Communities of Practice

To offer some context to the communities of practice that I am involved with I am going to outline my rather chaotic career path. Feel free to skip this bit ( it is a little self indulgent ) and hop on to the deep critical insight I will be offering from paragraph 7 onwards.

I initially went to study fine art at university, within months I realised that I had made a mistake, the life of struggling artist did not appeal to me and If I was ever going to sustain my shoe/trainer addiction, I was perhaps going to have to switch to some thing that there was more chance of me achieving gainful employment upon graduation, whilst still hopefully managing to exercise some creativity.

I suspected that Fashion would have been a better fit but with the absence of any such course in that field my current University (Leeds Metropolitan University). I decided to transfer Graphic Arts and Design, which was basically a graphic design course in which you never received briefs, instead we had to negotiated a agreement with a tutors about what we were going to do term by term, which could be quite literally anything. I decided I was to become a fashion illustrator. The first few months I bashed through the usual fashion illustration clichés, Charles Anastase (fashion illustrator) who was all the rage at the time, so I begun drawing wistful girls with delicately rendered hair in pencil and contrasted with bold graphic decorations, it was the most derivative work imaginable. By the second year my work moved away from the hand drawing and I began to construct elaborate sets and prop and began art-directing shoots. My work was always slightly adrift from what everyone else on the course although I had a deep appreciation for what some of the other students produced.

By the time I was ready to graduate I felt I had really found a unique style and a way of working, however within a few months took a job in the art department of a publisher who had initially commissioned for illustration and styling work, within days of the appointment I was working on the layout of publications with absolutely no experience of editorial design, it was a baptism of fire, whilst this is not what I anticipated I would be doing on graduation I really enjoyed developing a whole new skill set. After a very formative year of this I decided to go back to education and apply on the MA in Graphic Communications course at Central Saint Martins). I had planned to further develop my art direction and prop styling work, but again this did not go as expected.

I had always had an interest in youth sub cultures so I decided to work on a map of how all the visual styling of all the different subcultures influenced each other and lead to the evolution of their styles. This project was meant to take 6 weeks, but ended up filling the whole 2-year MA. People involved in the various subcultural groups were interviewed, physical example of every garment that was discussed were found and documented, and from this a map was drawn showing how they all the connection between the 150 groups I had identified. The project ultimately became about researching and information design, something that I had never previously had any natural inclination for. Every Monday I would attend very intensive daylong seminars with very focused group of type and information designers.

By the time I had finished this make MA I wanted to do something less theory based. I was given the opportunity to produce on an installation in City Hall, based around ideas of water sustainability in fashion. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to do this so I called up one of my friends form my BA, who I thought I could bounce some ideas off. He ended up taking on this project together and it turned out to be quite successful working relationship.

From this we were asked to do a set for a designer for her London Fashion Week show, it was decided that this set would work better used within a film than a traditional show. At some point somehow settled that we would also film this, despite the fact that neither of us knew how to film or edit anything, so pulled in the only person we knew who had any idea of how to use a camera, he also happened to be from our BA. We thought we better get a studio to film it in so we took on the contract for an old factory unit in Hackney Wick. The space was a total wreck so we asked another person we had studied with who specialized in screen printer (who had managed to construct a DIY screen print exposure unit, bed and rack his garage) to help us as we knew he had some sort of carpentry skills. The film was completed and shown at Somerset House as part of Fashion week, it was widely regarded as a bit of pretentious disaster, but it opened up many other opportunities a helped us formulate our community of practice.

Three years latter and we are still in the studio, but now there are 8 of us (7 of which studied together in Leeds). We all work separately and collectively.  When people enquire as to the set up were never quite sure what to call it as it lacked the traditional structure of a design studio, but after reading Etienne Wenger piece it maybe feels like a quite closely knit community of practice.

Etienne Wenger 3 characteristics to our community of practice can be applied to what
we do.

Our Domain is design (which umbrellas editorial, print, digital and environment) but more specifically we are bound by an approach to design. As we studied on a very broad Graphics BA there was allot of cross festination, and this has followed use through to our professional practice. When one of us who is from an illustrative background is involved in a typographic project or someone with set design background works on moving image project, unconventional outcomes to the projects are often found.

Whenever we work independently we discuss what we are doing, help each other and share information. These interactions were essential to making our community of practice

We all share resources like equipment, contract templates, accountants and contacts. We also share skills, when we initially started working together only one person could screen print, now all (albeit not to the same level) have that skill, the same applied to
camera work.

This community of practice is very core to my professional life, but I am engaged in many other communities of practice to different levels, from the people I studied with on my MA to the designers I meet through publishing. Below I have inserted a close up of part of my MA project and I can find similarities between the grouping of subculture and the structure of the communities of practice I am now involved in.

At LCF I have been charged with the responsibility to try and encourage communities of practice, the initiative has been titled “Creative Connections’

The initial concept being was to get the students to come together and discuss their work  so they could offer each other guidance and support that would hopefully continue into there professional lives. The events are across the various disciplines as we were keen to develop relationships across the various courses so that they could share information, expertise that is unique to their specific discipline. There is a culture throughout the university that being a designer is a solo pursuit and that we hope these events will help challenge this as some of the most important designers of the last 25 years have broke through as groups. The Antwerp 6 who studied at Royal Academy of Fine Arts between 1980-1981 and broke through after group showing in London in 1988, the support they gave each other could have been defined as a community of practise. While our Communities of practise event at LCF is only in there infancy (there have only been two so far which worked as talking shops) I am looking forward to trying to develop them further and maybe try and mack them more activities based to further engage the student body.

5 thoughts on “Communities of Practice

  1. Hi Thomas,

    A really good account of how your own practice has emerged and developed. And a good insight into the importance of being part of a Community of Practice and the invaluable aspects of sharing skills and knowledge. I think this experience is something you can really use with your students too. It is both useful and important for them to talk and exchange knowledge the way you have described and if you can find ways to encourage them to also share practical skills and facilitate this, that would be really great.

    • I am really keen to get them to share their skills especially across the courses as many of the course as LCF were recently revalidated with the idea that collaboration would be at their core. We have a BA Surface Textiles course in which students use the students’ work on print, embroidery, knit. Formally the students would work on the there various textiles and then they would then have to design a collection using their textiles that they have produced. Now the focus has shifted so that they focus on the textiles and if they want to move their work they have to collaborate with students from other courses, like Womenswear or Contour (Lingerie). We are hoping that the creative connection seminars will foster some relationships that will come out of this and could lead to collaborations.

      • Hi Thomas,
        I was really interested to hear how ‘Communities of Practice’ have been such a major part of your creative development and your teaching career. You MA project where you traced links between subcultures look really interesting – and what a project!! I was thinking whether the links and connections were found by thinking about the communities and individuals first or what they were wearing first and how these connected. I wonder whether you can ‘see’ when someone is ‘in’ a community of practice’ and when they are out’? It is SO complex, I wonder if is actually possible. I guess more generally, a ‘tribe’ would be a COP….?

        • Hello Matthew
          Most of the connection I made were on aesthetic terms as it was so complicated I had to focus on one facet, as if I think if I began to draw links through music and other interest it would have been even more sprawling.

          I think my comparison between by the subcultures and communities of practice was a bit of a stretch, I think I was ultimately trying to in both instance there are people who some people are in the fringes and the groups are not finite some people be in multiple communities of practice.

          Thanks for the feedback

  2. Thomas,

    You say, “you never received briefs, instead we had to negotiated a agreement with a tutors about what we were going to do term by term”. I think this sounds fascinating. In one way it gives the student such power but such vulnerability as well. I imagine it was a win/ lose scenario without much middle ground. Was it successful and did it work for you as a student?

    I love your diagram of sartorial style. And the fact that you did this project over a two year period, interviewing people and photographing their clothes. Have you seen the artist Adam Chodskows project ‘Product Recall’ 1996.

    He put flyers around London inviting owners of a particular Westwood jacket to come to a party where they would share reminiscences and be videoed by Chodskow. It’s a kind of sartorial mapping too, only less with a diagram and more with an unknown group of people who are gathered together by quite random means, because of their choice of jacket and are eventually filmed when they meet. There’s a strangeness that I like there! Is the project to do with the cult of clothes and is that what interests you?

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