Associates exhibition_photo by Marcin Barciak(Associates exhibition photo by Marcin Barciak)

Within the Canadian design community, there is a new energy that is transforming the mindset from within and beginning to resonate with the community at large.  January 2013 marks the third-annual Toronto Design Offsite Festival, a not-for-profit organization that is in part responsible for this new message.

In an extensive twelve-part interview series, Mason Journal speaks to a force of designer, artists and organizers who are contributing to the success of Toronto Design Offsite Festival, and to the flourishing development of the Canadian design industry.  This series is our dedication to those who are bringing Canada to the international stage and singing with a proud and clear voice.

We begin our series with two Directors of the Toronto Design Offsite Festival, Jeremy Vandermeij and Deborah Wang.  Together, they are a catalyst for a reaction of community building that emanates throughout the city and beyond.  We find out how the Festival came about, where Canada’s design industry is headed, and why the design community is growing stronger than ever.

Capacity exhibition_photo by Armita Ghasabi(Capacity exhibition photo by Armita Ghasabi)

Mason Journal: Briefly describe the Toronto Design Offsite Festival.  What are the goals and objectives of the festival?

Jeremy Vandermeij: We are a large community of designers and design enthusiasts who get together to create products, spaces and graphics in order to inspire, collaborate, talk, celebrate and hopefully push the design industry as a whole forward.

Our number one goal is to promote Canadian designers and their work. We want everyone to know about who they are and what they do. We want the general public in Toronto to know about them, we want Canada to know about them, we want media locally, nationally and internationally to know about them.  We also believe that design can change the world both through improving it in a functional sense and by inspiring creativity.

Our second goal is for everyone who comes to the festival to leave feeling inspired.  We want to push audience buttons and boundaries. We want the audience to collaboratively engage in dialogue about design in its varying disciplines and its hybridities, and the festival as a whole – about what design can achieve and about its deeper meanings.

Our third goal is that we want everyone to have fun and connect with new people in our community. We built our community from the ground up; we built it with love and affection and you can really feel that expressed in all the amazing people and events that the community creates. There is warmth to the festival and we want every new person to add to it, and they do.

Finally, we want the festival to be a true expression of the community and that is why we made it a not-for-profit organization.  As a not-for-profit we are obligated to service our community and beyond that, we believe it is our duty to collaboratively build this community while fully engaging with and listening to its members.  The TO DO Festival is a collaboration between the team, its founders, event and exhibition organizers and the people who come to it.

Mason Journal: What conditions and factors in the local design scene led to the development of an ‘offsite’ festival?

Deborah Wang: The festival started off small. At the time of its founding, a group of exhibition organizers and curators from existing independent shows came together to figure out how to work together to cross-promote, cross-pollinate and create a critical mass around the things we were creating. This was possible because we knew each other, and that is a key characteristic of the Toronto design scene – we’re all connected somehow.

At the same time, we felt that this group of exhibitions formed a critical mass, and there was an energy and enthusiasm for more events and exhibitions to join us.

Losing Parkdale exhibition_photo by Avideh Saadatpajouh(Losing Parkdale exhibition photo by Avideh Saadatpajouh)

MJ: What are your roles in the Toronto Design Offsite Festival?

JV: My role is Executive Director, and that would imply I’m the major decision-maker but both Deborah and I are involved in everything together.  I work primarily in the areas of marketing, communications, cultural partnerships and sponsorship relations.  My specialty is creating a framework for a community to grow and thrive in, to set its mood and guide its values towards actualization. I work towards keeping everyone invested and inspired in what they’re doing or seeing, be it the public, our team members or the event and exhibition organizers. I do this by being inspired and invested.

DW: I work as the Creative Director of the festival. Primarily, I focus on programming and special projects – aka the content of the festival. I work closely with Gelareh Saadatpajouh, who joined the festival in its second year as Programs Coordinator, to develop and execute programs and projects. We liaise with all the organizers of the 40+ events and exhibitions in the festival, produce the printed Festival Guide with the Trevor Embury of, manage content for the website and iPhone App (designed by Michael Spears), and do all the day-to-day tasks that keeps an organization operating. With other team members, we run the TO DO Awards presented by Herman Miller, fundraising events, an audience survey, and research other design festivals happening globally.

MJ: How has the event been received within the art and design community – locally and nationally?

JV: Everyone who has had the chance to really see and understand what we’re trying to build has become visibly excited and inspired by it; be it media, designers, or design enthusiasts.  We see this transformation through our conversations with people. After they see all the amazing and unique events and exhibitions, or after they speak to someone who is invested in the community, you can see something bright in their eyes, something blooming in their mind, something beautiful. On the surface we might seem like any other design festival in a major city, but we’re not.  The best example is when we first started approaching our cultural partners (IDC, TSA, ACIDO and RGD Ontario).  Not only were all of them on board for helping to promote the festival, but they were enthusiastic about getting more involved next year and engaging their disciplinary communities.

Fugitive Glue at CUTMR_photo by Agata Piskunowicz(Fugitive Glue at Come Up to My Room photo by Agata Piskunowicz)

MJ: How has the festival been received by the general public?

DW: This year we’re doing audience surveys at events and exhibitions, as well as online. Through the survey we hope to gather critical information about our audience and to use to guide the development of the festival. I mention this because it is easy for us to make generalizations about the public reception of the festival from what we experience at events and exhibitions – which is generally that they love it – but we want to delve deeper. From my conversations with “non-designers”, they love the festival because they get to see and experience new things and spaces.

MJ: As you are both active practitioners, how would you describe the current state of the Canadian industry from the perspective of a designer?  Where would you like to see it progress in the coming years?

JV: Designer Paddy Harrington said it best: the Canadian design industry is in its adolescence and that’s not a bad thing.  Our general public has not had the same exposure to the benefits of design, so designers are not hired as often here, nor is design used as a tool for improvement as often, nor are designers paid what they’re worth as often.  So the industry is still growing, but what’s great about being in our adolescence is our unbridled creativity and enthusiasm (at least once you find something worthy of it). Part of what we are doing with the festival is taking away any perceived barriers between designer and general public.  We do this by making the festival, the designers and the objects they create accessible to the public. This helps us to get rid of the pretensions that exist about designers and design.  (To clarify I’m using the word pretension in its meaning as a claim to importance/superiority over other things).

DW: My experience as a designer is primarily in architecture. What I see in a lot of new design practices are studios where people simultaneously make buildings and objects and exhibitions, and also teach and write. Architects wearing different hats and doing it well. Some would argue that it’s the only way to survive (in terms of “going out on your own”), but it also injects new life into their practices and influences the things they make.

Following this, I would love to see more public funding for designers. There currently isn’t much room (meaning grants in this case) for design and design exhibitions within the local, provincial and federal arts councils, but we need to recognize that designers need support too. Not all designers work for big design firms or companies. We need support for emerging design practices.

Cyborgesses at CUTMR_photo by Agata Piskunowicz(Cyborgesses at Come Up to My Room photo by Agata Piskunowicz)

(Stitches exhibition photo by Dominic Chan)

MJ: Are there any collective beliefs or movements that you see developing within the community?  Why are these occurring?

JV: Like I said before, I feel people are really starting to get the collaborative and warm energy we’re trying to create. Designers seem to want to collaborate instead of compete. The general public wants to talk to designers and the designers with them, one-on-one, instead of listening to a lecture or watching them on TV.  The community believes in sharing their ideas and creative energy rather than in hoarding and controlling it.   I think the community believes in intentions and values instead of just money (or the bottom line).  The actual values, time and efforts themselves are beyond money, so the businesses who really care about something grow and thrive.

I think the community is starting to believe in itself. It’s creating a self-awareness that allows it to take full advantage of the benefits of having a large, inspired and creative group of people working together.

MJ: How can we expect the Toronto Design Offsite Festival to develop in the future? 

JV: I’d like to see the festival to grow in size and scope while still always engaging and taking feedback from our community. I’d like to see more graphic designers, interaction designers, architects, interior designers and unexpected professions to participate in the festival. It would be great to see the scope of the festival to include all the major design disciplines, the craftspeople and the general creative geniuses.  I would like to see all of these disciplines collaborate and cross-pollinate, and improve the way we all do our jobs.

DW: I totally agree with Jeremy. Programmatically, we want to develop a strong student component to the festival, as well as produce our own exhibition. We also want the festival to have a strong presence throughout the year, not only leading up to and during January, so look out for new things this Spring.

Institute Without Boundaries exhibition_photo by Behnaz Beigui(Institute Without Boundaries exhibition photo by Behnaz Beigui)

MJ: What can we, as creative professionals, do to contribute to a positive and continual growth of the design community?

JV: The best way to contribute is to start by being present at the festival or other community events and to end with actually creating something for the festival.  That doesn’t mean breaking the bank to create something monolithic and perfect. It means getting your hands dirty in something new and exciting; something that will inspire you and get your creative juices flowing; something that will get you away from your computer and into your workshop or someone else’s. Don’t do it unless you can have fun doing it. Don’t do it unless you know other people will have fun or be inspired by seeing it.  And remember to collaborate with someone new and to make something that is at least partially an experiment and outside of your comfort zone.

DW: Not anything earth-shattering, but we can share and support each other. This starts with something simple: participate with your body … meaning, show up! Go to design events, critiques, and exhibitions, mentor students, create opportunities for yourself and others, and be inclusive.


Thank you to Jeremy Vandermeij and Deborah Wang for their insight on the Toronto Design Offsite Festival.  To learn more about the festival, visit: