Listen and Learn: Bren Byrne – Offset

OFFSET will return to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre this February for its seventh year. The event sees a host of the world’s leading creatives – including some from Ireland – showing their wares and sharing insights and anecdotes with 2,000 attendees over three days and nights. The event has become a linchpin of the Irish creative calendar, and with events in London and Sheffield, OFFSET is positioning itself in an ever-more international context. I spoke to founder Bren Byrne about what it takes (in every sense) to stage such an event.

Bren’s own background (and that of his co-director Lisa Haran) is in business as a creative himself. It was from this context that his involvement in OFFSET emerged: “In the mid 2000s I was working as an illustrator and became involved in an online magazine for which I contributed interviews with my favourite designers and illustrators. Because of this and our own efforts we built quite an extensive network of international and local creative contacts by the time we started OFFSET in 2009. I was still working full time as an illustrator for the first few years as well as running a small agency doing art direction and design but went full time with OFFSET in 2013. Lisa has always involved at different levels over the years and finally came on board as my co-director in 2014.”

 

While the event will remain in the regular venue of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, OFFSET is on earlier this year than usual, from the Friday 17th to Sunday 19th February. As ever, there are a mix of Irish and international speakers, with contemporary greats alongside “legends”.

“We are honoured to host two genuine legends of the creative world for OFFSET Dublin 2017 in photographer and art director Jean-Paul Goude and film title designer Dan Perri. Goude hails from France but has worked globally since the 1960s and is best known for his groundbreaking time at Esquire Magazine, iconic music and fashion photography for Grace Jones and recently ‘breaking the internet’ with Kim Kardashian.”

 

“Dan Perri was a student, colleague and friend of Saul Bass and has contributed the title design for some of the most successful films in history including Star Wars, The Exorcist, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to name a few. We’re just as excited to showcase other talents like Mirko Borsche, Laura Carlin, DADDY and Shane Griffin.”

I asked Bren about what it the practical reality of staging an event like OFFSET entails. “Plans commence for the next event before the current one is done, if that makes sense. A lot is dependent on the availability of dates in our venue and that dictates where we start. We have long-term relationships with speakers trying to arrange schedules to get them over. Sometimes this can take years so we hit them with our dates and take it from there. Then things follow a routine of booking hotels and flights before we get into the interesting bits like designing the creative and motion graphics.”

 

“We jokingly refer to our day-to-day routine as ‘Excel Hell’, spending a lot more time in spreadsheets than anyone really should. Most of what we do is plan and execute,” he adds. “The days are a mix of speaker liaison, logistical matters such as venue site visits and booking flights, and social media and communications. We do a lot, if not all, of our design for both print and web in-house and as we have a team of just two, albeit supplemented at times by a couple more, it’s full on and all consuming.”

“In many ways running an event and business like OFFSET is similar to our time being sole traders, in that you are responsible for everything. That was good training. It’s one of the benefits and problems of it being just the two of us doing everything: we don’t cut any corners and create the event as if we were planning it just for us. Our approach is to oversee every element with our designer’s eye for detail – which can at times be challenge in and of itself. Not just the experience for the attendees through our curation and social events, but for the speakers to feel comfortable and relaxed.”

Running an event over three days and nights, which takes a year or more to put together, is not without its stressful moments. “Most of the challenges revolve around planning for the unknown: a speaker pulling out; ticket sales dipping; no sponsors getting involved. You have to plan so much. Without proper planning it would all fall apart very easily, which thankfully hasn’t happened yet! We still keep our creative toes wet by producing the design for the site, conducting interviews, designing our Ways and Means magazine, art directing our opening titles. So it’s about finding that balance between learning new skills and using the ones that got us working in this field in the first place.“

 

Staging OFFSET gives a unique perspective and insight into the creative industry and process. What has changed since the first OFFSET in 2009 – for the industry and for the creative process? And where do Irish creatives fit in all of this? “Styles change; new skills have to be adopted; in some cases a wider pool of skillsets are needed – especially as Digital and UX has become so huge – but one thing that is reinforced every year when we listen and chat with creatives from all over the world at every stage of successful careers is that you just can’t escape hard work. That will never change.“

“Creativity and design literally shape the world we live in. The visual landscape that surrounds us has been crafted – sometimes terribly – by designers, and it’s so important that designers don’t operate in a bubble of trying to just please themselves and their peers. Design needs to be more than society’s wallpaper.”

 

On the Irish question, Bren is clear: “We set up OFFSET partly to give the incredible creative work we were seeing being produced by Irish designers a platform to showcase their work on the same level and on merit with their international counterparts. I think OFFSET being a regular event on the international calendar means that young professional designers here have something to aspire to that can give them that sense of belonging legitimately to an international community.”

In spite of all the dramas and tribulations of running an event that feels familiar and runs smoothly for 2,000 attendees (and a small group of speakers), it is their experience that gives meaning and context to the work.

 

“The reaction from both our speakers and attendees over the years has been the main reason why we have kept doing it. It been an incredible few years full of ups and downs – the same as any business – but it’s been worth it for the insights we have gained, amazing experiences we have shared and getting the sense that all of our efforts have had a positive impact on the local creative community.”

“We’ve heard anecdotes of people changing careers or re-training because of a talk they heard; people coming home from overseas for OFFSET instead of Christmas; even people businesses being set up based on an experience at OFFSET. What more motivation could you want?”

OFFSET 2017 takes place at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from Friday 17th to Sunday 19th February, with tickets available from iloveoffset.com with prices ranging from €115 to €250.

Words: David Wall

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