Community Matters: In Conversation with Yas Banks, Graphic Designer and Podcaster

Image by Sophia Carey 

A University of Salford Graduate in Graphic Design, Yas Banks is a 21-year-old freelance designer from Wigan. Since graduating in 2019, she has been flexing her creative muscle as a freelancer and hosting the podcast Proper Talk , alongside friend and fellow Salford Univeristy graduate Jaheed Hussain.

Taking every opportunity that she can to learn more about her craft, Yas is also making sure to pass on the knowledge she has acquired since graduation and is helping those fresh out of university, who are just beginning to scope out roles in the creative world.

Having recently gone solo with the podcast, we wanted to speak with Yas about her first year as a freelancer, the realties of the working world and her advice for anyone needing a bit of encouragement when it comes to finding their place amongst other designers and creatives.

Affable and always brimming with ideas, this is a must-read for anyone interested in a career in graphic design and for those feeling a little lost in professionally and personally of late.

First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from and what you do?

I’m Yas. I’m 21. From Wigan. I’m a graphic designer and podcaster.

Image by Holly White

When did you first know you wanted to be a graphic designer?

Growing up, I had my heart set on becoming a fashion designer. I had an A5 sketchpad filled with drawings of my own clothes, drawing outfits together. That was my goal. In primary school, we had the opportunity to design and make our own slippers in an art lesson one week as a Christmas activity. I still to this day have this slipper – yes it isn’t wearable at all but it’s still a fond memory I have. 

That was until I got to high school and discovered something called graphic products, fell in love with the process and the opportunity it gave. I remember as part of my exam for GCSE, I learnt about the likes of Margaret Calvert & Jock Kinneir who are most famous for designing road signs and became completely in awe that the likes of design carried out such an important role in people’s day to day lives. This is when I found out this was my ‘calling’ in life – ha. 

How did you find the first six months after graduation?

Tough. I’ll be honest. Between graduating in July and starting back up in October, I’m not ashamed to say I had a solid two months off away from absolutely everything – having lived my life in education from the age of 4… I needed some time to think. That shift of every single day in education to suddenly in the ‘real world’, searching for a job… being an adult… having that responsibility held around you is weird. The security of education was gone! 

That’s what I feared, the lack of being secure… getting up to go sit somewhere with that comfort bubble over you of knowing what you’re doing in a certain place. I knew I was getting the train to see recognisable faces; knowing exactly due to a timetable I was doing. There was no fear of the unknown. No anxiety inducing situations. And leaving that environment was a weird adjustment.

However, I took every opportunity whilst still being a student to attend as many events as possible, connect with people, build a network. Which I am so glad I did as I now wasn’t this odd, new graduate trying to get my foot in the door not knowing anyone.

I got bored though, of having too much me time… deciding after picking up the odd freelance jobs during September that I wanted to explore what it would be like to be freelance. Straight from graduation, I’m aware I seem deluded but I wanted to take the risk. I wanted to see what it was like to be my own boss, not be scared of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and meet amazing people along the way.

What opportunities did you take up in those first few months?

Keeping a close network with the university I went to (University of Salford) I jumped in as a mentor on their amazing mentor scheme to help out the current final year students (big shoutout to Lily Duignan for being ace, I’ve now made a friend for life out of this). 

Furthering this relationship with the university, I took part in the Design Manchester x Extinction Rebellion takeover day. From designing assets for the screens around the university to leading my own badge-making workshop. All students from eight different universities came together in union through the power of design to listen, learn and take action for matters about Climate Change. It was an ace day to be involved with, seeing everyone grow in passion through the day and getting mega hands on with everything that was highlighted. 

From this day, I have just about wrapped on a mad publication of summary from the day highlighting everything amazing that occurred into one place for everyone involved to refer back to and see the magic of collaboration! It’s jam-packed full of amazing imagery, artwork and words. Keep an eye out for that release as it’s very nearly ready to go. I love working on editorial design, like this, with loads of content as it allows me to be as creatively free as I’d like for people to enjoy.

At the same time as being involved with Design Manchester events; I had the privilege of working alongside Ear to the Ground as my first major freelance job, working in-house on campaigns for the likes of I Saw it First, Arsenal, Beats and internal marketing work. Working in-house amongst a fab team of people gave me a sense of what it was like day-to-day to come into a studio environment, even as my own boss, and quickly adapting to their way of working, was such a great opportunity for my first freelance role. 

I’ve joined the amazing PechaKucha team too. Being involved helping out where I can; designing the PoochaKucha event programme, helping out with workshops and working with the amazing team. 

What have you learned about working as a graphic designer since graduation?

Ironically, I’ve learnt that learning doesn’t stop. And I know everyone says this but it’s true. Every day is a learning curve, you will make mistakes but that’s okay, you won’t know how to do things, you will frantically Google how to do things. Skillshare has become my best mate at the moment especially diving into the world of After Effects a bit more.

What support did you receive after university?

I worked with the Design Manchester team through the end of my third year at university starting with an amazing project alongside Peel L&P, in which a handful of us designed murals to go up near Harbour City, with the focus on wellbeing and mindfulness. This project helped connect me with the team, with John Owens at the forefront of the project. The support given through the project pushed onto post-university, acting as a huge mentor figure giving me crucial advice on things like my CV to Portfolio, as he receives countless amounts a day. He’s given me guidance on so much when I was lacking motivation in struggling to find a job.

That’s something that isn’t spoken about, the frustration of working your arse off through education, high school to get to college, college to get to university, university to graduate and get a job. But then that job isn’t always there straight away and the fight still continues, of course it does, it isn’t handed to you on a plate ‘because you got a degree’ but the frustration of rejection is a real thing.

John helped me channel this and not let it get me down and lose my motivation, I’ve had down moments about it, anxiety was raised because I felt there was an expectation to get a job or else it wouldn’t have been worth it. But just know, that isn’t the case. Everyone knows how hard it is, especially during the current pandemic, but as long as you keep going, don’t let this define you, it isn’t failure — it’s a learning curve!

What would your advice be for those just starting out in the industry?

Don’t compare yourself to others. This is easier said than done, as you’ll be seeing your peers getting jobs or internships and thinking ‘wait, am I doing enough?’ and ‘why aren’t I being offered those opportunities?’ It’s an awful feeling, I get it. But that’s normal. Everyone will be thinking it, but don’t get tied up in these thoughts. You’ve got to take things at your own pace.

In these situations, you’ve gotta keep your head down and focus on you. And this goes for those you don’t know but are inspired by – it’s more than likely they’ve been doing what you’re just starting for a long time. You’ll get there – you’ve got to put the work in.  Imposter syndrome is real – I get it, everyone does. But it’s about channeling those feelings and working as hard you possibly can to get where you want to be and be your own biggest inspiration! 

What have been some of the highlights of the past year?

I think I’ve named quite a few already, haha! Some other things I’ve done which are mind-blowing for me… designing our Degree Show branding, graduating, having the best summer… turning 21 at a festival with ace humans, attending some inspiring events, connecting with the best people, being on the Creative Boom podcast (WOW!), being able to actually take a step away from education and realising that (okay apart from the current situation) the real world is actually quite exciting, yes utterly bloody terrifying too, but equally as exciting. 

Oh and of course, starting my own podcast! 

And any challenges?

Rejection from jobs. Anxiety about money. This has been a bane of my life. Especially being hit in a sudden pandemic, work drying out. Luckily I don’t have rent or a mortgage to pay, but I still have bills to pay and it’s a constant worry. 

Feeling like I’m back at square one. Learning doesn’t stop just because education stops – this hasn’t been a challenge as such but the feeling of being the newbie, a fresh graduate, there’s a connotation about it… new, fresh. Ok in some instances, it looks good as we have new ideas and have to start somewhere but from a personal thought it does feel that we could get looked down on as we don’t have experience so what the hell are we talking about. It’s a challenge I’ve faced and began to overcome after speaking to others in the industry, and I know there will be loads of graduates feeling the same too.

Can you tell us a bit about your Podcast and the inspiration behind it?

Proper Talk spiralled after featuring on Creative Boom – seeing the positive outlook from other creatives in the industry when briefly discussing topics that we face as graduates in the industry inspired an idea. I noticed that, yes there are amazing articles out there.

Proper Talk is from the perspective of a graduate navigating the working world as a new designer. It’s support for emerging designers. A platform to share tips and advice that I’ve learnt and continue to learn along the way, with conversations with guests in the industry too! Giving graduates a voice. 

Bits of advice I’ve welcomed and engaged with from people who have also been in my shoes at some point but there’s nothing from recent graduates to spare that advice of ‘in the now’ issues that people are concerned about. I know I won’t be a ‘graduate’ forever but for now I am a recent graduate. 

For others thinking about launching their own podcast or side hustle, what do you think are the foundations for starting your own venture?

Research. You’ll have a starting point as the reason you want to start a podcast or form a ‘side hustle’, but it’s important to delve further into it. Find your niche and that slot in the market, so you’re not repeating content that’s already out there.

Using your voice successfully. Figure out what you’d like people to get out of it, if that’s just entertainment, a sense of escapism, information, that’ll help to give you a distinct direction on forming the narrative behind the project. Know what you’re doing! It’s a lot of work to build up a platform, especially using a slightly different avenue in the form of your own actual voice.

What has been the best advice you have received over the past few years?

This is difficult to choose but there was a time nearing the end of college where my mental health took a major spiral. It was hard. I despised college. Loved my friends, hated the work! I went mute, lost faith in myself. It wasn’t good. But my family noticed this, helped me out and during that time I was gifted a wooden plaque that’s still on my wall today, in god awful typesetting I may add but it’s the message and meaning behind it that matters. It reads:

“You are braver than you think, stronger than you look, more talented than you know and twice as brilliant as the brightest star!”

How to find out more about Yas and her work:

Instagram: @yas.banks

Podcast: Proper Talk

Interview: Jenna Campbell


Community Matters: In Conversation with Danielle Rhoda, Illustrator, Animator, Designer

Originally from Poland, Danielle Rhoda moved to Manchester via Nottingham to study Illustration and Animation and has considered the city a home away from home ever since.

An extremely talented artist and illustrator, Danielle has worked with some of the city’s most exiting emerging creatives and agencies from Fuse Manchester and Yolk to cultural institutions including the People’s History Museum. Alongside creating her own prints and greeting cards, Danielle also runs The Big Drink and Draw, an online meeting place for creatives to connect with one another during lockdown.

We caught up with Danielle to talk about her love of the north, what it’s like for young creatives entering the workplace and the projects she’s proudest of.

Can I start by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m originally from Poland where I lived until the age of 13 at which point I moved with my family to Nottingham. I came to Manchester to study Illustration and Animation and stayed here since. I like to think of myself as a northerner at heart which you can tell by the way I love chips with gravy!

Did you know you always wanted to be an illustrator and artist?

Like many, I’ve had a strong interest in art and drawing since a young age. I’ve always loved making things, whether it was a painting or creating 3D shapes out of paper or clay. I’ve always had a thing for recreating things I saw around me. 

Although since I can remember I fancied the idea of one day creating illustrated books it wasn’t until coming onto a foundation course that I was guided towards illustration.

When approached or commissioned for a piece of work, where do you start, what does your creative process look like?

Much to my surprise I have found a new passion for research! While I do begin drawing and noting down ideas as one of the first steps I cannot progress without finding all that I can about the subject. Having developed my practice around observation I need a good set of visual prompts which ground my style. My favourite way to do so is to go outside and draw from life. Even on the day to day (before lockdown) when out and about I would often have my phone at the ready so that I could capture interesting characters. They could then evolve and merge into illustrations. That and really trying to memorise people’s quirks and funky outfits. 

Looking at your career to date, what have been some of your favourite projects that you have worked on?

To date it would have to be working with the People’s History Museum to create a visual language for this year’s set of exhibitions all around the theme of Migration. Having only been freelancing for a short time up to that point it was the first ‘proper’ brief I worked on. Such a great experience working on a topic that is so close to my heart. The team gave me pretty much total freedom and trust so I could really get playful with my style. It was also the first time seeing my characters play out in a live situation like this and on a range of scales. Of course, unfortunately, due to the lockdown, the museum has shut its doors and many events have been postponed so it won’t be until later in the year we’ll really get to delve into their exciting programme. 

You currently live in Manchester, where else have you lived and work and what impact did these locations have on you and your creative output?

Before moving to Manchester in 2015 I lived in Nottingham where I did an Art & Design Foundation course. During that time, my first ever job was working as a GA at the Nottingham Contemporary. For several years the gallery felt like my second home. I became a member of their youth program at the age of 15 and it was one of the best things I could have done. It gave me a real insight into the world of art. The team was very welcoming and I got to see many of the backstage processes to putting up exhibitions and creative events. That was a big influence for me at the time and spurred me onto pursing art. 

What are some of the challenges of your profession, or more generally in the creative industries?

Not enough information. Very soon after graduating I realised how little of the business side we got to see or understand at university. Although it seems to be slowly getting better, the industry often doesn’t seem all that welcoming to graduates with many opportunities still happening in closed circles and behind closed doors. It’s incredible to see more and more people realising this and speaking out but more needs to be done in order to make the creative industries more inclusive and less privileged.

There are so many brilliant new creatives trying their way in every year and I strongly disagree with the mindset of ‘they need to learn the hard way because we did’. Of course when first starting there are lessons to be learned but I think we all should feel a collective responsibility to make the learning as easily accessible as possible. Sharing tips, discussing experiences, introducing people, shouting out about new talent, getting real about finance (!)  and all in all feel a bit less protective of our knowledge and instead passing it on. That’s where the real progress can start, right? 

Have there ever been any barriers for you as a woman in the industry? Or generally speaking do you think the industry is diverse enough?

The workplace in general, within and beyond the creative industry is not diverse enough. I cannot believe that in 2020 one might not be able to get into a certain role because of their gender and or background. However, it does feel like right now we’re in a very important moment where this is becoming part of daily conversation. I remember sitting in a lecture where the speaker explained how the majority of creative positions are taken by white men and I being neither white or male was prepping myself for a much tougher journey than many in this field. Saying that, I’m a strong believer in marching on no matter what and having the work speak for itself. I might be mixed-raced but beyond that and more importantly ABOVE that, I am just an artist. 

What do you like about Manchester and its creative network?

The main reason for why I came to Manchester in the first place was because I’ve heard so much about its creative community. It is such an exciting place to be in right now, there’s a real sense of togetherness which is totally in line with the vibe of the city overall. I love the fact that we’re not as big as London; it really does feel like after a short while you start to recognise many faces.

The city is constantly evolving, especially in recent years, and more and more stripped back, real-talk events are taking place and I can’t wait to see what’s more to come. A little shoutout here to people, teams that made me feel more part of the community: Fuse, Yolk and of course NRTH LASS!

Do you think it is possible to have a fulfilling career in the north?

I think it is definitely possible to have a fulfilling career in the north, there are many creatives who already do and have done so for a while. We are beginning to see a real shift of focus which is coming with talks about diversity and mental health. It is no longer imperative one has to move to London in order to have a great creative career. Technology is playing a big part in this but also the general want of representing more than one voice.

With this in mind, I still believe it is harder to get yourself going outside of London or the south in general but good things don’t always come easy do they! What’s interesting is seeing how other cities in the north are rising up to the challenge and the connections we’re all starting to build. There is real creative power here and the more people realise it the better it will get. (You wouldn’t be able to tell I’m not from here, freaking love the north).

What do you love about the north?

We could be here all day! I love the people, such a warm, friendly bunch. Chips with gravy, but I think I already mentioned that. I love finding out stories about the rich heritage of the north. Especially being based in Manchester, there is so much that’s been forgotten about and is coming to light again.

I’m a real sucker for the architecture as well; layers upon layers of different styles, giving the cities a gritty but beautiful texture and acting as physical time stamps. Also have you been to a northern city in sunshine? No one has the same appreciation for sunlight as a warmth-starved northerner, the whole place comes to life.

Where are some of your favourite creative places to work and socialise in Manchester? 

Before the lockdown it was the endless list of all the beautiful cafes, like Foundation Coffee House, my fave being the one on Whitworth St, Ezra & Gill and TAAK to name a few as well as hidden bars such as Double Down and the downstairs bar in Sandinista! I’ve always been a foodie. Socialising for me means eating so I’m very much looking forward to eating out again and hope Manchester’s food scene will thrive once again. 

Outside of work, what are some of your passions and hobbies?

A trick question for any creative! Outside of work I still love drawing and art in various media be it film or music. As mentioned above I LOVE food, but in addition to eating I really enjoy cooking, it’s a great way to relax. 

Have you pursued any new pastimes during lockdown?

I’ve taken up a bit of gardening, feeling a bit wiser than my age of 24. I’ve also gone back to some forgotten, abandoned hobbies of playing the guitar and piano and have been trying to read more. A book I’m currently reading is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice what would it be?

To worry less and say yes more. 

Are there any new projects or pieces of work that you would like to give a shout-out?

Currently, I’m tugging away on a collection of greetings cards I have officially become gold foil obsessed. On top of that I’m working on some very exciting collaborations and will be sharing them soon on my ig! 

To see more of Danielle’s work and check out some of her latest projects head to her website or Instagram.

Danielle will be speaking at the next PechaKucha Night Manchester, Vol. 31 on the topic of ‘Migration’ on the 9th July, speaking about her work with the People’s History Museum and their programme on Migration.

Interview: Jenna Campbell

Images: Courtesy of Danielle Rhoda

Danielle Rhoda: Freelance Illustrator, Animator, Designer ( Maker of things)

Name: Danielle Rhoda

Job title: Freelance Illustrator, Animator, Designer

Ideas & Planning: My work usually focuses on people and places I’ve seen personally. I often begin with sketching or will turn to sketches I’ve done on-site. I used to be careful of not ‘over-sketching’ as I found that it turned out too static for my liking, I prefer it when the marks are loose and playful, often with some mistakes, it breathes life into the illustrations. I’ve never been a fan of details sketching, takes too much time and I quickly then loose focus. Like to spend a few minutes doing so and moving to the main thing! I’d describe my way of working as quite fast-paced but also carefully observed.

Finance: Just starting out in freelance so it’s in no way a stable income yet and pricing varies!

Networking: At univeristy and since I always tried to show up to various events but more for the genuine interest and networking just happens naturally then! I love to collaborate with local artists, it helps to loosen up and look at your practice from a different point of view. It’s super important to remain connected with other people in the industry, you never know what might lead to the next opportunity. Also as freelancers we might often find ourselves stuck in our own head a little bit, it’s so valuable having others to bounce your ideas off of and discuss issues as well as exciting developments.

Quote to live by – Progress is not linear

Instagram @danielle_rhoda and website

Community Matters: In Conversation with Rachel Cook, Graphic Designer

Originally hailing from Manchester, Graphic Designer and Lettering Artist Rachel Cook was raised not far from London, but moved back up north for university and has made the region her home ever since.

Proud of her Northern roots, Cook has firmly established herself in Manchester’s burgeoning creative community, joining forces with likeminded designers to create platforms such as Design Recovery to raise awareness around mental health through creative outlets and conversation.

Last year she bravely put her own mental health experience front and centre during her time as Design Lead at Yolk to create Two Minds, a collaborative print exhibition, which raised funds for Mind Charity. Here she talks to us about finding her passion, the role that design has played in her own recovery journey and why Manchester’s creative community is so special.

Rachel Cook speaking at the inaugural Design Recovery event

Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

I’m a Graphic Designer living in Manchester. I was born here but when I was two years old we moved down south. However, six years ago I headed back to Manchester to study Graphic Design at Manchester Metropolitan University and have stayed here ever since. I now work for a design agency called Persona Tile, co-run an event called Design Recovery and am also on the PechaKucha Manchester event team. 

How did you get into Graphic Design?

I first fell in love with Graphic Design back in secondary school, at my school we all had to do one of the Design Tech options at GCSE level and I chose to do Graphics. That course covered a lot more than just the design of a product, such as manufacturing methods and materials, but the part that interested me and piqued my interest was the design element. 

Despite being creative growing up, I wasn’t really that into art, I just messed around in lessons and was politely told I probably shouldn’t take it at GCSE, but with Graphics there was something about the whole process of identifying the target audience, creating moodboards, and solving a problem creatively that got me hooked, and it was rare that something had me that engaged in a lesson at school (I was a chatterbox and didn’t care much for authority) so I knew it was something that I had to follow, and it all just developed from there!

Rachel Cook and Charlie Brown at the Two Minds event – © ON LOVE AND PHOTOGRAPHY 2019

Tell us a bit about your involvement in Design Wellness and the sister event series Design Recovery?

Myself, my partner Jordan and our close friends who run a company called Design Wellness go to lots of design events in Manchester and we started to realise that there wasn’t much of a focus on mental health. With the creative industry having such a high level of mental health issues, we knew there was an opportunity to create a safe, welcoming space for people to open up (if they wish) and to ultimately try and help broaden the conversation surrounding mental health. We’ve done two Design Recovery events in Manchester and they’ve gone even better than we imagined,  which is encouraging.

I have a personal interest  in helping support mental health awareness as I have experienced my own own problems with mental health in the past. My recovery from Anorexia taught me so much and since then I had been wanting to do something positive with my experience but I had struggled to figure out a way to do so that felt right. Art and Design can be such a positive way of expressing ourselves and I did a lot of that, but I wanted to do something that could reach more people. So starting the Design Recovery event series  just felt like the perfect fit!  The creative community in Manchester is already so close and supportive, so we hoped this would be a great addition and hopefully encourage the community to be more open when it comes to mental health.

The Two Minds Exhibition – Foundation Coffee Shop – © ON LOVE AND PHOTOGRAPHY 2019

In your experience, how do design and mental health relate to one another?

They both require patience and perseverance. The former is not my strongest quality as a person, that’s for sure, but you can’t get better overnight. You have to give yourself the time and space to grow and heal. Since working on my mental health I can see how impatient I used to be with design. I’d get so down if I wasn’t nailing every new skill straight away or producing ground-breaking work whilst I was still in university. But the simple fact is, all that pressure was having such a bad impact on my confidence so no matter how much I tried, I was never going to be happy with what I created. 

Now, I really enjoy seeing my progress and developing my skills in my own time. All of that really just came with time and experience so if I could go back I’d tell myself to slow down and focus on where I’m at now rather than speeding ahead, just like I had to do with my mental health. 

As a designer, how have you sought to illustrate your own experiences?

I do a lot of hand-drawn typography that allows me to visually represent a quote or phrase that means something personal or encouraging to me. I think it helps me to reflect on the experiences I’ve had with mental health, and reflecting means I can see how far I’ve come, view the experiences in a less negative light, and therefore continue to grow from them. 

It also has an impact on the type of work I enjoy creating the most. I love working with positive companies and individuals doing good things for wellbeing, I recently I designed the brand identity for a therapist, and I regularly create typography social posts for Design Wellness so I get a lot out of those kinds of projects.

Poster for the second Design Recovery event series on resilience

How does Design Recovery help others channel their passion for design into something beneficial for themselves and those who come to listen to their talks?

Design Recovery gives people a space to share whatever they are comfortable sharing, in whichever way they want to do so with absolutely no judgement. Going forward, we hope that the more we speak about mental health, the more normal it will seem to talk about the struggles we are facing and we will see more and more people speaking up and getting help sooner. 

It can also be a really reflective experience much like a personal creative project can be. For me, sharing what I went through has helped me avoid falling back into negative behaviours because it helped me see how far I’ve come and encouraged me to continue on the path I’m on now rather than going backwards. So whether it’s through an event, or creating a piece of artwork like I do with my typography, that ability to reflect on what you’ve been through and physically confront it through something positive you’re doing can be really beneficial.

How has moving to Manchester shaped and influenced you as a designer?

Developing my confidence is one of the key things that has helped me develop as a designer and I’d say Manchester played a pretty big role in that. I started attending a number of design events, which were available across the city and started to get to know the community in Manchester properly when I was in my third year of university and in that year my confidence skyrocketed from more or less nothing, to making me the designer I am today. But I think within the creative industry, wherever you live can influence the work you produce because you draw inspiration, sometimes without even knowing it, from your surroundings and what you take in everyday. Manchester as a whole is an incredibly creative city though.

Design by Rachel Cook

What do you love about Manchester’s creative community and how does being a part of it help your mental wellbeing?

It goes without saying that the creative community in Manchester is incredible. It constantly makes me feel like I belong which has done wonders to my mental wellbeing. It’s also just really helpful to have people to speak to about the highs and lows of being a designer because there are so many people around that completely understand. We can all relate to one another based on our career, which is really nice and everyone is so willing to share their advice and help each other out which has been so valuable to me, especially when just I was  starting out. 

What challenges have you faced personally and in your career to date?

As a Graphic Designer it can be a pretty tough industry. It’s so saturated with incredibly talented artists and designers so to stand out is pretty difficult and can be a lot of pressure, especially with platforms like Instagram where there is so much design work online, making it a pretty competitive market. 

However, that can also be motivating because it builds a drive inside you to keep developing your skills and create better work, despite the fact that it can still be quite challenging at times. I guess the important part is how you manage that pressure and let it encourage you rather than letting it get on top of you, but defining that balance can be pretty challenging. 

Design by Rachel Cook

What do you love about the North of England?

I absolutely love how proud everyone is to be Northern, it’s definitely one of my favourite things. There’s just such a sense of solidarity between everyone that I haven’t seen anywhere else and it brings people together. Even though I didn’t grow up here for the most part, I still find that I’m proud to say I’m originally from the north. (Plus I was two years old so technically I was moved down south against my will, I’m just saying.) 

Looking forward, how do you think design can help others work through their own mental health battles?

I think we are already starting to see how fantastic design can be for wellbeing during the current lockdown situation. I have seen tons of creative solutions that people are coming up with to help others in a time of need. From colouring in sheets created by illustrators, to big projects like Play Playhouse that Playground Design Studio, Ben Clark and Barney Ibbotson have been working on. These are all to help support the wellbeing of each other and keep people entertained when stuck inside all day which is brilliant to see!

But I think in general, we should all do what we can to share our experiences through our own skill sets and passions. If the conversation is more open around mental health we will start to see more art and design that stems from people expressing themselves and their experiences with mental health.

Rachel Cook and her partner Jordan Yates at the Two Minds event – © ON LOVE AND PHOTOGRAPHY 2019

To see more of Rachel’s work visit her Instagram page here.

For updates on Design Wellness and its sister events programme Design Recovery visit here.

Feature image courtesy of: © ON LOVE AND PHOTOGRAPHY 2019

Getting to Know Megan Price: Founder of SWALK Creative

Creating eco-friendly, alternative and tongue-in-cheek greeting cards and gifts, there’s something about SWALK Creative that feels uniquely Mancunian.

Perhaps it is because its founder, Megan Price, has always lived and worked in the city, even basing the business within the walls of the iconic Afflecks. Her seriously strong green credentials and ‘support local’ ethics make SWALK a force to be reckoned with. Couple that with her unique and personal approach to creating her collections, she shows us that there really is an art to mastering the sentiment and humour behind a greeting card.

Earlier in March we had the pleasure of speaking to Megan about starting her business, how she overcomes creative block and why her latest creations are based around gratitude.

Interview: Jenna Campbell

Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, where you are from and what you do?

I’m from Sale and I launched SWALK Creative in September 2014. I started online and doing all the local markets and opened the Afflecks store in May 2015.

Did you always set out to work in the creative industries?

Prior to that I had a pretty corporate job. I had always been creative in my spare time, but the job took up most of my time and I felt my creative outlet was stifled during those years. When I did leave I was able to take a couple of months off, I experimented with lots of things and got back into drawing and eventually decided to make a go of it!

What inspires you and how do you come up with your designs?

I love puns, and I was initially drawn to making cards because at the time I felt there weren’t enough LGBT+ and non gendered cards available on the mainstream market. So that’s always in my mind when I am working on an idea.

Sometimes they come to me in a flash and I have to quickly make a note of them. But if I’m working on a bulk of designs or new collection sometimes it’s more difficult. I’m generally sat listening to Christmas music in August, playing with lyrics and seeing how I can put a silly spin on them!

“I love puns, and I was initially drawn to making cards because at the time I felt there weren’t enough LGBT+ and non gendered cards available on the mainstream market.”

Do you ever experience creative block and if so, how do you overcome it?

I often struggle with creative block, but I do think it’s crucial not to force it. I find it helps to remove myself completely from what I should be doing. If I stare at a blank page willing an idea to come, it very rarely will. But if I get out the house, read a good book or listen to music it’s when my mind isn’t on the work at all that I can come up with ideas in a more natural way.

A lot of your work is created on eco-friendly materials, why is this so important to you?

When I started SWALK I knew I couldn’t put more paper and card into the world without doing so in a responsible way. I put a lot of research into eco-friendly suppliers and packaging so I could make the business as green as possible. It’s a work in progress, we can always do more but I’m always happy to share my suppliers with other makers to encourage them to make more responsible choices too.

What have you been working on lately?

I’m working on some new products right now, based around gratitude. I think it’s important to stop and take check of how lucky we are sometimes so I’ve got some new things in the works that will hopefully encourage people to consider all the things we have to be grateful for.

‘I’m also bringing back a range I first started in 2017 called ‘Quotes From Your Therapist’ which is art postcards featuring illustrated quotes of real snippets from my own therapist. These were really popular first time round as the advice is universal and a little postcard is a perfect way to remind yourself to look after your mental health.

What has been your proudest moment professionally?

This May we’ll celebrate the fifth birthday of our Afflecks shop. Since opening we’ve expanded four times and I’ve had so many incredible milestones it’s hard to pick my proudest moment, but I think being able to grow and sustain the shop just makes me feel lucky every day. 

“Where possible I’d get outside, even in your garden, nature never fails to inspire me. I also love how many people have embraced snail mail and picked up their pens to write to loved ones during this time.”

Do you have any tips for how people can keep creative at home?

There’s so many incredible creatives who are offering free and discounted printables for colouring in or decorating at home, I would definitely recommend people take advantage of that at the moment.

We have nothing but time on our hands so now is the time to look around you and pick up a craft project or hobby you’ve not been able to get in to. A pack of paper and some origami tutorials is a cheap way to explore your creativity.

Where possible I’d get outside, even in your garden, nature never fails to inspire me. I also love how many people have embraced snail mail and picked up their pens to write to loved ones during this time. 

How have you been adapting to the current situation?

Once the Afflecks store closed we inevitably had to trade exclusively online. There are 11 Manchester artists in our Afflecks shop so raising the online profile of each is really important to me so people know they’re still trading. And whilst we’re all stuck indoors, adorning your walls with gorgeous artwork is a super way to liven up your living space and stop staring at empty walls! It’s a difficult time to be in business and I’m trying to find new ways to adapt. Just letting people know we’re still here and posting out is half the battle.

What do you love about up living and working up north?

I’ve lived in Manchester my whole life and since starting SWALK made a conscious effort to immerse myself in the creative community. I went to meet-ups and collaborated with others and built up an incredible network of people.

The creative community here is so supportive, we recently had an open call for artists and the response was absolutely overwhelming. Even when we had to close our doors recently, people rallied to help us in any way they can.

I love that there’s no pretence, people in Manchester aren’t precious about sharing their contacts or techniques etc because it really is a community, there’s room for us all so no need for competition. On the whole, people in Manchester really see the value of independent businesses and supporting local, without them we wouldn’t have seen the success we have.

To find out more about Megan and SWALK visit her site here.

Words of wisdom with Novelist Emma Jane Unsworth


Born and bred in Greater Manchester, Emma Jane Unsworth is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter applauded for her sharp, witty and bitingly funny commentary. Formerly a journalist for The Big Issue in the North, Unsworth has published a number of short stories and two novels including Animals, which won a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize and was adapted as a film starring Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat. Her latest novel, Adults, published by Borough Press, is a lesson to us all on the pitfalls of social media and romance in the modern age. She also writes for television and magazines and is currently busy adapting her second novel for screen, as well as writing a memoir about post-natal depression that she promises won’t be depressing. The bestselling author and screenwriter talks to us about her memories of life up north, creating space for women and her advice for aspiring writers.

  • Could you start by telling me a little bit about yourself, where you are from and what you do?

I’m a writer from Manchester. I write all sorts of things: screenplays, novels, journalism, and I’m currently writing a memoir about post-natal depression that I promise won’t be depressing. I write comedies. Or I try to. Is saying you write comedy a bit like laughing at your own jokes?

  • What are your memories of growing up in the north?

Going to Heaton Park in Prestwich and climbing trees. We had adventures in the woods behind pubs. We caught newts in the lake behind a nearby housing estate. I had a total naturalist’s childhood for someone living in the suburbs. Then as I got older I went out in Blackley, chasing boys. I should have stuck to newts.  

  • How has your upbringing shaped you as a person?

Hard to say, but I do know I write about Manchester more than anywhere. All my stories seem to gravitate towards that north star. 

  • At what point did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career in writing?

It was always there within me. Even as a child I desperately wanted to be a writer. Which was weird because I came from a working-class family where everyone had previously been a printer or a mill-worker. But I had this wild notion I could be a writer. I used to wear a bonnet on Sunday walks with my sister because I loved the Brontës and clearly thought that wearing a bonnet was the way to be like them. My sister refused to walk next to me. 

  • How would you best describe your writing process?

Haphazard. I work in fits and starts. I’m a crammer. I always push it to the wire. 

  • Your novels are strongly influenced by your own personal relationships and as a consequence they touch on themes of love and human connection – what have you learnt about yourself and other people from writing about these topics?

Everything! As much as the living. Although, I don’t really know how to separate writing and living. But when you say love, I think it’s about the legacy and aftermath of love. By that I mean I tend to analyse the fallout, and how these things define us, and how we might need to reshape our understanding of them to be free.

Every time I start to write a novel I start with an emotional crux, a conundrum for my central character, and that is usually my own conundrum at that point in time, or something close to it. Then as I spin a world around it, I get to explore it in an abstract way, and the characters that grow and take it in new directions. That’s the adventure.

By the end of a book, I always feel purged and a little wiser and lighter. It means the world when that book then resonates with other people with similar hopes and fears.

  • Your novel Animals was received with critical acclaim and was subsequently adapted into a screenplay – what about the story do you think resonates the most with reader?

The honesty, I hope. I wrote that story from my guts. It scared me to death and I kept wanting to delete it, or at least sections of it, but I’m glad I didn’t. People see through bullshit and padding and cynical writing. I never want to make anything that isn’t fiercely and dangerously true. I like to risk my neck. Otherwise I might as well just type out the phone directory over and over.

  • Personally, what is your favourite book that you have written?

I can’t do that! They’re my children. Don’t make me choose!

  • Now residing in Brighton, what do you miss about the north?

So much. My friends and family. The peculiar quality of the sky. The colours of the stone. The accents. I hear a Northern accent down here and I’m like COME TO ME, MY BRETHREN.

  • We talk a lot about the scope for giving women the tools and resources so that they can thrive in spite of where they were born and raised, how do you feel about the north-south divide in this context?

I think seeing women succeeding from all backgrounds is key. I hope more literary agents and publishers set up in the north as the country rebuilds itself. I hope we see more TV and film companies based up there, or at least having offices and production studios up there. Writers shouldn’t have to travel for two hours to take meetings. Or maybe now we’ll all be better at Zoom and Skype meetings. That could free things up!

  • At any point in your career so far, have you ever felt held back or hindered by your gender?

Always. Fighting that is part of my job, and it always has been. That said, I am a white woman, and because of that have had more opportunities than many writers of colour. But the facts remain: women are paid less, fear of violence is real. Those things affect most jobs all of the time in some way or other.

It’s harder in the TV and film worlds. Commissioners need to give women more money to make things. That’s the only way we are going to see change. All these reports telling us what we already know just wind me up. They’re useless puff PR so organisations look like they’re doing something. They need to put their money where their reports are.

We need more female directors, producers, writers – and they all need the chance to make mistakes and get it wrong and be mediocre – as well as have strokes of genius get it right and be brilliant – the same way men have forever.

  • Who or what inspires you?

My friends and my son. My need to feel as though I deserve them. Fear of being poor. Self-loathing. Self-preservation. Fear of failure. Willingness to fail. Funny things. Beautiful things. Ugly things. Sad things. True things. Women who live on the edge in some way.

  • Complete the sentence, a writer is…

 a thinker first and last; a typist in between.

  • What would your advice be for any aspiring writers or authors?

Finish the draft. That’s it. Whatever it is, get to the end of it for the first time. Then: polish like fuck. 

  • I’ve been told many times that in order to be a good writer you must keep reading, with that in mind what three books would you thoroughly recommend?

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, Fast Lanes by Jayne Anne Phillips and Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

  • Finally, if there was one thing in the world that you would change, what would it be?

Right now, I’d get rid of coronavirus. Either that or those electric scooters. I really hate those.

Emma’s latest book Adults is available here.


The Future of Work with Rosie Manning, Founder of The Greenhouse Leeds

The ubiquity of co-working spaces in the capital city is no great secret, but what about the increasing number of flexible office spaces opening across the rest of the country? We spoke to Rosie Manning, the founder of Leeds-based co-working community, The Greenhouse, which welcomes remote workers and small businesses, as well as those working across the creative industries, about why she set up her own space, the rise of nomadic workers and why locating her business in the heart of Meanwood in the north of Leeds was a no brainer.

Rosie Manning, The Greenhouse, Leeds. Co working space. Portrait and lifestyle photography by Joanne Crawford

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name’s Rosie Manning and I’m from Leeds, born and bred! I’ve lived here pretty much all my life. I’m the founder of a co-working space called The Greenhouse in a northern suburb of the city, which I run alongside my main job as a brand and web designer.

I recently joined the team at a Canadian agency called MetaLab . They’re based in Vancouver and have lots of tech and media clients like Uber, Slack, VICE and Google. So it’s a good balance – I work for them remotely from Leeds, which means I get to do what I love with a really amazing agency whilst also managing the day-to-day running of a coworking space. 

What were you doing before you founded The Greenhouse?

After graduating from the University of Leeds with a degree in Graphic and Communication Design and a placement at Saatchi & Saatchi under my belt, I worked in-house for an educational company in Halifax based out of a beautiful old mill, which involved commuting daily from Leeds. Once I grew tired of being on the M62 every day, I decided to spread my wings and move down to London for a bit. I worked at a health and abuse charity in Kings Cross, managing their brand and helping get their digital presence up to scratch.

It turned out that London wasn’t a good fit. Not only was the cost of living through the roof, I just never felt 100% comfortable there and I really missed my family. I stuck it out for a year before the siren call of home lured me back to Yorkshire. Once I’d returned to Leeds, I worked at a couple of different agencies for a bit, but I felt I was ready to carve my own path. That led to me doing web design on a freelance basis for the next seven or eight years. I worked with startups, social enterprises, music venues and a variety of other businesses, developing their online identities and designing their websites and apps.

How did The Greenhouse come to be?

My years as a freelancer taught me just how isolating the lifestyle can be. Over the years I worked from various places – at home, in coffee shops and even at a few different co-working spaces, but none were a good long term solution. So I decided to set up a space myself – one that felt as far as possible from a traditional corporate office. I wanted it to be somewhere people would feel instantly comfortable from the moment they stepped through the front door. I also wanted to create somewhere that could double up as an events space and act like a sort of community hub.

The Greenhouse, Leeds. Co working space. Portrait and lifestyle photography by Joanne Crawford

What are your thoughts on the growth of co-working over the last few years and how does The Greenhouse fit into that?

There’s certainly been a huge surge in co-working over the last few years, and – at least for now – the trend seems to be continuing. When it comes to the giants of the co-working world, they’re still figuring out the best way to dominate the market. WeWork is probably the most famous example – it got too much money too quickly and went from one of the highest valued start-ups of all time to having to be rescued by its biggest investor . But there are plenty of other examples of really successful co-working companies with more sustainable business models.

So I think we’ll see more and more co-working businesses popping up in towns and cities. It’s not just individual freelancers and remote workers looking for a flexible working environment – a lot of small businesses are keen to set up base somewhere they don’t have to worry too much about overheads. They’re kind of like an evolution of those early skills incubators.

I don’t really see those slick city centre co-working spaces as direct competition though. For smaller independent setups like The Greenhouse, the main drive is generally something other than profit and growth. I have completely different motives – I don’t aspire to open a dozen locations or get listed on the stock exchange; I just want to be able to keep the lights on and make sure all our residents are comfortable and happy.

I belong to a generation of people who graduated into a world in the aftermath of a global financial crisis, followed by years of successive Conservative governments forcing local councils to make huge cuts. Leeds has weathered all this relatively well, but the ripples are still being felt. It’s why the independent business revolution continues to sweep across the post-industrial northern cities – people my age and younger are taking neglected spaces and turning them into places where locals can come together.

Gentrification isn’t just about modernising an area and attracting affluent people – it’s about making the best of the hand you’ve been dealt. It’s why I think we’ll continue to see a rise in multi-functional venues – to survive, you have to be creative with the space you’ve got. And in an increasingly online world, it feels like people are really starting to crave those physical locations where they can hang out together. So I reckon we’ll see more and more nooks and crannies being transformed into beautiful, useful spaces. 

Did you have any support getting your venture off the ground?

Yes – I couldn’t have done it without help! When I first took over the space it was an empty shell of an industrial unit with grey concrete walls – a completely blank canvas. But I had loads of incredible support from my friend Becci and her partner Rik, and we were able to slowly transform the space into what it is today.

I called in lots of favours from my amazing friends, and we spent weekend after weekend painting walls, hanging lights, plumbing the toilet, buying furniture, finding plants, erecting trellises, making signage and building tables. We also had loads of invaluable support from our local joiner, Chris Blakeham , who did an amazing job.

I also spent quite a bit of time getting a brand in place. Luckily, I had the help of the extremely talented Eve Warren (currently a brand designer at Robot Food) to create our logo, our colour palette and the rest of our visual identity. Last but not least, my boyfriend supports me with the marketing side of things – he helped get our brand values and tone of voice sorted, which is a massively useful thing to have in place when writing web content and social media posts. 

The Greenhouse, Leeds. Co working space. Portrait and lifestyle photography by Joanne Crawford

What differentiates The Greenhouse from other co-working spaces?

I always like to describe it as a bright and friendly space filled with leafy plants, relaxing tunes and beautiful décor. We offer a vibrant, welcoming backdrop for focused work, tea-drinking and community events. Apparently the space is “quirky”, or so people tell me! I didn’t used to like that word, but I’ve come to realise its one people reach for when they’re trying to describe how different and unique it is.

It’s the opposite of corporate. I knew from day one I wanted the atmosphere to always be friendly and chilled. I also wanted to keep rules to a minimum, and just have an environment where you feel looked after; a place where everyone cares. We wanted the kinds of events we run to reflect this too. We’ve had a great mix so far , including watercolour classes, yoga, paper flower making, first aid training and Makaton sign-language workshops. One of our residents – Hannah Spruce – also runs a regular non-fiction reading group called Bookish.

Moving forwards, I really want The Greenhouse to live up to its name. Aside from filling the space with plants and supporting nearby local businesses, we use energy efficient light bulbs throughout the space, replenish our soap containers at The Refilling Station in nearby Chapel Allerton and recycle all our plastic, glass and paper. All the paint on the walls was sourced from the amazing Seagulls , a fantastic organisation that specialises in reprocessing and distributing unwanted household paint.

But we want to inspire more green behaviours – bike parking facilities, for example, would encourage our residents to leave their cars at home. We also have plans to install walls of moss on the front of the building to help absorb air pollution from passing traffic. Everyone understands the battle we’re facing when it comes to climate change – as a public workspace, I think we need to lead by example and be as sustainable as possible.

The Greenhouse, Leeds. Co working space. Portrait and lifestyle photography by Joanne Crawford

Why did you decide to base it in Leeds?

I guess the main reason is that I live here! But there was always a specific draw to Meanwood itself. It’s one of my favourite parts of Leeds. In estate agent speak, it’s “up and coming.” And the so-called Waitrose effect has certainly helped it thrive, with independent cafes, shops and bars opening all the time.

We’re right in the middle of the action. We’re nestled behind Terminus, home to the Meanwood Brewery . You’ll find us up the alley between two other local gems – The Hungry Bear restaurant and Alfred bar. There are so many great places nearby. Tandem does amazing coffees and brunches, Culto is a really cosy Italian restaurant and HanaMatsuri has some of the best sushi in the country – genuinely!

It’s not just about the bars and cafes though. There’s an amazing urban farm just down the road with alpacas, goats and sheep! And the beautiful Meanwood park is just a few minutes away, perfect for afternoon dog walks.

And then of course the city has such wonderful digital and arts scenes. I knew there were always going to be plenty of people with circumstances similar to mine who would be looking for somewhere to work. I guess in the end I didn’t really go looking for The Greenhouse. It just sort of found me. And after so many years of moving around, it’s the most settled I’ve felt in ages.

What people do you seek to attract with your offering?

We welcome anyone! At the moment, we have a lot of designers, photographers, illustrators, and copywriters. We also have a phd student and a couple of people working for charities. So any creative freelancer would find it a good fit. But really, it’s open to anyone that’s nice and friendly who needs somewhere quiet and relaxing to work. 

People can hot desk daily or buy a monthly pass – some people really like the flexibility of just turning up when they like and grabbing somewhere to sit. We also offer desk rental on a full time or part time basis. We have all the usual stuff you’d expect – a kitchen, storage lockers, printing and wifi access. All bills are included, so you don’t have to worry about any additional costs.

We also have a private studio, but that’s currently occupied by my friend Becci – she runs her tattoo business from there, called The Aviary . It’s really popular – she’s such a talented artist! We’re dog-friendly too – which means I get to bring my beautiful golden retriever Sol with me every day! If people are interested in learning more about what we offer, they can book a tour on our website . 

What challenges have you faced in setting up your own business?

The biggest challenge was probably doing the place up from scratch. It took months. We were paying rent before we’d opened the doors to the public, so it really felt like we were working against the clock. The Greenhouse is a complete labour of love – it’s been entirely self-funded from the very beginning. I’m really pleased we managed to get it into a position where we were able to open, but we didn’t quite finish everything.

We’ve recently launched a Crowdfunder so we can get everything sorted and take the space to the next level. We’ve called in yet more favours to put together some really nice rewards, including illustrated postcards, bespoke prints, jewellery – even a tattoo! If people want to see all the exciting stuff we have planned for the future, they can take a look at our Crowdfunder page . 

The Greenhouse, Leeds. Co working space. Portrait and lifestyle photography by Joanne Crawford

Do you have any advice for people looking to do something similar?

Yes. Trust your instincts. It was all completely new to me, so I had to feel my way through the dark. You come to realise who genuinely cares about helping you – and I don’t mean in a transactional, “you scratch my back” kind of way. I mean people who want to support you because they care about you and want you to succeed. You can’t just wing it though – you need to have some kind of plan in place.

You also have to understand it will take up a lot of your personal time, so make sure you have a strong support network around you. I think you have to be the kind of person who really wants to invest themselves in creating something new. If you are, you’ll get to reap the rewards when it finally comes to life. 

And I’ve said this before, but it’s always worth repeating – never underestimate the importance of a strong brand. You need to have something consistent and concrete you can fall back on, especially if you don’t have huge advertising budgets. When you’re relying predominantly on social media and word-of-mouth it’s vital you have something to hinge your communications on.

What does a typical weekend entail?

I love taking my dog out for long walks. I’m a big fan of yoga, spinning and muay thai – all really good for mental health as well as physical. I also enjoy reading, baking and playing on my Nintendo Switch. I try and spend as much of my free time as I can with friends and family, making sure it involves a pub lunch whenever possible. 

The Greenhouse, Leeds. Co working space. Portrait and lifestyle photography by Joanne Crawford

What do you love about the North of England? 

The amazing countryside! The scenery is just so much better than down south – that’s just a fact. I love how close Leeds is to the Yorkshire Dales; within minutes you can be out in the open air, walking through rolling hills. And because Leeds always has a lot happening, you rarely feel you’re missing out on anything being based here. As a city, it’s very supportive of artists, illustrators and jewellery makers – it’s not hard to stumble across a decent print or craft fair, and you’ll find bars and pubs are always featuring work from local creators.

It’s generally less expensive to live up north, especially when compared to London, where people end up spending most of their wages on rent. I think more students from further afield are starting to stick around after they graduate and make the north their new home, which is a huge benefit. It’s not difficult to see why there’s been such a huge surge in tech agencies, media companies and the design scene in general.

At the end of the day, the north is home. I’m a northern lass at heart, although for some reason people don’t think I have a particularly strong Leeds accent! There’s just something comforting about being in Leeds, and I think, on the whole, people are generally really friendly. Having said that, my boyfriend is originally from Sheffield, and he says people are much friendlier there. We’re always arguing about which city is best!

Do you have any recommendations of cool places to see, eat and drink, or visit in Leeds?

Leeds has a fantastic calendar of events. There’s always something happening – whether it’s Light Night , Leeds International Film Festival or Leeds Indie Food . It’s packed with amazing restaurants; you can always find something delicious to eat. It’s also a city that’s passionate about good beer – the annual festival at the town hall is always a lot of fun, and there are loads of amazing local brewers based here, such as Anthology , who open up their Armley-based brewery to the public every month or so.

It’s also a great city for gigs, plays and films. The Leeds Playhouse just recently had a massive refurbishment. And we’re so lucky to have the Hyde Park Picture House – it’s over 100 years old and a really special place. As you can probably guess, I’m a big fan of green spaces, and you can’t get much nicer than Roundhay Park – it’s one of my absolute favourite parts of the city. Whatever you’re into, there’s always something to see and do!

To find out more about Rosie and The Greenhouse Co-working space, head to their website or have a nosy over on Instagram.

Getting to know Domino Panton-Oakley: Founder of Cotton On MCR

Cotton on. phrasal verb. If you cotton on to something, you understand it or realize it, especially without people telling you about it. [British, informal]’

Passionate about Manchester and its visual culture, Domino Panton-Oakley, Founder of Cotton On MCR, a one-stop-shop guide to the city’s ever-changing art and creative scene, is on a quest to create a space that brings together the best of Manchester’s arts offering.

From exhibition listings, art reviews and interviews with emerging artists and makers, Cotton On is much more than a listings platform. A launching pad for the city’s creative talent, Domino’s passion and enthusiasm for accessible and impactful art is inspiring, necessary and timely.

We recently sat down with Domino to learn more about the evolution of Cotton On, delved deeper into the accessibility and diversity debate and of course, picked her brains, to find out what we should all be cottoning on to in Manchester this year.

Can you tell us the story behind Cotton On MCR?

It’s an on-going debate who came up with the name, my husband thinks it was him – it wasn’t! When thinking about creating this organisation, we wanted something that said ‘Manchester’ and link to it’s history. We wanted the people of Manchester to see what was happening here. We wanted people to realise how much talent we have in Manchester’s art scene, how many galleries we have and see the amazing things those galleries are doing. We wanted people to realise art can be for everyone, it isn’t as pompous and elitist as some people think. We wanted to shout out about how awesome this city is – we wanted people to Cotton On!

The idea of “cottoning on” to something sits at the heart of your concept, at what point did you realise that the people of Manchester were not seeing or accessing the best of the city’s art scene?

It was when I was going on to every galleries website to see what exhibitions they had on and what their opening times were. I would have about 5 tabs open comparing one gallery to another, thinking which exhibitions can I go to, which ones look best, signing up to their newsletters… There are other websites out there that list Manchester exhibitions, but they tend to focus on the big boys, Manchester Art Gallery and the The Whitworth for example. But Manchester has so many smaller, independent galleries which house some great work and fantastic artists, and it was these that were being missed! So I saw a gap in the market, which Cotton On MCR now fills (I hope!).

Having studied Fine Art and clearly having a passion for it, what ways do you think we can make it more accessible?

I think we need more affordable art classes and workshops. Running Cotton On MCR means I get invited to attend these classes which is fantastic! But sometimes they can cost £25 – £35+, and that may not be affordable to a lot of people. Yet most of the people that attend these workshops are new to art/painting and haven’t done anything like it before. So there is massive potential for more workshops, it’d just be great if there was a way to make them more affordable. Also, galleries and artists should try and be more open to people, stop with all the fancy artists statements, the ‘deeper meanings’ and elitist talk. Be more open and real, and you will appeal to more people!

One of the articles you posted on your site talks about female representation in the industry and drew attention to the fact that only 10% of galleries have 50% or more female artists, what do you think is the best way to tackle this imbalance of representation?

This is a real tricky one. That article had a lot of responses and interaction from readers which was great and continued the conversation. I think the imbalance needs to be looked at earlier, in schools for example. What I found fascinating was that the majority of people doing art courses/degrees are women, but then they aren’t being represented after that. So what is happening after the course finishes? I think we need to encourage women to continue with their work and passions, to continually push and try new things. I think we need to shout louder and ask for more. I always say, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’. The worst that can happen is someone says no, and you are in the same position as when you started. Just keep going until they, or someone else, says yes!

Leading on from this, have you ever felt your gender has held you back or limited your access to opportunities?

Not quite, but subconsciously I think being female has changed the way I worked. On setting up Cotton On MCR I was keen not to put my face to the organisation. I was very much hidden in the background. Perhaps I did that so I wasn’t judged as a woman? It has only been recently, as Cotton On MCR grows, that I feel confident in saying ‘Hey, this is me and this is what I have created!’  

The variety and sheer volume of listings on the blog is impressive, how do you manage to cover all this ground?

Caffeine and bananas! It does take an awfully long time to go through the galleries in Manchester and add them to the What’s On Calendar. Since launching Cotton On MCR back in November 2017, all I have asked from the galleries is to include me in their press lists, or remember to tell me, or tag me, in their new events and exhibitions. But for whatever reason, I am still fighting that battle. I am still having to go on each galleries website to find all the exhibitions. You’d think this would be high on their list, I am pretty much offering them free advertising! Some of them are very good at keeping me informed, so thank you guys! Not all of galleries are bad.

I also have a pool of volunteer writers and photographers which helps massively in giving me time to focus on other parts of the organisation and the growth of the business as a whole. I owe them all a massive thank you!  

One of the features on the blog, Manc of the Month sounds great, can you tell us a bit about what criteria you’re looking for when bestowing this honour?

Out ethos has always been to promote the art and artists of Manchester so we really love doing this feature. It’s a mix really in terms of what we look for. We have featured a number of artists who’s work we are fans of. This ranges from photographers to collage artists, painters to sculptors. We try and mix it up so it’s something different each month. We recently featured a curator whose exhibitions we have been following from since we launched. We do want to feature more people ‘behind the scenes’ of the art world – gallery owners, event planners etc. We love helping promote people’s projects, whether that be a new event or exhibition.

You have recently added the Cotton On MCR Shop can you tell us a bit about what we can find there?

Here we sell the work of Manchester based creatives. We stock everything from prints, photography and original pieces. We are in the process of adding more craft including ceramics and jewellery. We wanted to introduce another platform that we can promote and help the artists across the city. It is free for them to sell with us, which is obviously a massive bonus for new and up-coming artists. When it comes to adding items to the shop, we look for contemporary, affordable pieces. It is tricky when deciding who to feature, but we try and stick to what we like and what we think will sell. So far that has worked for us and the shop continues to grow, and we are getting more and more sales each month!

Heading into summer, what events and exhibitions across the city are you particularly looking forward to?

Manchester International Festival this summer should be good. It’s the first one since the launch of Cotton On MCR so we are pretty excited to attend the events. Then there is the launch of Factory next year which we are pretty excited about too.

There is also our first ever event, the Cotton On MCR Pop-Up Art Fair, which will be held at Leaf on Portland Street, Saturday 7th September! This is the first time we have put an event together and we are so excited. The fair will be selling original art, prints, craft, jewellery and more! We can’t wait to be working with the artists directly and selling to the public. We’ll be there to introduce ourselves too, so make sure you pop in and say hello – free entry!

Can you tell us your favourite thing about Manchester’s art scene/and your favourite thing about Manchester?

I think Manchester’s Art scene is thriving. I think we have some amazing artists coming from the Uni, they are so talented and I can’t wait to see them develop. We have some great galleries that host some really outstanding exhibitions too. I just wish we had some bigger names here. I know they won’t build a Tate in Manchester, so close to Liverpool, but we need something like that to draw in the huge artists names. Maybe Factory will do this?

My favourite thing about Manchester, outside of art, is the sheer volume of things to do. You can never be bored in Manchester! If you aren’t visiting one of our many shopping centres or high streets, you can chill with a nice craft beer at one of our many breweries or beer gardens. You can see football, watch a play, play crazy golf, visit museums, eat at food markets, dance, bottomless brunch, summer festivals…. Honestly, it’s a fantastic place to live! Maybe I’m in the wrong business, I should work for the tourist board!