19th November 2015

Design your way to the top in Live Events

Firstly, thank you Ala for taking a minute out of your very busy schedule to have a chat with us here at Backstage Academy! Let’s start with what you studied at university; you went to Bartlett School, UCL. What made you chose there and what course did you enrol on?

I studied Architecture, because I couldn’t decide what I might be good at – ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ I’ve always said. I quite liked drawing, I quite liked technical things like taking lawnmowers apart, and making things, but then I also loved reading and art history. I was never brilliant at anything particular. Basically, nobody knew what to advise me, and I followed my big brother into Architecture, because, everyone knows, big brothers are heroes. Mine in particular, is a bit of a dude.

As a trained RIBA and ARB Chartered Architect it doesn’t seem the ‘standard’ route into working in Live Events, did becoming part of this industry come as a bit of a side step to what you had intended?

I had worked on a lot of long building projects, some of which were shelved, or just really, really slow moving. I remembered seeing a lecture by Mark Fisher, when I was about 17, talking about the U2 Pop Mart tour. He was so low-key and thoughtful about the drawings and how he had worked with boat builders to make some of the set pieces. About 15 years later, I just decided to try and phone him up to chat about the work he was doing, and a fortnight later – he hired me. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing – so he was incredibly supportive whilst I worked out how to engage in the design process for Live Events. I never could have predicted how it would all play out – nothing ventured, nothing gained.

How exactly did you become involved in things like stage design and what was the first event project you worked on?

Whilst working for Mark Fisher, I completed many different types of projects, a lot of which either never saw the light of day, or transformed into really strange versions of what we proposed. It was a very creative and fun time. The first big thing for me was the launch of the Queen Victoria for Cunard – working with Robbie Williams (the elder!) We built a 2000 seat temporary theatre on the dock side at Southampton, and held a show with full orchestra, a big ship reveal moment and of course the famous bottle smash…….that didn’t smash!

You’ve gone from strength to strength which lead you to becoming the Head of Design for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Ceremonies – we’re sure summing it up in a few words is impossible but can you give the Backstage students an insight into what goes into the design for an event like that?

Lots of people who have nothing to do with the design, suddenly become very interested in the design! The meetings were endless, the hours long and relentless. But, in the end, we got there – and everyone who gave their time, paid or not was invaluable to the process. Many of the students who volunteered in the design studio are now working successfully for other designers, or for themselves, and I hope we gave them the first tools and taste for a positive way of working.

It seems you’ve always been quite a resourceful type when it comes to your career progression from working at a recycling centre at the age of 14, using problem solving skills fixing bicycles and teaching younger generations the beauty of design and now, of course, running your own business Lloyd Live Design! Was it always an aim to run your own business and what were the first steps you made towards its launch?

I had never planned to start my own business. All the jobs I had before made me want to create an environment of healthy discussion and supportive creativity. I have benefitted from a lot of great influences and support, and hope as our team grows, we can nurture growing talent too. I had to take a deep breath and trust that all the work I had done prior to going out on my own would be remembered, and that people would hire us again, based on the positive experiences they had. It was difficult, always having worked for other bigger names in the industry – but, I like to think our design work should never be ‘painful’ to deliver, we love working closely with suppliers and technical teams to make sure our ideas are deliverable, but spectacular. Practical but amazing, or so we hope!

For students yet to enroll with Backstage, can you give them an idea on what kind of subjects you’d be introducing them to?

I like to talk about how the role of the designer can change depending on the project, and the personalities involved. I hope that regardless of what direction the students decide to take, that in future, if they meet a designer on stage during a load in – they can appreciate that they are there to help deliver the same vision, perhaps with different interests and focuses – but ultimately everyone has the same goal. This week during our sessions we have talked about the Olympic Ceremonies, RUN DMC, Le Tour De France, The 150th Anniversary of the Salvation Army, to name but a few – events can take so many different forms. We can be designing stages, scenic pieces, artistic action, costumes, graphics, effects, prop or prop costumes – and they can be as cheap or as expensive as you like – the joy is in the problem solving.

What have been the challenges along the way to get to where you are now?

Sometimes balancing family life and work has been difficult. My husband is a Director of Wonder Works UK in the Live Events industry, we have to be really careful with our diaries, travel and taking care of each other. It is not unknown for child and dogs to accompany us on site, health and safety permitting, of course!

You work on a huge array of events through Lloyd Live Design, is there a particular type of event you prefer to design for?

I like weird stuff! Unusual design briefs can come from what first appears to be a run of the mill project. I get bored easily, not always a good trait, but the variety keeps me happy, you never know what that first design conversation will lead to – my recent favourite was designing for the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain for Channel 4 – seeing the remaining aircraft all flying together, and getting involved in the ground choreography of the planes was fun, and super-fast set ups for interviews with royals and veterans, with only a few minutes warning, was a good challenge too.

If you could turn back the clock to your university days, is there anything you’d do differently?

I would have been braver and questioned the lecturers more, tried to learn more about them, and how they worked, because some of them were incredible. A lot of the Architectural lecturers, especially, were a lot older, and honestly some of them aren’t around anymore to share their experiences.

And finally, what would be your one piece of advice to a student striving to become a designer in the live events industry?

Be optimistic, even the smallest project can lead to big things, and teach you important things that you will use later, whether you realise it at the time or not.