Conversations with a Designer (Part 1)

Posted on 25th August 2015

“Here’s some top secret artwork and a beautiful old attic. Now turn this space into a magical play place and performance area for kids. Oh, and one more thing… it’s Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley!

That was the task Seven Stories set to Newcastle-based creative agency, Unwritten, back in April of this year. And in terms of a creative brief, it doesn’t get any more exciting than that for designer Lee, a lifelong Harry Potter fan. Unwritten was supplied a never-before-seen illustration of Diagon Alley, it was this one piece of artwork that was the inspiration behind the transformation of the Attic into J.K. Rowling’s wizarding-world!

Lee, was the perfect designer to work on this project. Not only is he a Harry enthusiast, but his attention to detail and skill with extremely intricate artwork is second to none.

We chatted with Lee about this large format design project, and here’s what he had to say.

Tell me about the project, and how Unwritten fit into it?

Lee: Well, J.K. Rowling agreed that she was going to allow Jim Kay to illustrate Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This had never been done before, so what was essentially the written word is now being made into a picture book. The plan is to have readers of Harry Potter extended to a much younger audience.

Jim Kay provided us with an unpublished, never-before-seen section of his Diagon Alley artwork and our creative brief was to turn the attic space of Seven Stories into Diagon Alley. We had to make it come alive and make it interactive for kids. We wanted everyone to feel like they’re actually stepping into Diagon Alley, but also had to bear in mind that the area also needed to double up as performance and story telling space. So it was an exciting one.

“You sort of start thinking anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.”

J.K. Rowling

Are you a fan of Harry Potter and Jim Kay’s illustration work?

Lee: Yes, huge. I read all the books back in school, so I’ve been a fan for quite a while now. I’ve seen all the films. I watch them quite a lot, actually.

Personally I hadn’t heard of Jim Kay before this. But now that I’m familiar I think his work is absolutely brilliant. His illustrations are stunning, very intricate and detailed. Every time you look at the artwork you see something new that you didn’t notice before. It’s so interesting.

Was this design project similar to exhibition design projects you’ve worked on in the past?

Lee: Different, to be honest. As far as exhibition work goes, we usually take one large space and break it down into individual areas depending on topic and audience. But with this we were given one piece of relatively small artwork that had 14 storefronts on, and we had to turn it into the full Diagon Alley covering a large area of The Attic. Specifically, I took the illustration, pieced it all together and scaled it up to size. To ensure a perfect fit around the room I cropped out individual shopfronts and moved them around so we didn’t get too much repetition as we would have if we’d simply duplicated the artwork. That would have been the quick, easy option but we wanted the design to flow like a real street. There was a lot of Photoshop work needed to blend each piece together properly and make it all fit. Also, as far as materials, we were using a mixture of vinyl and Foamex. The Foamex was designed to protrude from the wall, and the vinyl was flat on the wall to give a feeling of depth. Just getting those two mediums to match up as they go around was a big challenge.

And it must have taken some intricate measuring…?

Lee: Yes! The attic room at Seven Stories is an unusual shape that has beams coming out of the wall and ceilings down to the floor. We didn’t want to cover the beams as they really add character so there were a lot of measurements taken. It was quite complex.

And are you pleased with the results?

Lee: I’m very pleased with the results. When I finally saw it up there… well, it’s just brilliant.

It’s different when you’re looking at a design on the screen or in your sketch pad. You don’t know for sure exactly how it’s going to look until you start to build. It’s scary but also exciting. The final test, really, is if the kids love it. Then it’s like… wow.

Harry Potter Milligrubs
A mini visitor peeking out of the Mulligrubs shop window. Image Chronicle Live.

And you’ve been asked to do a more, haven’t you?

Lee: Yeah, we wanted to create some additional pieces to create extra impact. But the deadline was incredibly tight so didn’t have time ahead of the launch. However, we’ve since been creating dragons, owls, birds’ nests — all sorts, really — to make the space even more engaging, so when you look up there’s little things hidden amongst the beams. I can’t give away too much, though. You’ll just have to go and see for yourself!

What sort of impact do you think Seven Stories has on kids’ lives?

Lee: It’s amazing that there’s a venue dedicated to bringing the world of children’s books to life in such a creative setting. It’s educational, but also engaging and lots of fun. We’re lucky to have such a unique attraction here in the North East, right on our doorstep. We’re thrilled and privileged to work with Seven Stories. We tend to work mainly with the marketing team across design and branding projects; this type of work really isn’t as common. So we we’re over the moon to be chosen.

“Wherever I am, if I’ve got a book with me, I have a place I can go and be happy.”

J.K. Rowling

For more info on this project or to talk to the team about an exhibition design or build project, please get call 0191 300 8550, email or visit our website

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