Ruby Douglass, a recent graduate from Norwich University of the Arts, was commissioned to design a plaque for every parish and town council, to recognise the work of communities across the county during the pandemic. Having shielded for more than a year, she explains that being creative is a welcome means of escape
I didn’t study a single art or design-based subject at A-Level and was generally pushed towards areas more typically associated with academia. I spent just over a year studying History in Cambridge before realising it just wasn’t where I was meant to be. One big course re-direct later, and I applied to study Design at NUA.
Despite making that choice, the sheer amount of enjoyment and intellectual satisfaction that I started to find by applying my thinking in a different way came as a complete shock to me. Then, while the world took a bit of a nosedive during the Pandemic, designing took another step up and became a bit of a lifeline for me. As I was strictly shielding at home for well over a year, the process of creatively solving problems kept the same little desk, day in and day out, from feeling too claustrophobic. A big change in the way I lived my day-to-day life, made exponentially more liveable, and enjoyable, by doing something I love.
I graduated from NUA this summer, with a ceremony in early September that was the first in-person event I went to since last March. After finishing my course, I quickly started (remotely) interning at a design agency based in London, before landing a full-time designer role at Superunion: an idea focused global agency that I had looked up to for much of my course.
Lettering has been something that I’ve done, in some form or other, for a long time before I would have thought of myself as a designer. It was actually the thing that opened a door into that world before I even knew where the door led.
I used to practice calligraphy to relax and engage a different part of my mind, after spending all day reading about the Cold War or Thatcherite fiscal policy. I found it massively soothing to focus on the craft itself, and even though I wasn’t very good, I really enjoyed seeing that I’d made something by the time I was through. When I moved onto lettering from this calligraphic approach, I found the process of drawing and redrawing letters even more satisfying. The perfectionist in me enjoys having more control over the shapes, with far fewer restrictions imposed by the specific shape of a brush or a nib. I love being able to rework letters to fit a mood, a space, or an idea: and drawing them from scratch helps free up the whole process.
Before the pandemic, I was very keen to keep pushing myself on my course: try and win some awards, find a job in a design agency and, likely, move to London upon graduation.
For the first couple of months when Covid hit, I think I experienced an overly dramatic, terrifying existential crisis almost every other week. Almost amusing now – but not so much then! I’m immunocompromised and am on that slightly scary ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ list: so, the whole thing was alarming and felt slightly apocalyptic at first. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go out into the world for a long, long time – let alone progress my skills. That said, after the initial fear and as Microsoft Teams calls and virtual quiz nights became the norm, we all adapted to online learning. I did all the things I wanted to do, but just learned to do them all from my bedroom. I improvised dodgy test prints on my home printer, produced a completely digital portfolio, and became comfortable throwing ideas around with people on a screen: something which I’m still doing, and learning, in my new job. On this note, though, I would recommend a creative outlet to anyone who is still feeling a little caged in. Throwing yourself into a project and thinking about a subject a million miles from where you are personally, can be an enormous help and a productive means of escape.
This is almost definitely the commission that will be seen by the most people! Designing the plaques themselves took a couple of weeks, but the process of planning and deciding on the wording took the team quite a bit longer. I am incredibly grateful to Lady Dannatt, Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant for Norfolk, and the team that reached out to me to make this happen. I really am so pleased to have been a part of the project.
It would be a huge honour to pay tribute to any community persevering through the last year, but the fact that it’s the community that I was raised in makes this even more special. Again and again, I’ve witnessed small acts that have made me so proud, and so hopeful throughout this year. People have been kind, supportive and generous even when they’re scared: and I hope that this spirit can be taken forward for many years to come.
For now, I hope to keep learning and developing my skills in my new role. I can’t wait to get stuck in, and know that however much things change, I will almost definitely be grateful in another five years’ time.
Lady Dannatt, Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant for Norfolk, has commissioned a plaque for every parish and town council in the county, to recognise the work of communities across the county which pulled together in the challenging times of the pandemic. The design skills come from Ruby Douglass and the wording comes from a team at Norwich’s National Centre for Writing, led by Chris Gribble. The team researched a number of options and finally put forward the inspiring words of the Norfolk-born sociologist, Harriet Martineau: ‘Live your best and act your best and think your best today.’ Deputy Lieutenants closest to each parish or town will distribute the plaques over the coming months. Parish and town councils, which have not made an application for a plaque already, should email: Wellbeing@NorfolkALC.gov.uk. Also, visit rubydouglass.co.uk.