[OFFSET] Behind the Conference with Bren Bryne and Lisa Haran
Since its inception in 2009, OFFSET has fast established itself as one of the world's most inspirational conferences for the design and creative industries.
A true ‘labor of love’ that started out as a side project to shine a light on creativity in Dublin, OFFSET was built on passion, dedication and hope at a time when the country was coming out of a recession. Fast forward seven years and the conference has attracted such creative icons as David Carson, Milton Glaser, Kyle Cooper, Stefan Sagmeister, Shepard Fairey and Louise Fili to grace the stage.
As they prepare to unleash OFFSET Sheffield in a few weeks time, festival founders Bren Bryne and Lisa Haran reflect on what they’ve learnt, and reveal a taster of what’s in store this October.
Let’s start at the beginning! Can you talk a little about the propeller for creating a design conference in Dublin? Did you plan meticulously before making the leap or follow your gut instinct?
Bren: I had been involved in producing a series creative evening events over a number of years and also my partner ran an online magazine for which I contributed interviews with my favourite designers and illustrators. So we had built quite an extensive network of international and local creative contacts.
Lisa: Back in 2008 there was a big black cloud over the Irish economy and over all industries within the design world. Bren and his founding partners really wanted to create an event that would act as a beacon of hope and celebration of creativity and to get people back to being motivated in looking to the future. So a decision was made, quite naturally, that OFFSET should reflect their interests – both professional and personal – in terms of speaker choice, but also that how they ran it. That is at the heart of what we still do, the whole process is like a mirror of the core team involved, and hopefully by keeping it honest in that way it makes it unique.
Bren: We both made the decision in 2014 to go full time with OFFSET, I had already stopped being an illustrator by then and was running a small agency while Lisa was working in TV and Web.
Can you give a brief overview of OFFSET – who it’s aimed at, what its all about and why people should check it out?
In simple terms, it’s a creative conference split over two days. We curate two stages with over 32 hours of content, featuring some 60 speakers in a presentation format with interviews and panels. While each of our speakers can present their work as a potted career overview, it will always have a particular focus on process, explaining their vision or philosophy…essentially whatever makes them tick. We are always blown away by how honest and willing to share they are. The result of which is an incredible insight into their practice beyond what you might expect. The response and impact of this on the audience is remarkable!
Also it’s surprising how many – despite being so nervous before going on – become raconteurs as soon as the lights go down – charming, funny and insightful. Our pool of speakers comes from a variety of creative industries, as do our audience, and this multi-disciplinary curation creates an openness to look beyond your own world and find inspiration in the approach of others. They represent industry at all levels driving everything from huge global campaigns to awe-inspiring personal projects.
Building something from nothing is not for the faint hearted – how did you keep each other going when you were starting out? Were there moments of doubt and how did you overcome them?
Like most start ups, you need to have passion for what you are doing and belief that it’s going to work. It’s quite difficult to gauge the interest in something at the beginning as you are working feverishly in a bubble trying to think of everything and not really concerned with the outside world, until the event launches and you see it unfurl into the public realm. Thankfully the event itself has always ran smoothly. But there are always snags along the way. For the first few years we always sat down after the event and tried to figure out if we could justify the energy, time and effort and money involved in putting on an event with the scale of Offset. We were working full time as creatives ourselves so Offset was done on top of that. It really was a labour of love. We were lucky in the early years in that we found the balance between personal/professional satisfaction and the reaction of our speakers and audience was enough to get us through most problems.
Sponsors and funders are essential to keep a festival afloat – how did you secure support in the early days? Has it been easier to garner backing as you’ve grown?
When OFFSET launched, we had no idea if it would work. We made a decision early on that it would best to prove the event could work and find its audience before we looked for private and public partners. We operated then, as now, without any title sponsor and have always invested our own time and money into delivering the event. Our goal has always been to create an event people would want to buy tickets for. Apart from proving the event could succeed from a business point of view, we felt there was a real need for what we were providing, particularly in Ireland.
We felt there was a real need for what we were providing, particularly in Ireland.
The fact that we have grown from 450 people the first year to well over 2,000 last year, and with people coming from the US, Canada, Australia, parts of Asia and all over Europe, the UK and of course Ireland, has been incredibly humbling. It’s become a vital part of the calendar here in Ireland, as well as internationally, and has helped transform the creative ambitions of so many who attend. As the years have gone by its become less challenging to find potential brand partners who understand what we have created and to see the benefit of involvement but in saying that we still only operate with a small number of partners.
You seem to have done a brilliant job of building a network of industry supporters – how important has social networking been to the continued growth of your business?
We like to view social networking in the old fashioned way in that we spend as much time as possible over our events hanging out with speakers, media partners etc and having fun and getting to know them in the real world. Maybe its our Irishness coming through but being a good host is very important, enjoying each others company and creating a relaxed environment. We are still friends with lots of our speakers from 2009 for example and apart from that being great on a personal level it also helps us grow our network around the world through word of mouth. OFFSET is unique in many ways but one of things that astounds speakers and partners alike is there is a core team of four people that run OFFSET all year round, Bren and myself and then we have two fantastic project managers Lauren Pritchard and Orlaith Ross.
We do the majority of the promotion in-house but are lucky to have built long standing partnerships over the years with It’s Nice That, Computer Arts, Creative Review, WeTransfer, G.F Smith, and The Irish Times to name but a few. This year we are delighted to be partnering with Squarespace, Sheffield Hallam Uni/SIA, Sheffield City Council, The Dots, Inkygoodness and last by not least the very lovely people in MOO.
Given the recent news of Brexit which has already begun to affect the creative industries, where do you see Ireland’s position within Europe and worldwide? And have you noticed a change since you began in OFFSET in 2009?
It’s very hard to predict the effect long term of Brexit (assuming it actually happens at all). It was a bit of a shock and in Ireland we are probably the worse affected of our EU neighbours as so much travel and trade goes through the UK. Its uncertainty that kills investment so in that vacuum industry tends to plan for the worst. Great things are still happening, life didn’t stop and confidence will come back, it’s all cyclical. As a small country, Ireland traditionally exported a lot of talent around the world but we have noticed a significant number of designers are either coming home from abroad to work or are choosing to stay in the first place. We hope OFFSET has at least played a small role in giving a platform to showcase contemporary Irish creativity to a wider global audience and to give a sense of identity to the community here.
Can you share any anecdotes or highlights from the past few years?
Bren: I have a special fondness for OFFSET 2012, as Kyle Cooper is one of my heroes and watching his astoundingly beautiful show reel, showing such incredible skill, emotion and vision was utterly breathtaking. He originally had to cancel due to a meeting with a big client but he organised a last minute flight to be there for his presentation. He spoke on the Sunday and got a flight back that evening. That was someone who just wanted to be part of it. This was extremely humbling and we appreciate and respect everyone who puts in the effort to be part of OFFSET.
Lisa: 2015 will probably go down as not only one of the great talks of that year, but in OFFSET history, when we were all lucky enough to witness Tomi Ungerer in conversation with Irish illustrator, Steve Simpson. With the first, and richly deserved standing ovation of the weekend, Tomi urged us to be ‘endlessly curious’ and brought us on a touching and captivating journey through his life and his work. His open and honest account of his life including his experience of Nazi occupation in France had the audience bolted upright in their seats. If you hadn’t heard of Tomi before, after this talk you would never forget him. I certainly won’t. It actually brings tears to my eyes when I recount the moment he hugged myself & Bren coming off the stage after a standing ovation thanking us for asking him to be part of OFFSET.
Bren: Dublin 2016 was just full of great moments. As I’m distilling it to just one, I’ll choose being in the main auditorium for Seb Lester’s talk. You could physically feel the effect it was having on the audience. There were a good few tears by the end. The scale and impact of Seb Lester’s work married with such intimate beauty knocked everyone sideways.
Lisa: Hey but its not all about crying at OFFSET…Massimo Vignelli, Jessica Walsh, GMUNK, Mr.Bingo, Paula Scher, Geroge Lois, Milton Glaser all had us all buzzing in different ways, so many to choose from…and most available in our archive.
Having already hosted an OFFSET in London, the North of England seems like a curious move, especially bringing it to a city the size of Sheffield. What was it about Sheffield that appealed to you as a conference destination? Why not Birmingham or Liverpool?
Over the past few years we have built up relationships with Pam Bowman (principal lecturer at Sheffield Hallam | SIA) and Matt Edgar (lecturer at Sheffield Hallam | SIA) as they have contributed massively to our panel discussions and interviews, Pam has really been the huge instigator in all of this so you have her to blame really!
When we first considered Sheffield as our UK hub, we felt it held similar qualities to Dublin. Of course we were aware of the rich design history and traditions Sheffield possesses but like Dublin it has such an exciting contemporary scene. The number of creative studios and spaces buzzing with activity and located in the city such as Made North, Field Cycles, Universal Everything, The Designers Republic and The ROCO to name a few. The new Design School at Sheffield Hallam Uni/SIA is also an incredible asset to the city too.
Are there any speakers that you are particularly excited to be bringing over for the Sheffield edition? How will it vary from the Dublin conference? Are there any surprises in store?
Bren: Over the years our elder statesmen and women will tend to get the best and most emotional response. To hear a practitioner from your field passionately describe their process and what drives them is exhilarating. So Wolfgang Weingart is going to be a real treat. I am very excited about the creative directors from agency Droga5 and Jens Kronvold Frederiksen who is the Design Director of Star Wars LEGO…that’s definitely a personal highlight.
We liken OFFSET it to a music festival, you buy your ticket because of the well-known names on the lineup, but it’s the speaker you have never heard of on the stage at 11am on a Sunday that could change your life forever.
What are your hopes for the growth & development of the OFFSET brand? Might we see a European pop-up in Copenhagen or Amsterdam or are you keen to keep it in the UK?
We have been working hard on plans to expand our visibility outside of the annual three days in Dublin and last year we hosted our first international OFFSET in London with great success and this October we are in Sheffield. There are always plans in the works and we would love to take OFFSET around the world, but for the moment I would say, “Watch this space”.
Can you recommend any resources or good reads for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to follow in your steps?
Bren: Ha! Well, I’d say most, if not all, books and resources on creating your own business would advise not to follow the route we have taken. I really believe if you want to do something you will find a way. I would recommend trying to prove the idea and find your audience first. If you want to expand and scale it up at a later date you would be surprised how its not actually that much more work but at least you would have tested it with less risks.
If you could share one piece of practical or useful business advice with your younger self what would it be?
Lisa: Make sure that you surround yourself with people you trust and constantly motivate and challenge you. I think one the most important thing I have learnt over the course of my career is to try to listen to my gut instinct more. I have never been afraid to take risks and luckily that is something that has stuck with me and been a catalyst for the type of career I have to date.
Bren: Everything we have done has been learned from the bottom up, we do everything from answering ticket holders enquiries to booking flights, the graphic and web design to planning marketing and liaising with speakers. One piece of advice would be to let people help more. Just make sure it’s the right person!