Deborah Armstrong: A Visionary Storyteller on “Designing Experiential”.

  • Deborah Armstrong

Deborah Armstrong is the personification of art and entrepreneurship. Since her days at St. Martins in the 90’s, she has founded 5 creative companies, was voted the 3rd most influential person in the UK Events Industry and has broken the boundaries of Experiential. Debs was the driving force behind projects such as ‘Lost Vagueness’ and ‘Shangri-La’ at Glastonbury, experiences that have inspired a generation of creatives and sybarites alike. Her company Strong & Co. has been specialising in Experiential for over 10years, designing bespoke for the likes of Harvey Goldsmith, Warner Bros., Bear Grylls and even Dennis the Menace! The Dots have spoken to Debs about what it means to ‘Design Experiential’ for clients from Glastonbury to Google.

1. So, please tell us more about the concept of ‘Designing Experiential’?
What we are talking about here is the creative process behind designing multi-sensory, meaningful environments. Places that resonate with all types of people, surroundings that feel real. There is massive diversity in our events because each event is client, audience and site-specific.

2. What is your background and how does it inform your work?
I studied Fine Art from 1993-1997 and specialised in creating multi-sensory, multi-room immersive installations with performers and so forth, in fact, my degree show was a chicken soup distillery! I began building installations at Free Parties, but it wasn’t long until I started seeing the whole event as the installation and co-ordinating bigger and better shows.

3. What are the processes that take a project from concept to fruition?
1- I always begin with communication
2- Move on to design development, renders, costs, models etc.
3- Sign off, after moving between 1 & 2 back and forth
4- Production/fabrication/procurement
5- Build it
6- Deliver the event!
7- Strike it
8- Then after a big lie-down, we get back together with clients for evaluation.

4. Who are the creative team that help bring your projects to life?
The team is extremely varied, everyone fulfils a role in bringing the vision to life, I think that’s a big reason why doing events is so rewarding. Whether its someone in the office, on site, co-ordinating, making or humping gear – it really does take every spoke to hold that wheel together. We work with so many creative people, it’s important that they all feel fulfilled or inspired creatively – ideally they should feel stretched and satisfied by their contribution and the total creation.

5. What are the challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
Whether the installation is absolutely massive or very small we overcome the challenges with very meticulous planning. We cannot achieve high-end results and hotbeds of amusement without dozens upon dozens of spreadsheets and a serious work ethic! Not to mention, we have worked in super challenging conditions – the most extreme weather conditions from torrential rain and mud to dust storms and desert. This is overcome by working with incredible people with an immense stamina who maintain positivity and morale-boosting lols! On the very rare occasion that’s gone, that’s when there is a REAL problem…. otherwise everything can be overcome with love and banter.

6. What is the proudest moment of your career?
I always feel proud of the whole team when we achieve or even surpass the original vision. I think that Shangri-La 2011 was a key moment for this. It was one glorious success, from music programmers to the finest of artists. That was the year I went “now that’s what I was talking about” but even I couldnt have imagined it would be so good. Its such a huge team effort - there were 1500+ people working on the project and that year I had got grants from the Arts Council and Welcome Trust, which really enabled us to facilitate & commision game-changing work which in turn was highly influential.
I do feel the same on much smaller scale gigs when we have achieved something very new, hard and high-quality - I’m always incredibly proud of the team in those moments.

7. On that note, how did the idea for Shangri-la come about?
I realised it needed really strong Art Direction, a vision that would excite everybody involved; it had to be Hot, Sexy and Rock n Roll. It also had to be something that hadn’t already been done (Burlesque, Steampunk and so on was out of the question). It had to be nocturnal and peak in the dark. Most of all, it had to work in the rain, it’s Glasto after all! I kept thinking about Bladerunner - that looked sexy in the darkness and rain.. Simultaneously, I had a growing feeling about festivals, that they were “pretend freedoms” unlike our outdoor raves of old. I was inspired by something that had stuck with me, - someone saying, (whilst putting in more festival controls to our area) “Let the kids be free maaaan”. So I have my inspirations, and other people have theirs, and for Shangri-La there was always a very social aspect to creativity – lots of discussion – only the best & funniest ideas survive a pub dissection!
Thus the story of a unceasingly hedonistic Pleasure City overseen by a fascist regime was born and that narrative has developed year by year, a bit like Star Wars . Its been fantastic to see other festivals like Boomtown pick up so many narrative ideas and run with them, developing them into their own successful entities. Now that I’ve left Shangri-La, it’ll be exciting for me to see where the people that have taken on my role take the story next.

8. Do you think the relationship between audience and experience is important?
Crucial – it has the power to make the event everything or nothing. Theres a dynamic between the two – a vibey audience will make the experience much better and a great experience has the capacity to change someone forever. Truly, I have seen people leave jobs, degrees and relationships in order to pursue a more creative path because of the power of one event. The third important factor is the people managing the event – how much care and love they put in will be felt throughout.

Although Shangri-La lives on and grows in wicked splendour year by year, Debs has now left to focus on designing new experiences via her company 'Strong & Co' which is based in East London.