The Blue Square cycling route is a 90 km circuit along the principal watercourses of the Eurometropolis Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai. The Eurometropolis and its partners wanted to give the route its own identity and look by means of eye-catching signage.
So not the traditional signposts, but an unconventional, artistic, versatile and nevertheless unequivocal signage system. Landscape art, installations, digital technology, colours, sounds: it was not clear yet which form the signage had to take, but the criteria had already been identified.
This challenge was approached in a slightly different way than any other project and international designers were invited to participate from the start. However, the key principles of cocreation and interdisciplinary cooperation were maintained. The journey was interesting, especially because this way of working was a first for the partners involved and the designers who were selected.
Catherine Christiaens, coordinator for the Eurometropolis Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai, had not been employed very long when she received the request to help take charge of this challenge. Consulting her colleagues was not an option, because a project like this was a first for the Eurometropolis as well: “We feel it’s very important to support initiatives like this, but they are not exactly our core business. We are not very familiar with the world of design and cocreation is an entirely new approach for us. Fortunately, we could rely on the expertise and the networks of the partners of TRIPOD-II. This made the start-up phase very easy. We launched an international call to creative minds and received reactions from 21 designers.”
For Emmanuelle Valot and Yoann Druet, the French designers who eventually won the contract, it was an entirely new experience as well. New and intense, says Emmanuelle: “It was the first time I developed a project with Belgian partners. And I had never been involved in a cocreation process, either. I’m specialised in graphic design, and usually we develop our projects entirely in our own graphic design agency. This project was the very first for which we cooperated intensively with public actors as well as with enterprises."
“Together we went to an extensive process. First we defined the type of enterprises we needed. Then we had one-on-one meetings with some of the enterprises in the border region we saw as potential partners. Almost all of them were prepared to take part in the process. Next, the brainstorming phase could start. We further developed the concept during one large workshop with all stakeholders, from local residents to the people responsible for the management of waterways. This work was afterwards refined in smaller, very practice-oriented workshops and during site visits."
Refining also meant compromising, as it is not always possible to convert ideas directly into reality. Fortunately, one of the people the designers could rely on was Christiaan Billiet. He is responsible for engineering & maintenance with WAAK Metaal & Assemblage, a company specialised in customised solutions. Furthermore, he uses his technical expertise to create art via his own company Billiet Art Works. This unique combination was no mere luxury for this project: “At some point, you need engineers, people who know the ins and outs of production and who can help shape the ideas with their technical insight. That’s not always easy. You really have to look for feasible solutions without jeopardising the concept. For instance, the designers wanted to work with a very specific shade of blue for the Blue Square, but powder coating in that colour is not available. On the other hand, powder coating is perfect for materials that are used outdoors. It makes them resistant to sunlight, vandalism etc. So you have to look for a compromise.”
They found those compromises thanks to the quadruple helix cooperation. This kind of cooperation may seem very complex, especially in a border-crossing context, but Emmanuelle has become a fan: “In spite of the cross-border aspect and the mix of partners, the cooperation went very well. Everyone did their share of the work. The Eurometropolis maintained the contacts with the towns and locations. The enterprises made sure we had prototypes that we could present, and they even joined us. Although this kind of cooperation was a first for us, it is definitely worth repeating."
Catherine Christiaens, Eurometropool Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai
The work is not entirely done yet. The cocreation resulted in a beautiful and varied product catalogue which the towns situated in the Blue Square can now use. It will take a while before the new signage will be visible everywhere in the Blue Square. But there is a uniform concept, the products have been developed and there is a broad support base.
In addition to the product catalogue, the process had a few other results that were not expected but are definitely a bonus. Catherine Christiaens lists a few: “Although our organisation is of an institutional nature, we really went into the field for this project. We went to the towns to discuss possible locations. We set out with various enterprises, with a prototype in the boot of our car to try it out at different locations. We consulted with the people responsible for water management in the three regions. It was a great experience, which enabled us to establish contacts we usually wouldn’t have. We have been able to continuously extend our network.”
“We have also had a lot of exposure thanks to this initiative. We submitted it as Proof of Concept (POC) to Lille World Design Capital 2020. They were enthusiastic about the idea and often mentioned us as best practice in their communication. We were also among the selected POCs that were allowed to pitch their product to an international jury. We were eventually not declared the winners, but it was a great experience and a sign of recognition for the efforts made by the designers, the enterprises and everyone who made a contribution to this project."
The result of the cocreation process is not only a proper identity for the Blue Square, but also a rewarding journey for all the participants.