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