Design: It's not always who you know that counts

Wayne Hemingway began his fashion career by working on a market stall. Now he's supporting a scheme that helps youngsters without 'connections' to land the plum creative jobs. By Daniel Henry
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The Independent Online

"Where I'm from, we had never even heard of the word designer," recalls Wayne Hemingway. "If you said that you wanted to be a designer then you'd have got a clip round the ear and told to get a proper job." Hemingway understands better than most how difficult it can be to break into the closed circles of the British media. The founder of Red or Dead, and now head of Hemingway Design, started out on a stall in a London market.

But barriers are coming down, thanks partly to an online venture that enables young creatives to showcase their wares and for potential employers to scout for talent without having to go through an exhaustive interview process or rely on an old boys network. The designer has become a big supporter of the Noise festival, a digital gallery which has come to Britain from Australia and is backed by Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a means of invigorating the creative industries. Offering a refreshing alternative to the notoriously immobile "it's not what you know but who you know" culture that discourages those without contacts, the Noise festival uses the democracy of the internet to its advantage.

"It's proving to be a source of recruitment," says Hemingway. "Two people from the Noise festival have come to work for us. We had a young Chinese girl who came on placement and worked on a real live project and now, we're talking to her about coming back when she finishes university and giving her a contract to work for a while after that. There are a couple of others who came to us who worked on some projects and if they go live then we will bring them back in to work with us."

Hemingway Design has taken four Noise festival participants on placements. "Every single one of them was top notch. They're all going to be good designers and if we had the vacancies then we would quite happily take them all on."

One young creative who has found an exciting career through Noise is Gavin Strange, 26, now the senior online designer at the illustrious Aardman animations, makers of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. When he entered the Noise competition two years ago Mr Strange says he did not think he stood a chance of winning. Hemingway gave him a placement, which led on to Aardman. "The association of working with Wayne Hemingway helps," he says. "It strengthens my name having worked with somebody like him. I'm very grateful to the festival because I probably wouldn't have had these opportunities without it."

Hemingway says: "In the 1980s when I started Red or Dead my wife opened a stall in Kensington market and rented it for £12 a week which was a decent sized space prime retail," he recalls. "We opened in the Corn Exchange in Leeds, we opened in the Aflex Palace in Manchester, all these places were there as places for young people to open up for a nominal rent. They didn't need to have massive backing. Now it's very difficult for young people to get a place on the high street because it's all been eaten up by the Next's and the Monsoon's of the world. The ability to start a business, especially in retail is more difficult now, and I think that's why we have ended up with clone Britain."

Digital projects like Noise can transform all that, he believes. "Young people know that the internet offers them their chance to do things affordably."

Noise originated in Australia in 1998 where it is now recognised as a crucial part of the cultural calendar. It was introduced to the UK in 2006, where it is based in Manchester and funded by the Arts Council and the North West Development Agency. It recently launched its Dream Jobs initiative, dedicated to finding work placements within the creative industries.

Attending the launch, Darling commented that: "There are about 2 million people in this country working in the creative industries and most of them started off with one idea that they believed in. The key is to find somebody else who will support you or help you along the way. If this project helps us do that then [we] will hugely benefit not [just] whoever's successful, but the economy [too]."

"Creative people make a difference," says Hemingway. "They don't just sit there and draw, or make videos, or make animation, or do a bit of sculpture they ask questions. They can impact on everything – the health service, education – every aspect of our lives."

Hopefully the Noise festival will continue to ask the right questions of the creative industry, leaving the old boys with more than just a ringing in their ears.