Leaving a conference with the hunger to create is far more valuable to me than knowing exactly how to create; it’s the desire that matters, not the tools. Expectations for my first dConstruct were high, but surpassed without question. A full day of super-smart, passionate speakers followed—and precided—by the bountiful delights of Brighton’s bars. How can you lose?
Brand-guru Marty Neumeier kicked off the day speaking about ‘The Designful Company’. I’m a big fan of his book ‘The Brand Gap’, and in person he certainly didn’t disappoint. Exploring how brands are defined by their approach to design, he discussed the challenge designers face creating innovative products in the face of ‘traditional’ management.
Citing the famous Henry Ford quote—”If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”—Marty asserted that innovation is the way to create lasting barriers to competition. He used Herman-Miller’s Aeron chair as an example of when products achieve long-term success because they’re both different and good. Though the Aeron performed poorly in initial tests, was called “weird” and initial sales were sluggish, it eventually became a greater source of revenue than any other product the company have produced because customers “soon equate weird with good”.
Next up was magneticNorth’s Creative Director, Brendan Dawes, discussing his design process. Boil: fill your head with as many ideas as possible, then Simmer: consider and reflect, and finally Reduce: remove things until there’s nothing you can’t justify. Along with his own brand of self-deprecation, I particularly appreciated Brendan’s message of being aware of your sense of play as a designer.
I have to admit to being a bit non-plussed about the idea of David McCandless’s topic before the conference kicked-off. Though I’ve read parts of his ‘Information Is Beautiful‘ book in the past, I’d slowly become a bit cynical about ‘infographics’ and the trend of data visualisation that’s seemingly gripped the design world over the past couple of years. Suffice to say, David’s talk reminded me why I was once so enthusiastic about the field.
Highlighting the differences in his examples of successful and, well, rubbish data visualisation, David explained that great data visualisation is the result of beauty (abound with visual relationships; the language of the eye) and interest (conceptual relationships; the language of the mind). He also echoed Brendan’s remarks about maintaining a sense of play when visualising data. Using his own infographic that analyses hierarchy within US politics, he maintained that boredom (“How can I make it interesting?”), ignorance (“How can I find out about it?”), bewilderment (“How can I make it understandable?”) and frustration (“How can I make it work”) are catalysts for the most effective data visualisations.
Washington-based designer Samantha Warren urged us to consider our typeface choices, saying: “A typeface can say a lot more than the copy it spells out”. She compared the task of a designer choosing type to that of a casting director choosing actors, and told of how she considers different typefaces much like different pairs of shoes: Helvetica being a pair of black flats, Bodoni as high heels and Papyrus as a pair of garish knee-high boots.
With this being Gruber’s (aka Daring Fireball‘s) very first speaking appearance in the UK, the expectation level was probably unfairly high.
Regrettably, I’d actually watched a video of a shorter version of this talk on the web a few months ago. Gruber explained his theory that in any creative activity, the quality of the finished piece “tends to approach the level of taste of the person who has final say”. In other words, someone with the right vision for the project—the greatest level of taste—should control the project.
Gruber explained how Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock had very absolute visions of their films and created methods of execution that meant the final cut never strayed from their visions. With Kubrick, it meant getting hands-on during filming and obsessing over every last detail of scene settings. In Hitchcock’s day—when only the studios had ‘final cut’—he single-handedly invented storyboarding and filmed only those pre-planned scenes, meaning the film could only make narrative sense if edited exactly as it was shot.
Creative Director at Last.fm, Hannah Donovan explored the shared elements of improvisation in music and improvisation in design. She spoke of mastering your tools (be they instruments or software) such that they don’t inhibit the pace or process of creativity; the necessity of structural frameworks to guide and constrain; the importance of roles (other musicians, other designers) and mutual respect, then specific techniques like trading parts (call-and-response).
Knowing nothing of Mr. Bridle prior to his talk, I was suitably blown away by both his historical intellect (because I was never any good at that stuff myself) and sense of perspective of the web. After showing us the shipping container in which the internet “lives”, James spoke of how the Library of Alexandria—containing a million scrolls—was gradually destroyed between 48 BCE and 642 CE, and in doing so how a chunk of all human knowledge to that point in history was erased.
Referencing our new digital methods of documenting history, James sought to question the value of our past and used Wikipedia’s revisioning system as an example of how we can now look at historical documents actually come to fruition piece-by-piece. As an experiment, James has actually printed (in 12 volumes!) the entire history of the Iraq War page on Wikipedia, containing every comment and revision ever made since the page was created.
Comparing the ancient Persian road network to todays network of data and services APIs, Tom Coates got us all excited about the opportunities we have of building revolutionary new systems to enhance our lives. Mr. Coates had obviously spent an eternity creating his jaw-dropping slides, and they were matched only by his enthusiasm for the topic.
Tom cited real-world examples like the new parking system in San Francisco, where sensors at parking spaces allow you to find free parking spaces on your smartphone. An inspiring glimpse into how we’re gradually weaving new interconnected networks into our cities.
Merlin Mann. What can I say? Hilarious. Human. Cutting. Witty. Poignant. Perfect closing act. The guy could talk about toothpicks and have everyone enraptured. Oh, wait.
Whether describing the difference between geeks (“Someone who fixes your computer”) and nerds (“Could fix your computer, but first talks to you about it for 5 hours”) or claiming we’ll all be replaced by bash scripts one day, Merlin inspired and delighted without glancing at a slide.
Same time next year? See you there.