Digital Product Design

Dalai Lama Brighton beach mandala

During furlough, what better way to counter the woes of job hunting by spending each afternoon down the beach, working on a project and your tan at the same time?

As a contractor working for a business which relies on people crossing international borders, it was no surprise to lose my contract when Covid-19 and it's lockdown hit. Finding yourself in the job market with 100s of others makes finding work particularly challenging and I needed an antidote to the frustration and doldrums brought on by continually job-hunting, calling and interviewing.

Brighton has a rich history of public art, usually found on the walls of the North Laine, in amazing and thought provoking pieces of street art and graffiti. With a background of being an art/photography student I’m no stranger to doing projects in public areas and additionally, my motivation was to be able to create something that people could see and that would get me out of the flat.

So, why did I choose that image? On a rummage through some books left outside of people’s houses I came across the excellent ’The Art of Happiness’ by Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama (interviews with the Dalai Lama and a psychoanalyst’s view of Buddhist practices). He’s such an admirable character that deals with deep, complex and saddening topics, but always with a positive reflection and insightful manner. A quick Google returned the excellent portrait by Patrick Swirc and I felt such a light hearted image was ideal for such worrying times.

I regularly run along the seafront and I’ve always admired the dolphin pebble sculpture near the nudist beach in kemptown (yes - it was the sculpture I was admiring!) - it’s been there for years and it’s still distinguishable. I realised this method would meet my needs; to do something physical, outdoors, over a period of weeks.

Clockwise: (1) Checking out what colour palette the pebbles would allow. (2) The original photo (after posterizing it) and adding the grid, by Patrick Swirc. (3) Measuring the 3ft square grid. (4) The tiles to mark the axis of each square.


My first step was to research the existing ‘dolphin’ sculpture to look at the stones and measure the dimensions to see what colours were achievable and what size it needed to be so it would be visible from the promenade.

I quickly saw that there are 3 predominant colours of pebbles on the beach: a grey slate, orange/stone and a light, chalky cream/white. This would translate well into highlights, shadows and mid-tones so I posterized the image to create those 3 shades.

How did I ensure that I would faithfully recreate the face, making it identifiable and also ensuring the features wouldn’t resemble a Picasso? As a graphic designer and now a UX designer, I'm used to relying on grids for nearly all of my designs. I was aware that large scale artworks need a grid to work from so I applied a 7x12 grid of squares over the image.

The grid now needed to be translated to the beach. On my first attempt I spray painted black marks roughly at 3ft intervals (measure using a beach towel!) however my counting quickly became confused and my grid was already wonky. Plus, I chose a popular area and many people were walking over the ‘canvas’. So after taking day one’s learnings, I moved site, got my tape measure and figured out a more flexible/permanent marking technique (96 small 5cm kitchen tiles from Wickes).

On day 2, I measured out a 21ft x 36ft rectangle on a quiet area of the beach and laid the small tiles out on each axis of the 3ft grid. The tiles were easy to see and could be buried under the pebbles in between sessions so were ideal.

Now I just needed to focus on each 3ft square, collect the right coloured pebbles and represent the light and dark areas… simple, or so I thought. My first square took over 2 hours as the pebbles at the back of the beach were tiny. I soon realised I needed far bigger pebbles… all of which are positioned closer to the sea, so I got a trusty bucket and walked to-and-fro, in a 50 metre radius, collecting 20kg of light or dark pebbles. Each square now only took an hour to complete however I later optimised this by using my courier bag which could hold far more, meaning only 2 or 3 bags were needed for each square, which I could complete in 45mins.

The 4 week process captured from it's intended viewpoint, high up on the promenade 500m east of Brighton's Palace pier.

Clockwise: (1) Working on my tan. (2) The satchel which I used to collect and carry pebbles. (3) A canine 'visitor' stops by to help out. (4) After completing the eyes.

There were some hiccups however: Dogs running over it, people collecting my marker tiles and ‘kindly’ placing them in a pile and the occasional person absentmindedly strolling through it. I cordoned off the area with emergency tape which helped however to my knowledge no one conscientiously tampered or destroyed it throughout the entire period (even when I went away for a long weekend and the George Floyd protest march walked by on Madeira drive).

In hindsight I would have made 4 improvements:

  • The picture isn’t instantly recognisable as the Dalai Lama usually wears glasses!
  • It’s not quite big enough
  • The perspective of the view point also makes it hard to see - I could have stretched the grid so the face would be geometrically and visually ‘correct’ from the promenade
  • I should have enlisted some help, to make it larger and a more sociable process

The entire project took 4 weeks to complete, over 2-4 hour sessions most afternoons. I documented the process and took a series of photos from the promenade - it’s intended viewpoint. Friends helped capture a bird's eye view with a drone (which you can see on Youtube) and even held a surprise ‘opening ceremony’ party one windy and cold night (which I was late for :)

I hope it stays visible for a while but ultimately it will fade as it gets naturally disrupted. For me it served a simple purpose of filling a stressful time with something I could apply myself to. In the midst of numerous job searches and rejections; to be able to do something without having to apply, or wait for acceptance, neutralised the frustration and helped me realise self worth at a time when it’s very easy to lose that.