Spread Too Thin

I am carrying baggage.

Almost 15 years ago my flatmate, who was then studying a degree in Corporate Communication, showed me some desktop publishing that he had been doing for his course. They were looking at layout, typography and presentation to teach better communication skills. At the time I was in my first few years as a fledgling designer and I remember thinking, ‘What is he doing? Surely that is a Design Skill‘. I think he also asked me my opinion on layout and copy as I was the professional. Suddenly I was struck at how blurry the lines between design and other disciplines was becoming… but most of all I thought ‘fuck you buddy, that’s my job’.

I like to believe I have grown up a bit and that I now have a more balanced understanding of a designers role. I just watched Ian Anderson say the words ‘I am a problem solver, I’m an ideas person’ in a KickStarter movie drumming up funding for a tDR movie. We (designers) all define ourselves differently, and the definitions are widening. If we are sensible we understand that the tools of Graphic Design have become democratised and even my Mum and Dad can use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. As Milton Glaser once said;

Computers are to design as microwaves are to cooking.

So as access to the tools that my generation felt defined their Design Skills have increasingly found their way into the hands of anyone with a computer we have begun to search for new definitions. We can specialise in a sector or a discipline, we can become craftsmen of a style or we can leak into other disciplines expanding our remits. Is this scary? A little. Is it frustrating? A little. Most of all, for me, it shows something else. With more people understanding and having an opinion on design, coupled with a low barrier to entry, the definition of graphic designer as a commercial craftsman is being eroded by a thin layer of understanding.

I spend a lot of my time with marketing departments and most of them, like my old flatmate, studied courses that understood that powerful communication comes with an understanding of how to deliver the message. So marketeers have had to understand and form opinions on graphic design. For the businesses that employ them it is seen as part of their role to be able to input into the design and justify their decisions to hire a specific designer internally, but where should their input stop? Is there a point where a marketeer should simply trust the expertise of the designer they have engaged? Is it inherent on the designer to justify their work completely to satisfy the commission? With more education the latter is inevitable but the former is unlikely due to the stakes involved. No one wants to lose their job over a piece of direct mail.

The best marketing professional and designer relationships I have seen have been based on trust. However these are few and far between as marketing departments have high turnover and agencies are often the casualty of transition. To get to this level of trust the agency must prove itself and this means making the marketing department look good by doing good work, efficiently and economically. There is a lot of carrot dangling involved in the early stages of this process and it takes commitment on both sides to make the relationship work. The greatest challenge to this relationship is the boundary defined by designer and marketeer. Too much influence by the marketeer and the designer will feel their work is being diluted and will lose interest. Too little justification by the designer and the marketeer will feel exposed. At this fledgling stage most relationships die. Thanks for the opportunity but let’s just stay friends.

They die because the relationship is not equal. The marketeer has been trained to step over and understand design. They can tell the designer what they want in increasingly technical terminology. They know enough to justify their opinion and not be simply lead by the designers advice. This knowledge gives them the power to exert control over the relationship. Meanwhile the designer is busy trying to justify, sometimes the most abstract of decisions.

Aside: Now, before we all get a little caught up, I do believe that good design should be based on good practice, understanding and explainable rational. You should have a justifiable reason for making any key decision in your work. I am just saying that reading your design from top left to bottom right justifying every placement and decision is pointless. Read Mike Monteiro’s insight on presenting your work in the excellent Design Is A Job.

The challenge is that most marketeers have a thinly spread layer of understanding. This is a good thing. It means that the designer is (hopefully) not dealing solely with personal preference. It is also a problem, as some marketeers are very enthusiastic. They want to be part of the design. They know the tools, they know the parlance and they want to own the solution. It makes sense really, designers are all super cool, right? Actually it really makes sense because it is their butt on the line and by investing in the design they help avoid abtraction from the core brief. However often this thin spread of knowledge can be the slow death of the craft of design because it means that the design has two masters, the marketeer pulling from their design knowledge and the designer pulling from theirs. The marketeer, in defending their contribution to the relationship, feels it necessary to bring to bear their thin spread knowledge and as the client can nudge decisions using this. The designer must justify their contribution without appearing stubborn or alienating the marketeers knowledge. The initial trust begins to be undermined as the designer feels pushed around and the marketeer feels that they are making all of the decisions.

The solution is better briefing from the marketeer that builds better understanding of a problem by the designer. The reality is that marketing teams are best placed to explain the problem and challenge the solution with the singular focus of the organisation. While a good design agency is best utilised for their problem solving and abstraction from the organisation, taking a macro view of a problem and seeing new opportunities. A good designer will be able to underpin a solution with research and understanding ensuring that the marketeer does not feel the need to bring their personal knowledge to direct the solution.

Perhaps if more courses and businesses focussed on this vital symbiosis as opposed to championing thin veneers of knowledge that obscure the problem we might see more innovative solutions solved by great commercial design craft.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

I count myself pretty lucky to have worked with some amazingly talented people over the last 14 years. Robbie Manson is definitely in the top five. His talk at New Adventures in Web Design is a bit of a belter in my opinion. As with any good talk it has some points that I whole heartedly agree with but listening to it recently one area resonated a little more.

Robbie talks about his father, a carpenter by trade, who noted that the abstraction of a craftsman from the final product created a significant margin for error (and therefore produced an unexpected bi-product; expletives). Of course this makes sense as any well designed item has an inherent understanding of the medium that constructs it.

The anecdote reminds me of my father, who was a career academic and is a fine art jeweller. When I think of my dad’s workshop my mind can recall the oily scent of a lathe, tiny sharp curls of cut metal and exacting standards of precision. My father would be hunched over whatever he was working on cutting and filing with tools that were as fragile as his eventual pieces.

Over the years my father has moved from the lathe to the computer, his medium transitioning from metals, to plastics, to paper. I remember the thrill of being asked to help him out on the computer (as I was a design professional and all that) and the frustration of not being able to be exact enough for his standards. This frustration continued for my father as he then needed to find a way to create the shapes he had produced from paper. Lazer cutting burned the paper. The shapes were too precise to be done by hand. Water jet left the smaller details ragged.

When we talk about his project challenges I wonder if in the move away from his traditional tools he has lost some of the control that he brought to his earlier work and in turn some of the craftsmanship that having total control of production brought to his pieces. The computer for him offers an opportunity to create in new ways, opens up new mediums but it adds a layer between him and the end piece. It offers an opportunity but adds an abstraction.

My father instilled in me the mantra ‘measure twice, cut once’, I am pretty sure he, in turn, got it from my grandfather who worked on building sites most of his life. This phrase speaks of constantly evaluating the solution before committing it. Each time you examine your solution the light has shifted, time has changed and the problem can be viewed from a slightly new angle. More importantly by looking again you are offered a another chance to be sure or to change your mind. To examine the solution again and be more sure than when you made your first instinctive decision.

It is never wrong to take a second look, to ask an opinion, to constantly reevaluate a problem or refine a solution. Design and design thinking is a never done job. If you are not constantly reexamining it, reevaluating and testing you are fixing a solution in time. Working in interface design this transience is hugely pronounced. Our solutions are at best attractive jelly nailed to a wall, they are fixed only by the nail that we call ‘launch’. Technology and understanding is moving so fast that there is no single perfect solution to working process or end delivery. The best we can hope for as individuals is to evolve with the medium and continually challenge our perspectives to gain better understanding.

In part this means understanding that any solution is inherently linked to the tools that you choose to solve it with, any preoccupation with a single tool leaves you working around the constraints of the tool, not solving the problem. A solution benefits from constant measurement from multiple viewpoints and multiple approaches. From sketching, to printing everything out and pinning it to the walls, to prototyping, to open discussion, all these approaches (and many more) allow you another chance to measure before you cut. Most importantly different approaches change your toolset allowing you to consider the solution in a new way. Preoccupation with defining the ‘right’ way of doing things forces us to try to see only one viewpoint, to apply only one way of solving a problem, to only measure once.

Lost in Translation

Some years ago on a cruise off the African east coast I struck up conversation with an Austrian gentleman and his wife. She was a translator and as the conversation rolled between us, we began to discuss if a work of literature can truly be translated successfully. I remember sticking steadfastly to my belief that ‘Shakespeare in Austrian cannot have the same cadence nor rhythm of it’s native tongue’. I had very little to base this on, as my ability to converse in anything other than my native English is shamefully limited to asking for directions via a rudimentary semaphore and pointing to menus mouthing obscure vocabulary at amused waiting staff.

More recently I was given a copy of ‘The Book of Tea’ by Okakura Kabuzo. In it is an insightful supporting statement to my slightly boorish claim;

Translation is always treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade,-all the threads are there but not the subtlety of colour or design.”

It has been almost two months since I left the UK to take up a new role as a Creative Director in Melbourne, Australia, and in settling over here I am acutely aware of my need to affect a cultural shift. The language is the same and I recognise the structure of the business but this is a new creative space. New rules apply and cultural references have shifted. During over fourteen years working in the British design industry I have built a chain of references and anchors that are now foreign. It is disorienting, scary and exciting.

I have always believed in the importance of understanding the cultural zeitgeist for a designer. For me it is at the fundamental crux of all communication arts to understand the audience and their environment. My fear of cultural isolation was exemplified in a meeting where, on discussing a news site, the assembled clients began referring to www.news.com.au and not the BBC, as 14 years of client meetings has told me to expect (if I had a pound for every time I have been briefed to draw inspiration from www.bbc.co.uk). Similarly, on trying to reference sports banter, I may have suggested that the footy season (the other footy) was mid way through, only to be informed that we were only at round four. I am still not sure if that means I was wrong or not.

But the inverse of this is what makes this whole thing exciting. I am seeing the reverse of the brocade. I do not have predefined responses to existing cultural references here. Everything is somewhat familier but also unusual and interesting. Cultural references and their embedded links to audiences are fascinating. It is no longer a case of counting myself as part of the audience as the audience expectations are not governed by a shared experience. It feels like the ultimate guerrilla testing environment where none of my assumptions can be relied upon, making any test fascinating in its responses. This in turn makes me challenge my own predefined responses to creative problems.

So, for a while at least, I am sure I will feel like Alice on the other side of the looking glass, where design and audiences look strangely recognisable but somewhat alien at the same time. In time I am sure that I will pick up some translation but I hope that I remain a little on the outside as I like this new perspective and the challenge it offers.

Play the Gamification

One of the benefits of being a veteran in digital (such as that is in a field that is less than 20 years old) is that you get a sense of when something is being used without understanding. Those of us who worked and lived through the dot com bubble will be acutely aware of the perils of selling something that is the latest buzzword. Grimacing I can remember being briefed to ‘make a viral‘. It was only after several years of this grimace being reenacted that my business partner and I managed to convince our local design awards to rephrase their awards category to ‘best campaign that became viral’. Just so we are clear, you can build an engaging campaign with the facilities for distribution but ‘viral’ is simply something that happens to your campaign if it is good.

So it is with little joy that I witness the proliferation of the term ‘gamification‘. In the last year this term has been the panacea for all manner of poorly conceived ideas. Seemingly the mere mention of gamification can open previously closed marketing budgets, like a sharp knife to a stubborn oyster. Suddenly the snake oil sellers are back in town telling marketing departments to rub the phrase on liberally before meetings for guaranteed success. Time for a public service announcement. Buyer beware, we have been here before. 

Let’s start with what ‘gamification’ really is. ‘Gamification’ is a made up word (hence the red line under it in your presentations) that is being used to bundle game mechanics and game dynamics into an easy to market new genre. It has been coined so that a more complex use of psychology in mundane tasks can be made to sound snappy and new. ‘Gamifying’ your site does not mean putting a game on it… or maybe it does, we are after all talking about a made up word.

Game mechanics, the psychology of play and game dynamics, however, are real. The idea of tapping into the human desire to compete is not new, and is a fascinating way of engaging anyone, young or old, in non-game activities. Parents encouraging their kids to eat their greens by offering a tasty treat are using ‘rewards‘. Any teacher using a merit star poster in the classroom is engaging in the use of a ‘league table‘. Checking in to a location on your mobile device to become the mayor of ‘Bob’s Wholefood Emporium’ is an ‘achievement‘. All of these are examples of where someone is using competition to encourage participation. I have deliberately chosen simple examples here, more complex examples can use multiple mechanics and dynamics achieving far more dramatic results. 

Foursquare or Nike are both often quoted, high profile success stories for the use of ‘gamification’, however it should be noted that both were successful well before the phrase appeared. Unnervingly the cleverness behind these two examples is often then used to justify application of parts of their mechanics to everything from financial forms to online content consumption. The problem with this is that the success of these two examples is due to confident adoption of technological advancement, innovative thinking and good targeting. Neither concept would have worked without some serious research and development. The majority of what is being sold as ‘gamification’ currently is the bolting on of seemingly successful concepts to existing persistent problems.

So, where does this leave the digital market? Well much like the ‘viral’ craze of the early 00′s I imagine that we will see the rise of ‘gamification’ with many projects being commissioned simply on the back of this word. We will continue to see good examples appearing and these will be used to justify agency fees, lengthy articles and book advances. Sadly I think we will also see good marketing budgets wasted on wolf tickets and what I know of that is; confident forward thinking marketing spend will not come back around quickly. Those who miss sell now will bank the cash and look for the next wave, while the rest of us will be left tarred by their reputations, scrapping for whatever budget is left.

Worth a read is BunchBall’s Gamification 101 (http://www.bunchball.com).


Design Mentoring 2011/12

This year I have been invited to mentor at both the Edinburgh College of Art and Telford College. Once again this gives me an opportunity to think about the role that the design industry and professionals should adopt to ensure that graduates are given the most realistic start to their careers. It also gives me a huge boost to be asked to do this.

With mentoring with both Telford and ECA I am seeing abroad spectrum of design education technique and student talent. The ECA course is a graduate arts course over four years while Telford is an Higher National Diploma over two years. Already there have been some marked differences in the two approaches and I am enjoying both processes immensely.

ECA – Design Agency 

The ECA students are asked to set up and run a design agency. I documented this in more detail in a previous post but the overview is, as a mentor I work like a non-exec director that the teams can use for any advice. The agency must run as a real agency, keeping books, marketing, hiring, firing and competing in the marketplace of the ECA. All of these aspects I can advise on and, to some degree, I am less involved in the agencies output rather I act as a creative business advisor. 

I love this concept. I think it sharpens the students understanding of what collaboration, business and design is. The lessons learned last year were pretty fascinating to be part of, especially those that lead to students making the decision not to go into professional practice at the end of the course.

To date I have been assigned my company, Monday’s Child and I am looking forward to meeting them next week. In contrast to last years collective, Bull and Skones, Monday’s Child, on paper, seem to be a million miles apart. Last years agency were all about Do It Yourself With Others (D.I.Y.W.O.) which lead to projects that were as much about the joy of working together and arts and crafts as they were about design. This year I get the feeling my agency will be far more focused on design product which excites me in a new way. Clearly though they are a highly motivated and professional bunch with a good site already established.

The architect of this innovative part of the ECA course is Zoe Patterson. I was really pleased when Zoe agreed to spend some of her summer holidays in the Line studio this year. It was superb to have an educator come into the workspace and see what is expected from graduates when the course dust settles. I hope that this initiative is extended next year, offering more placement opportunities by agencies and more lecturers taking up the opportunity.

Telford – Direct mentoring

With Telford I am experiencing a more typical mentoring model. On a very wet autumn evening I was asked to attend a meet and greet session where I was assigned two students, Nicholas and Jordan. For the rest of their final year I will be on hand to offer them creative advice as well as being part of the panel critiquing them on selected projects. 

In the initial meeting we were given stimuli challenges to learn more about each other and I was asked to review their current portfolio work. Some of the students (including Nicholas) had also been selected to present their solutions to a recent brief. I was also asked to say a few words about industry mentoring on a video which will be used by the college in a future interactive knowledge bank.

One month in and I have already worked with Jordan and Nicholas on their first brief. Jordan especially has used the opportunity to present early ideas and work with me to produce something that I really very felt positive about. Both students have the raw talent in the thinking department but I think the pace and demands of the course shows. The need to convert an idea into application and presentation quickly is starkly apparent. My goal with both students is to work with them to give them pieces in their portfolio that we can confidently call ‘agency standard’ in both thinking and application.

I am particularly interested in Telford as I attended a similar further education course when starting out at Aberdeen College. With the HND being a two year course the focus is on vocational skills. Getting students up to speed on the software applications and techniques needed to enter a studio is the priority. To this end I was prepared, in my first meeting, to see less finesse and more abundance. This is largely how I remember my course and what I have come to expect from two year further education courses and students. The output is often more raw, but the students are drilled in speed and have a more commercial grasp of design as an industry.

Everything I have seen about Telford’s infrastructure and the enthusiasm from the staff, feels fast paced and modern. The energetic Helena Good is the course leader and from our first meeting I have been constantly swept along by her energy. I think the opportunity presented to the students on these short courses is huge but with only two years and such a huge workload it is very sink or swim. An awful lot relies on the students raw talent and commitment. 

So the two mentoring projects are underway and I am enjoying them both. Next up I need to present a lecture to both courses and continue to support them where I can. Exciting times!


Convincing colour

Watching Horizon’s program Do You See What I See (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013c8tb) should probably be required watching for designers. The program dealt with the oft debated issue of colour and whether we all experience colour in the same way. While most creatives working with colour will be acutely aware of this challenge thanks to the ever reoccurring discussion, ‘it’s just blue‘, the program offered a scientific link between the ability to describe colour and to see it. This would suggest that a wider vocabulary or mental palette enables the viewer to actually ‘see’ more colour.

While it has now been widely accepted into common knowledge that the human brain divides into left and right, with right being bias to creativity and left to logic, there is little suggest that designers are able to manipulate this in others. The merest hint of the mention of creativity will alight all of humanities opinions, as creativity is wholly (and rightly) subjective, but for the working creative there is a barrier that suggests that opinions do not translate into valid design rationale. This often leads to an uneasy tension with the designer instinctively ‘knowing’ what is right and the commissioning party ‘knowing’ what they like. This frustration clearly leads to compromise in the long run with both parties settling on a middle ground, the designer concedes the client is paying and the client accepts the rationale to a point. 

Sadly this often leads to poor design decisions, poor design decisions lead to ineffective solutions and ineffective solutions lead to a general erosion of confidence in design practice. All creatives will have reviewed a previous design in the pitching process and marvelled at the opportunities missed by the incumbant agency or creative. This is often followed, on winning the account, with the realisation that possibly the previous project had been subject to compromise, leaving what may have been a good idea watered down.

Good design is clear dialogue with the client and should be a  creative solution based in fact. In digital this has lead to the rise of usability, analytics and multivariate testing. All these avenues can ground a designers decisions in facts. They take certain structural decisions out of the hands of both the creative and the client and offer them to the end user, but what of aesthetic? 

We know that certain colours have cultural properties that can be said to influence the viewer. If you do not then take a look at Kissmetric’s – How do colours affect purchases (http://blog.kissmetrics.com/color-psychology/) and David McCandless and Always with Honour‘s – Colours in Culture (http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/colours-in-cultures/). This language can often be used to justify a colour decision, but if there is a link between the breadth of a persons verbal (or even psychological) vocabulary and their ability to see a colour then can we be sure that more subtle colour decisions are even being seen? 

Are designers using millions of colours while the majority are seeing in hundreds?

This would suggest that either creatives are wasting their time arguing one blue over another or that we should be naming more colours to attempt to expand the public colour vocabulary. Could a solution be as simple as uniquely naming a colour when it is presented and therefore adding it to a clients mental palette? I am sure that this tactic is already being used in branding, however wider study could lead to some valuable insight for both creatives and commissioners of creativity. 

On the subject of colour I regularly read the wonderful Aesthetics of Joy (http://aestheticsofjoy.com) and would strongly urge any creative to rediscover the joy of colour that Ingrid Fetell inspires in her writing.


Experience vs Experience

In May I was asked by Robbie Manson if I would talk at Refresh, an Edinburgh web design and developer event. This gave me an opportunity to pose some questions about design and development I frequently find myself asking. While this may well have lead to a slightly convoluted talk hopefully it allowed me to air some theories and questions I have about the what we are doing as an industry. Since the talk I have continued to discuss and debate my thinking, so this post is half notes from my talk along with new opinions and discoveries.

I called my talk ‘Experience vs Experience’ and posed this initial question;

Is an emphasis on usability theory and the limitations of technology limiting investigations into interactive experience?

To start it is worth noting that I am not advocating wholesale damnation of usability. While the conflict between design experience and user experience is not insubstantial it is clear that this debate is a parallel to form and function which I have discussed here before. Usability and form are the same element. Every task we seek tools for engages the subject of function or usability. From can openers to cosmonaut pens (or pencils as the case may be) usability is a necessity that ensures that tasks are achievable.

Rather than crowbar open this crusty debate again what I would like to look at is wether we have begun to narrow our design horizons. Have the digital design community stopped really experimenting with the Internet as a medium? What are the possibilities of a truly connected world? Should we be looking outside the browser to offer experiences that meet the promise of the medium?

In 1996 I read an article by David Klein in Wired UK. In it was a quote that I have trotted out year on year for 15 years.

If you want the Internet to be everywhere it has to be visible nowhere. It has to be unseen, unnoticed, undiscussed.

For me this quote from, the then CEO of a company called Integrated Systems Inc, David St. Charles still speaks to me of the promise that I hope all designers and developers recognise in the Internet. It is this quote I return to when I  think about what the true opportunities afforded by ultimately connected experiences are. For me the potential of constant connectivity is in the ability to access, store and manipulate information continuously wherever it is needed.

In a similarly well worn quote the figurehead of designers usability ire, but undoubtedly very clever, Jakob Nielsen states;

conduct a field study to see how users behave in their natural habitat.

With these two quotes rises the main part of my discussion. If we as a species are social and physical, as we clearly are, then surely it is open to debate whether screen (and peripheral) based interaction is the best solution for information access, storage and manipulation. Surely we should be investing more effort into moving away from screen based technology and looking at how we actually live and interact socially with a goal of moulding connectivity around our lives rather than our lives around it.

To make my point consider the evolution of our species and in particular this quote from René Dubos,

Man shapes himself through decisions that shape his environment.

There are currently some lively and interesting debates over the evolution of our minds with particular concentration on how we read online and our ability to think deeply because of this. While studies are certainly not conclusive, as discussed here by Dr Paul Howard Jones at the RSA, books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows do pose the question whether our prolonged exposure to screens and connectivity is slowly rewiring our brains. By manipulating how we read, write and investigate around the screen we may have inadvertently started a process that, neurologically speaking, is changing how we process information. It is argued that this is making us skim readers, who absorb little and emotionally disconnect from the content we consume.

Stepping away from the psychological impact of the internet and into the physical. In 1988 if you had visited the cinema (perhaps to watch Tom Hanks in Big) you may well have seen the Blade Runner-esque ‘smoker of the future‘, a rather bleak government health advert. Outside of scaring the crap out of small children, it spoke of how we might evolve due to our bad habits. This manifestation of the future smoker had developed extra eyelids, a longer nose and a resilience to cancer. The point being that, because we had not crossed the evolutionary divide to compensate for our addictions you would be best advised to knock smoking on the head.

While this is a fascinating, and certainly open, debate it surely suggests that if we can begin to mould our mental makeup through our current environmental choices then why not our physical selves? Looking at the studios that I have worked in I would suggest anecdotally that working on computers all day seems to lead to poor eyesight and posture problems. I would suspect that most designers and developers will, or have friends who will, suffer from back problems. I would also suggest that eye strain in general may well be on the rise.

How does this link to usability and my concern about the lack of experimental interface development online?

I have long felt that we should be looking at technology to further explore the connected experience. To my mind to truly understand ‘the user’ we should be looking beyond the screen, browser and peripheral dynamic to ask, how does society interact and how should that alter our perception of the connected experience.

For me a truly ‘user’ experience is one that involves learning behaviours, has a physical impact and a physical convenience. There are wide studies that show that play, investigation and reward afford a user a greater experience and therefore a more meaningful one. There are some great examples of how this can translate. Poke London’s hugely practical Baker Tweet is a wonderful example of taking connected technology and looking at how the user needs to access it. I think if you had given this to one hundred agencies only one would have come up with such a simple and elegant solution. A single knob and a button. If you think about a bakery and therefore the user this is truly user centred design.

At the other end of the scale is Marie Sester’s wonderfully playful art installation Access. Access looks at how we react to a very simple stimuli. By shining a spotlight onto an unsuspecting person how do they react but more importantly how do those controlling the light react? How do they pick their victims from the comfort of their screens far from the physical impact of their choices. In Access we learn about how users reach out to others using very simple devices.

When I started out as a designer developer our palettes and browsers were far more limited and yet I spent more time examining what form a connected experience could take. Using Flash and Director I witnessed people spending time thinking about how accidental interaction and hidden rewards could be part of an experience. These experiences allowed poeple to discover brands by playing and being immersed. I looked at pioneers like Anti-ROM, Hi-Res and Digit and marvelled at the possibilities. Each of those companies (or members of) have moved interactive experience outside the browser and it is this experimentation that I feel is lacking from current design and development.

It is especially within the browser that the user experience is becoming muted. While I may be in the declining few, I miss the ‘experiential’ site. While I think that structure and plain direction is important for certain tasks, I also want experiences that take me beyond the mundane. I want brands to immerse me in their story so that I can emotionally connect with them.

Often when I speak to designers and developers now they talk about the user experience within the browser without questioning whether there is an opportunity to break out of that environment. They limit their thinking to the rules of the browser and the standards that govern it. To me this leads to a grey world where we are forced to evolve around the screen rather than moulding the technology to our environment. This aching, hunched, myopic, claw fingered, emotionally detached, skim reading figure from the future holds no desire for me.

With all this possible potential I hope that designers and developers can begin to examine the user that has evolved over millions of years and shape technology around it.

You can watch my original talk here: http://www.vimeo.com/25865337

Pecha Kucha – Inspire Japan

In April I was invited by Mark Daniels the curator of Inspace to participate in the Global Pecha Kucha – Inspire Japan event in Edinburgh. On the night I was part of a hugely daunting intellectual group who all had strong links with Japan and wonderful presentations… and me. I think I was somewhat the Monster Munch to their foie gras, the advertising break to their documentary. Still it was good fun and a great event with a very worthy goal. I was hugely honoured to have been invited.

As anyone who has ever participated in a Pecha Kucha (and this was my second) the format is 20 slides for 20 seconds each. This is fast and anyone who knows me knows that I am not the best at succinct communications. So I thought I would publish my presentation here with a bit more detail than I managed on the night. My aim was to talk about Japan and it’s culture from the viewpoint of someone who had never been. To demonstrate that despite recent events my fascination and enthusiasm to visit had not waned.
1.What do I know about Japan?

I’ve been fascinated by it’s culture and to me it has become almost a mythological place that I ‘must visit’. Despite my brother living in Tokyo for two years in recent years, it has remained a ‘to-do’. So being asked to present a Pecha Kucha presents an opportunity to synaptically ingrain temptation. To build myself a mouthwatering picture that itches and gnaws until I am forced to realise this mythical place I have imagined.

Being an internet junkie this was easiest achieved by my internet weapons of choice Google and Wikipedia, so I present to you 18 of 47 – An internet addicts seat bound guide to 18 of Japan’s 47 prefectures (because there was only time for 18)

Each slide contained the prefecture flag, it’s area and a fact that made visiting compelling.

2. Aichi

Flag: Stylized hiragana of あいち (Aichi). The emblem also expresses sunrise and wave to indicate Aichi’s location facing the Pacific Ocean.

Area: 5,153.81 km² (28th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Aichi is home to the Meiji Mura open-air architectural museum in Inuyama, which preserves historic buildings from Japan’s Meiji and Taishō periods, including the reconstructed lobby of Frank Lloyd Wright’s old Imperial Hotel (which originally stood in Tokyo from 1923 to 1967).


Flag: Stylized katakana of ア (a), the first syllable of Akita.

Area: 11,612.22 km² (6th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: The Aoyagi house in Akita is the former residence of Odano Naotake, who rose to fame for his illustrations of the human body in “Kaitai Shinsho” the first translation of a Dutch book on anatomy published in Japan in 1774.

4. Aomori

Flag: Stylized map of the prefecture

Area: 9,606.26 km² (8th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: There is a localized Japanese legend that Jesus Christ did not die on the cross but made his way to Shingō, Aomori where he became a rice farmer, married, and had a family.

5. Chiba

Flag: Stylized katakana of チバ (Chiba). Blue stands for hope and progress, yellow for prefecture flower rapeseed blossoms.

Area: 5,156.15km² (27th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Chiba…. Home of Tokyo Disney Resort… and famous for peanuts.

6. Ehime

Flag: Yellow stands for happiness, green for peace and white for simplicity and purity. The mon represents orange, the prefectural flower.

Area: 5,676.44km² (26th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Ehime is the home of the oldest extant hot spring in Japan, Dogo Onsen, is located in Matsuyama. It has been used for over two thousand years

7. Fukui

Flag: Stylized katakana of フクイ (Fukui). The emblem stands for harmony and cooperation of people.

Area: 4,188.99km² (34th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Tōjinbō is in Fukui. This scenic piece of coastline that attracts many people to the area is also a notorious spot for suicide.

8. Fukuoka

Flag: Stylized katakana of フクイ (Fukui). The emblem stands for harmony and cooperation of people.

Area: 4,971.01 km² (29th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Fukuoka prefecture is noteworthy as the place where tire manufacturer Bridgestone was founded… handy a bit later on in my presentation!

9. Fukushima 

Flag: Stylized hiragana of ふ (fu).

Area: 13,782.54km² (17th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Legend has it that an ogress, Adachigahara, once roamed the plain after whom it was named. The story goes, priests in search of a night’s lodging stopped at the humble hut of a lone woman in the wilds of Adachi. She finally lets them in and while spinning thread speaks of her wretched solitude. As she leaves to gather firewood, she tells the priests not to look into her inner room. This arouses the curiosity of a servant in the employ of the priests, who does look in and finds piled up bones and rotting corpses. The priests realize this must be the demoness of Adachi. As they are about to flee, she returns in a rage now in her demonic form. But finally through Buddhist prayer the priests are able to quell her anger.

10. Gifu

Flag: Stylized kanji 岐 (gi). The emblem expresses peace and harmony. The green stands for the nature of Gifu.

Area: 10,621.17 km² (7th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Cormorant Fishing has been practised on the Nagara River in Gifu for over 1300 years. By the light of burning torches the fishermen, known as Usho, go out in small wooden boats. Possessing a skill that has been handed down through the centuries, they are able to handle more than ten cormorants at once with different calls. The birds then do the work of actually catching the fish; swooping, diving and swimming through the water, finally emerging gracefully from the river with their catch. It is a sight that has enchanted emperors for centuries.

11. Gunma

Flag: Stylized kanji 群 (gun) and three crescents which stand for three mountains Mount Akagi, Mount Haruna and Mount Myōgi. Purple was selected as refined colour suitable to Gunma’s cultural inheritance.

Area: 6,363.16 km² (21st Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Gunma is home to one of Japan’s three Melody Roads, which are made from grooves cut into the ground, which when driven over these cause a tactile vibration and audible rumbling transmitted through the wheels into the car body. Gunmas’s road consists of 2,559 grooves cut into a 175 meter stretch of existing roadway. When driven over at 50 km/h it produces the tune of “Memories of Summer”.

12. Hiroshima

Flag: Stylized katakana of ヒ (hi).

Area: 8,476.95 km² (11th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Hiroshima is home to the iconic Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, famed for filling with water and appearing to “float” during high tide. Retaining the purity of the shrine is so important that since 1878, no deaths or births have been permitted near the shrine. To this day, pregnant women are supposed to retreat to the mainland as the day of delivery approaches, as are terminally ill or the very elderly whose passing has become imminent.

13. Hokkaido

Flag: A 7-point star standing for hope and development. Blue represents sea and sky of Hokkaidō, red stands for people’s energy and white for light and snow.

Area: 83,453.57 km² (Largest Prefecture)

Fact: The Seikan Tunnel, the world’s longest rail tunnel, is the only land link that Hokkaido has to Japan’s main island of Honshu.

14. Hyogo

Flag: Stylized kanji of 兵 (hyō). It also represents the stylized map of the prefecture, facing the Seto Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan.

Area: 8,393.34 km² (12th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: The region symbolizes Japan’s earliest contact with the outside world. Many homes of early foreign visitors still stand on the bluff overlooking the harbor. It is also the location of Himeji Castle. The castle is frequently known as Hakurojō (“White Egret Castle”) or Shirasagijō (“White Heron Castle”) because of its brilliant white exterior and supposed resemblance to a bird taking flight.

15. Ibaraki

Flag: The prefectural flower rose on blue field. Blue stands for the Pacific Ocean and Mount Tsukuba.

Area: 6,095.58 km² (23rd Largest Prefecture)

Fact: The prefecture is often mispronounced “Ibaragi”. However, the correct pronunciation is “Ibaraki.” This is most likely due to a mishearing of the softening of the ‘k’ sound in Ibaraki dialect. It is also home to the beautiful Kairaku-en gardens

16. Ishikawa

Flag: The mon is a stylized form of its name in kanji, 石川 (Ishikawa). It also represents the stylized map of the prefecture.

Area: 4,185.22 km² (35th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Kanazawa in Ishikawa is famous for tea with gold flakes, which is considered to be good for health and vitality.

17. Iwate

Flag: Stylized kanji of 岩 (iwa) which symbolizes advanced progress.

Area: 15,278.40 km² (2nd Largest Prefecture)

Fact: There are several theories about the origin of the name ‘Iwate’, but the most well known is the tale, ‘Oni no tegata,’ which is associated with the Mitsuishi or “Three Rocks” Shrine in Morioka. These rocks are said to have been thrown down into Morioka by an eruption of Mt. Iwate. According to the legend, there was once a devil who often tormented and harassed the local people. When the people prayed to the spirits of Mitsuishi for protection, the devil was immediately shackled to these rocks and forced to make a promise never to trouble the people again. As a seal of his oath the devil made a handprint on one of the rocks, thus giving rise to the name Iwate, literally ‘rock hand’. Even now after a rainfall it is said that the devil’s hand print can still be seen there.

18. Kagawa

Flag: Stylized and slightly rotated katakana of カ (ka). It also represents mountains, as well as olive leaves, the prefectural tree.

Area: 1,861.70 km² (47th Largest Prefecture – smallest)

Fact: Kagawa – with its population of 1 million people – has more than 800 udon shops making it have the highest per capita number of udon shops in Japan.

19. Kagoshima

Flag: Stylized map of the prefecture, with Sakurajima in the center.

Area: 9,132.42 km² (10th Largest Prefecture)

Fact: Kagoshima produces Japan’s largest volume of unagi eels which are now sadly endangered.

20. Japan

Flag: Represents the rising sun.

Area: 377,944 km² (61st Largest Country on planet earth)

To finish I want to quote from my favourite Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, it talks to me about the passage of time and how we should live in the moment. It is a very buddhist concept, to live in the moment and one that I think fits well with my idea of Japan. For all the things that have happened to Japan it is worth noting that the Japanese people have continued to thrive, innovate and inspire. It is this spirit that makes me daydream of one day visiting.

Everything passes. Nobody gets anything for keeps. And that’s how we’ve got to live.

Haruki Murakami

Japan National Tourism Organisation – http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/

Inspirational Studies – Edinburgh College of Art professional practice

In 2010 I met Zoe Patterson of the Edinburgh College of art design department (http://www.eca.ac.uk/index.php?id=192). She had just run the first year of an innovative new professional practice module at the ECA and asked if I would be interested in being a mentor for the 2010 to 2011 course. Having always harboured a secret desire to work in academia and being fascinated by the module concept, I jumped at the chance.

Simplistically the module asks the final year students to team up into groups and form design agencies. Each agency is formally registered as a company, branded and then these new company directors are tasked with hiring staff for their fledgeling studio from the two course years below them. The agencies are assigned a professional mentor and, over the course of the year, they pitch for work, competing against each other in the virtual marketplace of the design department. The agencies can discipline and fire under performing staff members while also being able to persuade like minded staff from other agencies to jump ship.

Having discussed at length, with any further education or higher education lecturer who might listen, the need for design courses to supply more commercially minded graduates, it goes without saying that I think Zoe’s hard work on building this module is well overdue. Even more importantly she has ensured that this module counts towards the students final marks. So the students are committed and competitive from the outset. This does not mean that there are not some significant issues even from the outset, but more of those later. In my professional opinion any course that does not prepare graduates and equip them adequately for the commercial environment is a missed opportunity. Often the link between education and agency is tenuous to be polite. However conceptual or bright a student might be, above all, design is an industry that demands a level of commercial understanding. Strip out the consumerism element of all design and you have a different art form entirely. Graphics becomes fine art, product design becomes sculpture.

Late in 2010 I met my group ‘Bull and Skones’ made up of Elle Adams, Joe Skelton and Laura Service. When they arrived at Line Digital’s offices for our first meeting I was probably as apprehensive as they were. The reality was that I was nervous about my ability to offer solid advice to idealistic students. I wondered if my ideals would be too harshly commercial for them. To be honest for this slightly personal paranoia, I could not have been handed a more perfect, or challenging, group. In our first meeting the team told me that they wanted to be a creative ‘collective’, possibly the hardest and most open interpretation of an agency going. To add to this they drew their inspiration from a movement known as ‘Do it yourself, with others’ which I had never heard of. I asked them to send me their existing portfolios to try to understand their creative strengths and personalities. From these it seemed their core skills were in screen printing posters, hand drawn typography and craft ephemera of all kinds, made by working almost individually while in informal groups. This arts and crafts approach to creativity took them as far away from the commercial digital marketing space that I occupy daily as a creative director at Line.

However what I did understand (and possibly underestimated) was that Bull and Skones were, are, a highly motivated group of talent. They knew exactly what they wanted to do and how they felt they could achieve it. So my first goal was to see if I could offer them some starting advice. To this I turned to my work with LongLunch.

After forty design talks from some of Europe’s finest design minds I have been lucky enough to meet virtually every agency model going. Closest to where Bull and Skones wanted to be was Tomato (http://www.tomato.co.uk). Personally as a creative collective I think Tomato have produced some of the defining moments in graphic design in the last twenty years. Back at college in Aberdeen, some thirteen years ago, I had a screen printing lecturer who enthused about their work in a time of extreme design experimentation. Tomato answered California designer David Carson’s genre redefining creativity with a zeal that can only come out of the United Kingdom. More importantly they still exist, successful and as a collective, recognised as one of the British design communities jewels. I am an unashamed fan.

On writing to them I got a great response from Simon Taylor who had spoken at LongLunch talk number twenty five. His advice was as follows;

“Trust each other, it shows in the work.

Play to your individual strengths, experiment and see how that works when you overlap with another’s skills.

Trust each other.

Find the natural hierarchy within the group and go with it.

Trust each other

Donate 30% of all individuals earnings into a central fund that pays for costs like rent. Keep the rest as a fee. Then when you’re not busy and have no money you don’t pay anything but you still have a studio.
And when you’re busy and rich you get to pay more than anyone else.

Trust each other.

See it as a continuous journey without a specific destination.

Find out if you can make it for more than a few months, years, decades!!!”

I sent this on to the Bull and Skones hoping that they could take from it. We discussed it at our next meeting, talking about the various parts of how they could use the advice. To this I added what I felt was the most important, albeit slightly dull, advice I could impart during my mentoring role, ‘make money’.

It still seems harsh to anchor these inspirational and motivated students with such a cold hard reality but I felt that it might have been too easy for them to identify their bold choice in model as a cause should they post a loss. I was keen to ensure that while their choice was unusual, among the final results of this module was that the team gained an insight into the realities of the commercial environment they would be entering at the end of their course.

And so to work. First up Bull and Skones needed to recruit their team. This is where I think the brilliance of the module really shows, when I discuss this with other business owners we all agree this is a key and fascinating point. With support from the Edinburgh Art College human resources department the teams are asked to advertise for, interview and hire talent from the third and second year students. During this period it is clear, much like in the playground of real life, some agencies are very popular, leaving others short of applicants. Interestingly the course leaders do step in at this point and redress the balance ‘assigning’ some students to agencies (actually this year the course leaders had already stepped in and pushed three individuals together to ‘make’ an agency).

In some ways I disagree slightly with this forced approach to levelling the playing field. Having worked for both big and small agencies I feel I have seen the benefits of both. I also think that there are learnings in not being popular. As a creative communicator you cannot be totally insular or objectionable (some of my former colleagues may smile ruefully at me saying this). You should at least attempt to gravitate people towards you or you will most likely struggle to make business connections to convert to clients as a freelancer, or cope in the noisy social ecosystem of a studio. Commercial creativity is hard work for the lone wolf. You learn that there is no parachute and the emphasis is all on you. Freelancers often point out that early on they spend an inordinate amount of their time doing the business functions, invoicing, business development and tax returns spring to mind, rather than being creative. I feel that this could be part of the module that could be changed to emphasise the challenges making it on your own may hold.

Luckily for Bull and Skones they were a popular bunch and they soon hired a similarly motivated group. The team presented their studio to me and their first challenge for me came to light. It seemed that a third year who they really respected had ended up in a rival agency. The individual had then approached them hinting that he might want to join Bull and Skones so they had discussed a move. This became the first real world test for the collective as we had to discuss the ethics of ‘poaching’ staff from other agencies. The team needed to follow the rules of engagement so we discussed the approach. They had a meetings with the college HR department and the potential team member and drafted an offer letter. Then the individual offered his resignation from the rival agency and worked his notice. Within a few weeks Bull and Skones grew by one.

I can not express the importance I rested on this event. For the directors it gave in insight into the process and, sometimes excruciatingly slow, push pull tempo of hiring within an agency, for the individual I hope it gave a moral boost knowing that his talents were sufficient to warrant the procedure.

Now branded, fully staffed and raring to go, the studios are given briefs to compete for. The mentors are also encouraged to offer their charges live briefs to answer. Laura, Joe, Elle and I discussed this early on and I felt that they were sufficiently motivated that they would challenge themselves without Line giving them more work. We also agreed that our key client sectors (finance, arts event ticketing systems, travel and tourism) and specialism (digital marketing and systems) hardly fitted the Bull and Skones ethos. Perhaps there was a slight disappointment on my part that they were not a direct fit for Line but we decided that it was better to not force it.

Among the briefs were the following; a fundraising challenge for Lake Victoria Disability Centre (a South African arts centre started by two former ECA graduates – http://www.lakevictoriadisabilitycentre.org), a brief by the fashion department at the college to supply the marketing materials for a show and a self motivated project brief. Each team needed to prepare and pitch for the briefs.

Drawing on another LongLunch speaker, Adrian Shaugnessy, I decided that, as Bull and Skones fitted an ethical model, I would advise them to do something that I wish all agencies would commit to. When Bull and Skones were asked to pitch I asked them to ask if the pitch was going to be paid for by the client. They agreed and we were knocked back one hundred percent of the time.

While I never expected to see any of the clients differ in attitude to almost every client I have ever encountered, I felt it was important to open up a dialogue on the subject. To be totally honest it was slightly disheartening to see that even the Art Schools own departments assumed that pitch creativity is free. The question looms; should the Design department educate the students to not free pitch or is it more realistic to not acknowledge this (possibly the greatest) issue in design as most of the industry chooses to do?

I did a presentation to the students mid way through the year and spoke at length about ethics in design. During questions at the end one student asked if I felt they should be taught design ethics and I expressed surprise they were not. While my talk (hopefully to be posted here soon) leaned heavily on the concept of never giving their talent away for free, I do recognise the stark realities of working in design today. Early doors all graduates will be asked to work for free and most will. I think that at least part of this part of the course should be devoted to where the individual’s ethics should lie. There is no set answer for this but I think that it is important to realise that the choices that you make in your career are a reflection of the individuals ethics. Those will clearly influence the work you take on and the people you work for.

Deep in the snowy depths of winter Bull and Skones hatched a personal project to run an event called ‘Monstrosity’. The event centred around a screening of a film called ‘Dive! Living off America’s waste’ (http://www.divethefilm.com). I mention this project over all others as it showed what a good collective could achieve. Bull and Skones as a group promoted, ran, participated in live drawing, screened, cooked a dumpster dinner (without killing anyone) and cleaned up. Every single member contributed and offered their skills to the event. It went far beyond just producing a poster or an identity, it gave them a platform to display their individuality as a group. It also lead to members getting external commissions for their work. I am pretty sure I could not have been more impressed. I think I might have actually combusted had I not found out that they were now operating at a loss…

After the winter break Bull and Skones had another very hard real word test. One of the creative directors Elle had to leave the group to concentrate on her health. This was a huge blow as firstly this was a very tight knit group who were friends as well as partners, secondly I felt that in the group Elle was very much the motivator. She is a hugely talented and visionary individual and despite only having mentored the team I was saddened that she was unable to continue. I genuinely wanted to see where and what the group would come up with with her as part of it.

Laura, Joe and I met up to discussthe next projects and there was plenty more that they were looking to do, however I was now pushing them to make money. I was increasingly concerned that they would end up with a loss and carry that debt personally. Happily they both took this on as a challenge and through investing in their creativity (everything from screen printed t-shirts to sweet filled goody bags) and running a one day festival they got back to zero… Which they told me was achieving their goal! Actually, they made money and then blew the profits on a party. I am hoping they do not get a tax bill in 2012.

Closing out the module the teams needed to present back to the mentors and course leaders and produce a final report detailing their experience. It was heartening to see so much good work being produced and such creative thinking in both business approach as well as product. During the presentations I took the following notes (for the record I was not texting!). They should give you an insight into the high regard I have for the graduates and their work:

ECA: Agency reviews

Fetch (maven)

  • polished online work, not represented by presentation
  • lost money
  • not a team… Assembled from the team that didn’t want to work together

Heard About

  • Nice brand idea / cattle ear tags ‘Herd’
  • Get out to find inspiration
  • Skills learning/have fun
  • ‘severe delegation’
  • Edit: Edinburgh industry showcase. Nice!

Bull and Skones

  • Forever!


  • Professional presentation
  • Carrying their brand through all parts of presentation
  • obviously technically proficient
  • rehearsed
  • better understanding of professional practice.


  • Split team for delegation
  • Made money! Didn’t work for free! 
  • Andrew Wolff – Mentor
  • Won pitches – fashion show/rough cut nation
  • Shame that Dan (http://www.dksmith.co.uk/) (Aussie) leaving for London
  • Great style
  • All leaving Scotland for elsewhere…
  • Sacked an employee!

It has taken me far too long to complete this review but hopefully it shows the amount of work going into this innovative and important course. I sincerely hope to be involved again next year and even if not I will continue to champion the ECA approach and Zoe Patterson’s work.