OFFF: A Designer’s Life Squeezed into a 3-day Spanish Extravaganza

Inspiration, laughs, sweat, tears and some Spanish flair: visiting the design festival OFFF in Barcelona was like peering directly into the microcosm of a designer’s life. From inspiring work to late-night talks on collaboration and to the struggles of balancing work-life routines – seeing, listening and talking to people who do what they love for a living was once again magical. Here are the top five take outs we want to share with you.

Get experimental

Work! At the end of the day, this is what we produce most of our time, and this is why 5000+ attendees made their way to Barcelona this year as well: to see the world’s most inspiring design work. And although not all of us are very good at math, we’ve noticed an interesting equation:

More time invested in experimental projects = better chances to try something new and flex the creative muscles = better response from peers and potential clients alike = greater chances to land more and diverse work = happiness.

A variation of the above came up in virtually every talk, as each speaker showcased a mix of commercial and experimental work. The latter was usually the more creative, funny, “out-there”, personal. And this is exactly the idea: experimental work allow directors, typographers or designers alike to step out of their comfort zone and tap into the emotions, leading to projects that become intrinsically more personal as well. Or as Amsterdam based designer Marta Cerdà Alimbau nicely put it: “get comfortable with the uncomfortable”.

Collaboration is key

Aside from solo projects, we saw how collaboration is a big part of a designer’s portfolio, and how striking the output can be. Barcelona based designer Petra Eriksson for example said, “Get inspired by other people’s work and collaborate with them when you have a chance”. She’s done so by collaborating with Shaina Joy, a journalist and teach from Spain, illustrating a fanzine about sexual consent based on a text Shaina wrote.

Another one that caught our eye was the project “Chromatic” – i.e. the creation of an artwork made from light transitioning through a glass (think of those colorful iPhone wallpapers) – a collaboration between Irish born director and artist Shane Griffin and Echolab sound designer Gavin Little. The result is truly mesmerizing.

Failing is okay

Now, even though most of the projects showcased at OFFF resulted in great success, we all know as designers – as human beings – that failure is an intrinsic part of our daily lives. That’s why it was so refreshing to enter the session lead by Dropbox’s editorial director Tiffani Jones Browns and finding the first slide to say “The upside of falling down”. In general, the importance around the concept of failing was a recurring thread for many speakers at OFFF.

Failing because of a burn out, a bad client rejection or even because of not being in touch with one’s feelings anymore: the moments shared on stage were poignant, personal and perfect. It showed that no matter how successful we are, failure is woven into our lives, and accepting it allows us to find unexpected solutions or new approaches. Like Jones Browns puts it: “To push your limits, you need to accept your limitations”.

Work-Life Balance

Regardless of whether the work results in success or not, one thing rings very clear: the more time invested in producing work, the less time to dedicate to one’s life. And if you as well feel this way, you’re not alone. In fact, the concept of work-life balance came up quite a few times in various talks, and each speaker had their own interpretation of it.

Illustrator and type designer Jessica Hische for example began to realize after 70+ hours weeks that for her it wasn’t a work-life balance anymore, but rather a work life – leading her to take a step back from her career and dedicate more time to her loved ones. And in the end, producing even better work. Designer and director Gavin Strange went quite the opposite direction, cutting time from his “life” to add more time to his own personal projects making a dream of his come true by directing a Hip-Hop video.

At the end of the day, as the word suggests, it really is all about a balancing act. About finding the right way to be efficient and satisfied without having to devote every waking hour to a particular project. Or, as Los Angeles based director Patrick Clair put it: to be “as efficiently lazy as possible”.

Do a lot of what you love

And finally, love, because love was in the air at OFFF. No, we don’t know what happened behind closed doors after hours, we’re talking about the love of each designer for his or her own work. Every single one of them stressed the importance of taking some time for doing more of what you love, striving for joy and not for pain, which results in – as Gavin Strange put it, – “Loving what you do and doing what you love”. And with the passion project Gromit Unleashed the director showed a public charity art trail in which 80 giant artist-decorated fiberglass sculptures of Gromit were displayed on the streets of Bristol, – which ended up raising millions to help children in need. And as we watched him recalling the details of the project, we couldn’t help having a big smile on our faces as well.

And now we’re OFFF

The Oily Furry Fingered Festival. Or was it the Optimistic Freckled Friends Festival? At the end of the day, we flew out of Barcelona and still weren’t sure what the acronym stood for. Did it really matter? Not really. In a way, it’s like trying to define our work as a designer in one single sentence: there isn’t one true answer. But what we do know for sure is that we all are the sum total of our experiences, and the better and more rewarding the experiences – whether by collaborating with others, experimenting with something new, or simply just doing something that we love, – the better the creative output. Even if that ends up in sparking a wrestling match on stage. Yes, that truly happened.

_Aude Kohler und Alessandro Würgler are Designers at MetaDesign Zürich.