Following my niche to Kuwait
When I started Caribou Creative 9 years ago, I didn’t set an intention for my business - hell, I just earnestly wanted it (and willed it) to work.
I remember securing a live/work space in Chinatown in Victoria, between surf sessions while on 2 month long trip to Costa Rica. Another wild plan I had in mind for this life. I bought a beautiful midcentury modern teak desk and an Eames chair along with a brand new Macbook Pro for my office. And then I sat and waited. For what - I didn’t know.
Fast forward several years and a lot of grit with a bit of luck later, I received this email:
My name is Ana, the Creative Marketing Manager at -ing. We host an annual Creative Festival in Dubai, amongst other events catering for the creative community in the region.
We love your work and we'd love to explore the possibility of inviting you to host a talk and workshops at one of our events.
Creative Content Manager, -ing
I read it and almost deleted it. I honestly thought it was spam.
-ing Creatives is a big deal. Jessica Walsh has presented at -ing, surely this must be a mistake.
Before I sound too pathetic and apologetic (and Canadian?) - it wasn’t a mistake. And next thing I knew, I was on a plane (okay 4 planes and 34 hours later) to Kuwait where I would do a presentation on sustainability in design and teach 2 workshops on sustainable packaging. All while managing a full client load and teaching schedule. It didn’t matter - I was ecstatic!
I had emailed the coordinator the night before asking if it would be difficult to find my driver waiting for me on the other side of customs. She assured me it would be no problem and they would have a sign with my name on it. I reached the gate and a sea of hundreds of Kuwaiti men all dressed in white thawb were waiting for foreigners like me with small signs in Arabic and English. All I could do was laugh.
But luck was on my side and they found me first (I, ahem, stick out like a sore thumb) and I was promptly whisked to my beautiful hotel along with Lois Kim, another presenter from Los Angeles who works for Nasa. David, the other amazing presenter from Boston had arrived earlier that day along with Ana & Lindsey from -ing Creatives.
The 5 of us would spend the next 72 hours together becoming kismet friends.
The air smells like sweet cardamom and all the buildings are painted white (to reflect the insanely hot sun I am sure) and there are, seriously, no trees except the occasional date palm. It’s clean, symmetrical and organized, and instantly made my type A personality feel at home.
I was first to present the next day at the Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre and there are no words to describe this place other than it’s the biggest and most beautiful cultural centre I’ve ever seen. Like I almost started crying - that beautiful. Ashley Naim, the Education & Program Officer at the Centre was our gracious host and kept us well watered, fed and organized - we could not have done it without her!
We did sound check , tested our presentations, and then the room began to quickly fill up. I had one of those out of body experiences where I can’t remember how my presentation went, other than I got a few laughs where I wanted them and encouraging smiles when I needed them. Public speaking has never been my forte, but design has always been my passion and I’ll talk for hours to anyone who’ll listen.
Ana at -ing Creatives reached out to me to talk about sustainability in design because that’s what I do. But it was a label I had never prescribed myself, yet a niche I sub-consciously sought out and a void I am happy to fill. It has become my calling.
In the presentation I talked about my experience before Caribou Creative and never feeling completely fulfilled, even after landing a few ‘dream jobs’ I fought tooth and nail to get while sacrificing the proximity of family, relationships, friendships and the comfort of knowing.
And I spent a lot of time talking about my clients - specifically the ones on Vancouver Island that forced me to rethink my relationship with design and how to create a more circular economy. It’s become second nature to me at this point to choose a greener solution for my clients and weigh every viable option as I go.
Without going into the entire speech (gah!) I’ll leave you with my ending to give you the just:
We need to start using nature as a model, mentor and measure. And we can do that by looking at the intended function of design: focussing less on the WHAT and more on the HOW when we problem solve.
For me, it’s forced me to think unconventionally and outside of the box at times. I’ve had to get creative on a small budgets and compensate my ideal way of problem solving for a more functional and rational solution.
At times, it’s admittedly been trying, and educating my clients on more sustainable actions can feel preachy and negative, I’ve certainly lost clients as a result.
But this is my niche, my voice and it’s what gets me out of bed every morning. And excites me to continually create.
Consumption is our biggest problem on a global level, and in one way that’s actually really great for us as designers. Because there’s always something new to design, the latest product to sell and the next brand to strategize.
So as I wrap up, I’d like to leave you with one final thought: If we really sit and think about consumption being our biggest problem, then it’s design that will be our greatest solution.
What surprised me the most was what happened AFTER the presentation. I gathered my thoughts and my papers and intended to drink a big ‘ol glass of water and let out a sigh of relief. But there was a line up of people waiting to talk to me. To shake my hand, to ask me questions, to take photos and tell me ‘thank you’.
I was shocked, dumbfounded and I wanted to cry again for the 2nd time that day. Now it might have been the jet lag that had me so emotional, but I’m almost certain it was the passion behind these people’s kind gestures that made me so weepy.
And it was only Day One! I didn’t realize the best was yet to come.
That evening I presented my first Workshop titled ‘Create From Nothing’. Here’s the synopsis:
How would we design packaging if we lost all resources? In this workshop you will explore the concept of starting with nothing to create something. We’ll discuss borrowing vs. taking while creating packaging for a product with limited resources: paper and a pair of scissors. We’ll test the results of our designs and see how they hold up in the real world.
1. Learn how to become resourceful with packaging
2. Discover a less is more approach to design
3. Explore new hands-on ways of thinking
4. Look critically at your role and responsibility as a designer
5. Understand the value of integrated packaging
We had a blast - I know I did! So much laughter went around the room as we encouraged one another to step outside our boundaries and create like a child again. Only one fatality (see below) - it felt like a win.
The 2nd Workshop the next day was titled ‘Eco Product Design’ with a description as follows:
How can we improve packaging design without compromising the perceived value of a product? In this workshop we will get hands-on with a variety of dielines where we will explore 8 design trends while creating sustainable packaging. By proving that homogenized eco product design doesn’t have to fit a certain look we can make sustainable design not only desirable, but the new ‘norm’.
1. Learn how to use sustainable packaging as a secondary element to design
2. Discover how to work with dielines
3. Explore design trends and how to apply them to packaging
4. Look critically at your role and responsibility as a designer
5. Understand how to think outside of the ‘eco’ box
This workshop was trickier and more advanced. It also took in a consideration I hadn’t thought of, and that is that design is SO much different in Kuwait that Canada (duh). So I shot from the hip and encouraged my students to integrate their aesthetic, insight and interpretation into the project. The results were fascinating!
If you’re still reading - I’m impressed! There is so much more to tell and share and I could go on and on, but I’ll leave you with a few final summarized thoughts before this turns into a novel.
Overall my experience in Kuwait was this:
-Hands down the most beautiful, polite and giving people I’ve met - of anywhere I’ve travelled. Including Canada (sorry!).
-Everyone I met spoke better English than me which makes me feel slightly ignorant and a little inadequate. Resolving to learn another language this year!
-Education is free and it shows. Everyone I met had several degrees, masters and/or doctorates. I really hope one day education will be free in Canada - it only benefits us as a nation.
-Graphic design is a relatively new concept for Kuwait. This is equal parts shocking and exhilarating for them as a country and I’m excited for the potential. What an honour for these designers to pave the way.
-Sustainability is a new concept as well and one that makes me breathe a sigh of relief. Relief for progression and feeling thankful to live in a country like Canada that flourishes at a greener way of thinking and living. Change is coming.
As mentioned, there’s so much more that I did/learned/experienced while I was there, and short of coming to your house and setting up an old fashioned slide show for you I am happy to answer and and all questions about my time there, about sustainability, and would love to hear any insight you might have on this topic I feel so passionately about.
Thanks for listening,