On a faster horse: meanders heading home from dConstruct

OK, so I have to get this stuff down by midnight before my head turns into a pumpkin.

was a day well-spent, listening, tweeting, scribbling and discussing design and creativity – with nine of the most thought-provoking talks we’ll hear in the UK this year. And some of my smartest colleagues and former colleagues were there too, which was nice. There follows my highly partial first draft, to which I may return in the coming weeks.

The past is the new future. I’d seen James Bridle‘s work in print and online but never heard him speak live. Of course I’m biased,  but I found his argument about the importance of preserving our digital history both intuitive and fresh. Like the game of wiki-racing to which he introduced us, James linked effortlessly from his formative years in Geocities to the whole Internet in a shipping container, to the Library of Alexandria and back to the Iraq War.  I now see why Ben Terrett named James as one of his “five things“.  He’s a revelation and if there’s any justice in the world he’ll get his own series on BBC4 or something.

Tom Coates showed the same respect for humanity and history (Darius the Great’s superhighway!) in his talk on the network. I’ve been thinking for a while about the reinvention of everyday life through networked, connected services. Tom is way ahead on this stuff, thinking about TfL’s blue bikes as spimes, connected weighing scales and San Francisco’s smart parking meters. I’m currently conducting my own personal trial of vehicles as a service and will come back to this subject soon.

Just as Tom imagined washing machines as a service, so Samantha Warren hinted at the change we’ll see on the web as the likes of Typekit and Fontdeck bring typography to the networked developer’s toolkit, alongside identity, location and the social graph. She too honoured the history of her subject. I’d like to have heard more about the contrast between her father’s career as a printer and her own as a digital designer. Some may feel they know type already, that Samantha was preaching to the converted. But there’s a whole generation of young designers out there who’ve known only a handful of “web fonts”. As Merlin Mann warned later in the day, the trick is knowing the next things to get geeky about, and typography could be one of those.

Merlin said a lot of other stuff too, some of it very fast. And he was the second speaker of the day to trot out Henry Ford’s dismissive assertion that “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” It struck me that concepts such as user engagement, participatory design, and even customer experience were curiously absent from the whole of the dConstruct programme. From this I assume that either they have become so commonplace that everyone accepts them as a given, or (I fear more likely) we’re seeing a fightback from those  who believe designers have unique powers of creativity, unobtainable and unquestionable by mere mortals.

Marty Neumeier certainly seemed to imply this in his talk on the Designful Company. His opening felt a lot to me like the content of Robert Verganti’s book “Design Driven Innovation” (on which a separate post some time). While I can buy Marty’s idea that enduring products and services need to be both good and different from the competition, he failed to produce any way of judging “good and different” from “bad and different” other than giving the market a few years to decide, or employing the fabled “intuition” of designers, which other disciplines in business are assumed to lack.

Brendan Dawes was fun and engaging when talking about the way designers collect inspiration, on how you can break a pencil into several smaller pencils, and on the delights of designing for the new tactile user interfaces, but his process also contained a black box component in the form of “good taste” and “you shouldn’t be a designer if you haven’t got good taste.”

John Gruber took it further, hailing the auteur director in film as a suitable model for design. That’s all for the good if it makes designers feel better about themselves on a day out by the sea, but I know how most of my non-designer colleagues in business would react to this kind of a pitch, and it wouldn’t be complimentary.

I was much more convinced by the perspectives on process from David McCandless and Hannah Donovan. David had a wonderful take on the way visualisation can be used to tell a story, such as putting huge sums of money into perspective, but also how visualising a dataset can reveal the story to the data-designer-journalist. For example overlaying BNP-membership hotspots with population ethnicity revealed the two to be largely exclusive, with only a few pockets of overlap. This seems like reflective design at its best, playing with the data to see what it can teach us. David also suggested that our continued exposure to design and infographics in our culture is making everyone more design-literate. I like this idea – a suitable counterbalance to the notions of “taste” and the “intuitive” anointed.

But I found Hannah’s talk on improvisation in music the most compelling account of how design happens, as a team enterprise. Like my other favourites, her session, complete with live improv, was steeped in an appreciation of the history from Mozart to Hip Hop. To an outsider improv may seem free and effortless, but it relies on tools, structures, clarity of roles and mutual respect to make it happen. The best designers I have known have always appreciated these things; the most painful to work with behaved like John Gruber’s auteurs.

5 thoughts on “On a faster horse: meanders heading home from dConstruct

  1. It’s nice to hear someone else express the same reservations about Gruber’s talk as I felt. He kept going back to the (never-defined) concept of “taste”, yet much of the time it seemed to me that he was really talking about was skill, experience, and an understanding of the medium – all things that are enhanced by user-consultation. I think the analogy he drew with a professional cyclist picking a bike actually served to underline the flaws in his argument; a cyclist would never choose a race bike on the basis of something as nebulous as “taste”. They’d pick it because they know what’s required for the job, the science that underlies it, and most of all because they’d test, test and test again until they had the optimum set-up. To me, that’s the same basis upon which a web designer should be making their decisions.

    Gruber was right to say that many projects are undermined by uninformed managers making decisions that basically amount to guesswork, but how can a designer claim to be any better if they claim they don’t need to justify their decisions because they’re based on “taste”?

  2. Thanks for your summary. I wish I could have been there.

    > The best designers I have known have always appreciated these things;
    > the most painful to work with behaved like John Gruber’s auteurs.

    I’ve not seen Gruber’s talk of course, but it sounds like the problem was he was using an outlier as a template for how we all should work.

    Kubrick was notoriously difficult to work with, reducing actors to tears, requesting hundreds of takes, doing anything to get what he wanted on screen.

    He undoubtably made great films, but why? Was it because he was unwavering in his personal vision? I think so. But the man was also extraordinarily knowledgable and talented. He knew exactly what he was doing.

    Trying to model our behaviour on his is rather silly, really. Kubrick wouldn’t have cared if people liked his films or not. We care about making enjoyable experiences. Kubrick had skills none of us will have.

    It’s true that in a tiny handful of cases (Steve Jobs springs to mind) this model can work, but I think in 99% of cases, other people’s contributions will make our products better.

    That’s not to say we should design by committee, but we shouldn’t behave like Kubrick either.

  3. Very astute write-up, Matt. There was much to be enthralled by at dConstruct, and I agree that being dismissive of customer engagement in the design process is an easy way to get a crowd of designers on-side. I would love it if a conference had the bravery to have a rule where no speakers were allowed to point to Apple as an example of design directly leading to business success.

    Intuition or taste doesn’t come out of nowhere though, it’s based on years of working and learning, and sharpening your instincts on past experiences. I certainly didn’t have good taste at the age of 18, and looking at my hair and shoes today, it’s still debatable, but I do feel as though I have certain instincts when it comes to design, or the broader realm of customer experience – that alarm bell that starts ringing when a client asks for some new functionality I just know won’t improve their site or app. This didn’t come out of nowhere.

    At the same time, the best pieces of design work are hardly ever when EVERYTHING has been dictated by client or end user. Focus groups are notoriously misleading, and sometimes customers don’t know they need something until it’s in front of them – just look at the outrage every time something like Facebook gets a redesign!

    I personally didn’t like Samantha Warren’s typography talk at all – not because I thought I knew typography already, but because I see so much poor type coming out of the ‘web design’ community. These people need an inspiring and informative primer on the subject, and this wasn’t it – poor choices of examples, and a spurious footwear analogy that trivialised a crucial element of design.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s