AOFS) aims to support small businesses and indie makers. The products sold in the shop are predominantly quirky, colourful and often unique. When ordering, Harriet tries to locate the ‘best’ of a product, to prevent too much cross-over and saturation. Sometimes, the Unique Selling Point (USP) of an item may be that you can’t buy it anywhere else in Oxford.

In our first session, we learnt to look at products in a whole new way. For many of us living in poverty, things are bought according to price. But we weren’t looking at items which we would necessarily buy. We were examining display styles, the usage of colour and the lifestyles implied by many of the designs and processes behind their manufacture. There is an emphasis on locality and sustainability. Items aren’t made in sweatshops in China, but by UK makers. Frequently, the artists use organic, sustainable materials and environmentally friendly ink.

AOFS shares the building with Crisis Skylight. Therefore, it is an inclusive, open space that welcomes all. The shop tries to reflect this. While inevitably, independent, ethical pieces are more expensive to produce; Harriet chooses products that don’t alienate the homeless by extortionate pricing. In many ways, it is viewed as a gift shop; the contemporary craft and unique items are ideal for special occasions. The cards and jewellery are top sellers. Recently, there has been a move to include more commercial items such as books and indie magazines. While not necessarily independent, these have also been selling well. Any profit goes back to Arts at the Old Fire Station.

It was crucial that we understand the shop and its environment before considering what to create. Perusing as a producer made for an entirely new and exhilarating experience; previously, the closest I’d come to it was spot-selling poems scrawled on spiral-bound scraps. But it was also important that we investigate other shops within Oxford. In week two, we visited the shop at the Ashmolean Museum and Objects of Use.

It was the first time that I’d been to either and, particularly as we made our way up the slippery steps of the Ashmolean, I was quaking with trepidation. But they were very welcoming. The shop is beautiful and brimming with a variety of products from rubbers and pencils to pieces of art. The Ashmoleum Museum is in itself a world renowned label and there is merchandise which reflects that, presumably for a tourist market. Furthermore, there are items relating to Oxford. It was interesting that a map of the London Underground is also available. The Ashmoleum shop is diverse; items repeat themselves throughout according to theme or colour. The market ranges from school children to the extremely wealthy. Obviously, much of the merchandise echoed exhibitions that were currently going on; had been going on or were soon to go on. There are some beautiful pieces: silk kimonos and hand-crafted, boutique-style jewellery sit amidst cards and screenprints. It is brightly lit, allowing the products to dazzle. Items are well displayed and well labelled. The customer service is exellent. Far from being snooty, they were accommodating and quick to answer our questions. We learned that much of the clientele consisted of a slightly older and wealthy market. The Ashmoleum are both supported by generous donators and support artists. Similarly to the shop at AOFS, it is in many ways a gift shop. The items are special and laced in memory and place.

The Ashmoleum shop is so full of interesting items that we could have spent all day there. One feature of the D2S course, that became clearer throughout, is that we were tight for time. There was a lot packed in; and it was all so fascinating. Hopefully, if you’re thinking of taking part, that’s been straightened out a bit. Though I kind of feel it may be a permanent feature. (There’s so much to get through).

We next came to Objects of Use. I’m ashamed to admit that until this course, I had never noticed it was there. It is tucked away on Market Street which sort of adds to its almost elitist appeal. The products are stunning, harkening back to an older time; a world before plastic in a pre-throwaway culture. Similarly to the Ashmoleum, they were very friendly and content to let us ask questions and examine the merch. Items are laid out neatly. Each piece has its own history and its own purpose, which is clearly labelled and explained. This is integral due to the specificity and exclusivity of the objects. The pieces are simple, yet intricate. They are classical and solid. While not as cheap as contemporary, mass-produced alternatives, these are objects which are built for longevity. Due to their originality and craftmanship, many of the items would be appropriate for gifts, as in the shops at the Ashmoleum Museum and the Old Fire Station.

We then came back to the AOFS shop space in order to de-brief and discuss. This was so important as everyone picked up on different points. Furthermore, it meant that we all kept up to date with one another. We considered our findings as a group. It was also essential that we investigated both the shop in which our final products would be available and other, interesting places, prior to starting on our designs. We needed a grip, no matter how loose, on the business side. Through our investigations and discussions, we could begin to think of some key points, such as sustainability, originality and theme.

In week three, we began to get creative. Following on from the points we had raised, Ann and Harriet brought a variety of pages explaining each of these. We had brainstorms on NATURE; OXFORD; SUSTAINABILITY; COLOUR and ANIMALS, to name a few. They also brought a load of magazines. We cut out scraps of interest; made collages and mood boards. Words. Fonts. Images. There was so much to collate and collect. At this point, ideas were multiplying like a virus. An ever-expanding universe of experimentation. I was introduced to Pinterest. For those of you in the dark, it’s this massive online scrapbook. A centre of artistic visions and intense illustrations, etc. It’s an immense resourse. The search results that came out of “psychedelic art” were truly mind blowing. The world is full of so many inspiring, unbelievable artists. Pinterest has some gold-dust.

Throughout the course, we had a lot of access to the computer room. You don’t need one of your own! Also, everyone is so profoundly helpful. I had a bit of an issue with Pinterest initially, but with a bit of assistance — it was all sorted out.

We spent quite a bit of time experimenting and playing with ideas. The tutors have a lot of knowledge; and with encouragement and support, we were whirling in creativity. And this transcended beyond Monday mornings. There was a lack of time in the sessions. In a way, they acted as a starting point. A lot of the fine, detailed artwork had to be done in our own time. But this isn’t as horrific as it sounds. Crisis Skylight run art classes five days a week. The art tutors were more than happy to accommodate. This meant that we had the access to resources and expertise necessary for the course. I began to harbour a fascination with mushrooms and Lucy suggested that I try drawing my own; she brought me in a selection and I settled on the obsessive penciling and colouring of shiitakes. Also, I began to do this in my own time, outside of the AOFS building. Honestly, the amount of work required is quite a commitment. It’s rewarding and enlightening, but you have to be prepared to turn up each week and do the relevant work, outside of these hours. You get what you give ‘n’ that.

We took a lot of pictures: of merchandise, of Oxford and of The Old Fire Station building itself. The tutors took a lot of pictures, also, so no one actually needed a camera phone or anything. Also, there was a spirit of collaboration and sharing. It don’t matter what you got, just bring yourself and your brain.

There’s a lack of Oxford-specific merchandise within the AOFS shop, which is something we picked up on (and Harriet’s been searching for). Also, of products related to The Old Fire Station itself. When you go somewhere every day, you tend to stop looking at it. The building has a rich history. This is echoed by its intricate and stunning structure. Other members in the group picked up on this and used the building and other elements in abstract and astounding ways.

In week five, Joe and Tom from Bounce Design came to speak to us about what they do and the services they offer. Bounce are an Oxford based graphic design and print shop. They support local artists and offer graphic design and print services with expert advice and assistance. The session with Bounce was very informative. We learned more about what would or would not be possible and the techniques that they used. For example, screen printing is created by layering each colour on a screen. For this reason, it’s not feasible to use this process in more intricate and colourful designs. Also, when digitally printing, the technology is not up to handling environmentally friendly inks, which are often clumpier and clog up the machines. Due to this, they aim to be ethical and responsible through other means. While online companies such as Vistaprint may be cheaper, they’re far riskier endeavours. You have to know what you’re doing and more often than not, prints come out skewed and unsatisfactory. Bounce will adapt and advise accordingly to create stunning, eye-catching designs.

Week six began with our usual biscuits, fruit and cups of tea, coffee and hot chocolate. I can’t believe I’ve written so much without saying but as always, Crisis had us covered with snacks and a free lunch. Travel costs provided, also. We burnt a lot of calories thinking so it was all very needed, of course. Weeks were flying by and we were halfway through so Ann and Harriet had a surprise in store for us. We had two hours to create a design. There were models available: notebooks, badges, mugs and teatowels. We had to make something work out of all our ideas. While this was daunting at first, it was a very fruitful session. I found it got my mushrooms out into what, loosely, would be the final design. I mean, the truth is that we could have spent ages on this, but the reality is that we were pressed for time.

Week seven centred around design, design and design. I think we’d all been spending the previous week working on it. I know I’d drawn a fair many mushrooms by that point. ‘Final’ mushrooms. And, on the other side, there were quoatas. The original intention was that we’d order the quotas ourselves but time was our enemy so we learned about it instead. You should get a minmum of three quoatas from three different places, by the way. I also learned that when designing, it’s best to start big.

Throughout the week, I made two final designs, so I was kind of prepared for week eight. We all had complete designs by this point so we were ready to look into the crazy world of editing. It’s really unfortunate that we could only have one session on this. Tom from AOFS used his tablet to show us the programmes available and the worlds they opened. Straight away, you can see the advantages of computer editing. It cuts down on time massively. You can create precise, complex pieces in a fraction of the time it would take to hand draw them. There are so many options available that we couldn’t learn even close to all of them in the time we had. Truly, we could have done with another course on this subject alone. Furthermore, at this time, the coronavirus encroached on all sides. It turns out that week nine would be our last.

In the final week, we began to look at packaging and logo design. Of course, we didn’t know this would be the last week, so we made plans to go to Indigo and revisit display ideas the following Monday. This wasn’t possible.

While the virus mucked up our plans and intentions, we had strived so hard that the main body of work was complete. Our products wil be available when the shop at The Old Fire Station re-opens. The course will run again when circumstances allow.