10 Things I Learnt From 10 Things They Learnt. 

ny-heart

Loving my Bristol home right now! There are so many great people around and about in our design community here, and getting out amongst them is throwing up such brilliant encouragement at the moment.

Last night in an upstairs bar somewhere in Bristol, a bunch of designer-types old and new got together and under twinkly, dimmed lights with drinks in hand, we heard from 10 local design heroes, 10 things they’d each learnt along the way that had seen them through thick and thin. We were there to celebrate West of England Design Forum’s 10th Birthday – WEDF pours such a lot of good stuff out into our creative midst, so I headed out to join the party and listen to some thoughtful gems. It was just lovely.

Each person who stood up spoke wisdom, confessed to messing up quite a lot, they made us laugh, they rapped, and showed us scans of their unborn children, and amidst all this vulnerability they did what really good designers do and gave us some proper gorgeous things to focus on. Many of these ideas resonated, so in the clear air this morning I sifted out my favourites, that I can say are also true for me too. (Please forgive my lack of credits, hopefully I can add these in due course. See note at the end.)

Here goes – my top ten of the ten top tens:

  1. Keep perspective.
    ‘No one died because of bad kerning/weird typeface’ etc.

    It’s true. In my BBC years, I once had a Natural History director storm out of an edit suite because he didn’t like the shade of blue I’d chosen for arrows on a map of ocean currents, and having nearly missed my granny’s funeral to get it done in time for transmission, there wasn’t time to remake it. As he flounced out and slammed the door, I was left standing in front of the Series Producer, biting my lip very hard trying to not cry. Oh dear! Probably one of my earliest lessons in how and why not to be a massive control freak.

  2. Humility can be helpful.
    See point 1, and remember that while it’s hugely important to fight for your ideas, being able to listen and learn is just as important. I’m not sure a need to be right opens up anything new.

    Curiosity, centre stage please!

  3. Speculate; have fun making personal work.
    Just go ahead and make that piece of work, just because you love the story and believe in the cause. You’ll learn something about yourself, and you may also just make that new connection you’ve dreamed about. My film ‘Tree Wisdom’ was a (sort of) case in point. It was a commission, but a totally open brief, and it’s proved so helpful in starting up new conversations.

    Chase an idea – you never know what adventure it’ll take you on.

  4. Be devoted.
    Get really good at your thing by doing it with such love, and give all the great ideas in you their best chance of life. I love looking at, or holding in my hands, the work of brilliant craftspeople, who spend years refining their skills.

    One from the aesthetic brigade – I really do believe that if you want us to think carefully about something, then make us want to look at it. Make it exquisite.

  5. Don’t forget the importance of your back yard.
    I really liked this way of describing the thing we all know but struggle to manage. Your ‘front yard’ is the polished, online space where your best work is featured – the well-presented 10% that gives everyone a passing impression. But it’s the much bigger back yard where the real stuff happens, the many more hours of play and discovery that really shape you. Don’t underestimate this space. Enjoy it, and celebrate that too!

    I went to a talk by Lisa Congdon a while ago, and asked her about sharing work online and vulnerability – she’s so prolific, and puts so much out there direct from a sketchbook, hard to believe she leaves anything out and imagine how much courage that takes. She doesn’t put everything out there, but the point is that this particular ‘back yard’ sees so much devoted action, what comes out of it is all the more beautifully, attractively real for it.

  6. Keep skills fresh by learning on every job. 
    Challenge yourself to acquire new technical skills with each project you do. It’s to budget and deadline, so you have the (helpful) pressure of it needing to be just right! I do this on all my animation projects, and I’ll never keep up with the best of After Effects nerds, but I remember point no.4 and try my best, and feel excited by new things.

    But…

  7. Don’t worry about being crap at technical skills. 
    Even if you were ‘around at the birth of Illustrator’ (or even—ahem—Pagemaker, on one of these anyone? Please say yes…) technical skills aren’t the be-all and end-all. You can learn these in time, but ideas are your true gold, and must come first.

    Good drawing skill with a pencil is the best companion you can give to your ideas, at least to begin with.

  8. Follow your gut instinct.
    It’s your business, and whatever advice you receive, you do know, deep down, what you want. Resigning from that previously-mentioned BBC job was a huge leap of instinctive faith, and few people really understood why I did it. Made no sense to anyone. But I’m still here, my smile is much bigger these days, and the quality of my work is so much better too.

    And yet…

  9. Seek counsel and advice from the older, wiser design owls.
    Those who have been there and done it have a lot of gold to share.

    Finally:

  10. If it gives you wings, even if you’re ‘an 11 year old white kid from Leicester’, it’s okay to rap like a lovely, obsessed geek. Honestly, this guy sums just about everything on this list list right up. Such a sweetie.

 

Not complicated, but real, and honest, and I’m very grateful to be amongst these lovely people trying to figure out how to keep things moving with bucketloads of style.

Big thanks to all you wonderful speakers, and hopefully WEDF will share a list of who you are again because, I’ll be honest, I’d had some wine and my brain wasn’t taking detailed notes. Here’s to the next 10 years!

 

{Today’s Soundtrack: SBTRKT – Pharaohs}

The Agony of Brand Identity

I’ve become quite uncomfortable about lots of the words we use to describe our working life. They are all so loaded, and I don’t think they’re always that helpful, or even reflect what we’re actually doing. BRAND IDENTITY is definitely one of those terms.

Do you really need a ‘brand’ identity?

No, you don’t. Well, actually yes, but I don’t think it’s really about ‘brand’ now. Here’s why:

There was a doc about Joy Division on BBC4 recently. Bernard Sumner was reflecting back on the band’s successes before Ian Curtis’ heartbreaking death, and was asked about their sense of image, design, their look. He got annoyed. Really annoyed. All that mattered to them was making and being immersed in the purity of their music, but the music industry always wants image, to create personal brands that look great on posters, and this, he said, steals from our raw, real-human-being truth. His was a righteous anger about branding at large, which he says is manipulative and dishonest, ultimately a mask to hide behind. It’s a false front, deceiving people by creating an illusion of perfection and desire.

Fierce words. It’s nothing we don’t know, though, so where does it leave us?

It helps to think about context.

In the 1980s, late 70s, Sumner’s words will have been so, so true. The Bakelite sheen over life was superseded by big hair and shoulder pads, almost designed to keep reality at bay. Ads of the time make us smirk with their falseness, and the Mad Men marketing campaigns make us squirm under the sleeze. Today, offensively huge, janglingly rich empires exist for the 1% because the 99% have bought into the myth.

Sick of a hollow happiness promise from the world’s gigantic brands, more of us just want to break free and find independent solutions to our problems that involve real people being honest, making and sharing stuff from the very heart of that beautifully messy confusion that real life actually is.

Grow your own, close to source, fairly, ethically and lovingly crafted. For those of us who choose different paths in our work, to do something that matters, how can we approach the matter of brand identity and marketing with some sense of integrity?

While I agree with Mr. Sumner to a point, I think what we mean by ‘brand’ is so much more nuanced than it was at the angry birth of punk. It’s because we have tried that other way for generations, and watched it go wrong, lots of us are now trying something new, in numbers, and with massive encouragement to each other to do the same. Our future on this planet depends on it! Because we now live and communicate the way we do, we are finding better ways to represent ourselves and our expertise truthfully, but still with some style, grace, elegance, wit, character…

My lovely punk, lost in Paris

My lovely punk, lost in Paris

We need to think about how we come across, but not hide behind a false image that tricks the world into thinking we’ve got something we haven’t. We’ll get so found out. Maybe we could replace the words ‘brand identity’ with ‘visual identity’, and see how they fit as we explore a new way now.

No one has the same face as you, or fingerprint, or voice, so let your Visual Identity be as honest and unique and full of character and stamina and life and breath and changing seasons as you are. Let the design of your visual identity evolve naturally, powerfully, with real sincerity, to reflect that purity of your best work. Thinking of it like that, nothing’s being stolen from anyone.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Why and how to build a visual kit box

I’m feeling a bit sad now that summer dwindles off over the hill, and all camp action is (probably) done for this year. Too soon!

Here at my desk I’m dreaming back on those easy days of barefoot slobbing on balmy sites in France this summer, taking a designer’s aesthetic and organisational pride in the state of our pitch in order that maximum camp satisfaction can be achieved.

Let me tell you, this wouldn’t happen without The Grey Box. The Grey Box is like our Mission Control, full of essential camping weirdness (mallet to lighters to multitools, tealights and tent pegs, etc) that keeps a trip going smoothly. By far, it takes up the most space in the boot but we’d be lost without it.

And why do you need to know about The Grey Box?

Because having a lovingly prepared kit box makes the difference between shambolic and triumphant operations.

We all need a work-related ‘Grey Box’ when it’s time to get our great messages out, I reckon. A kit of parts that has a useful tool tucked away for certain occasions – right through from a simple business card to a big, bold manifesto.

In my visual world, I want ideas to be the heroes, and I think the world needs much better words and ideas to focus on. So it figures that we need loads of different ways to make sure that happens*.

*I ran through some of these in my last post.

If being prepared can only be born of experience, making clanging errors and learning from them, then it’s alright to take time to build your kit box slowly but surely. Watching your business grow over time, you will learn what works and what doesn’t for you, for your style and what you have to say.

You may hit moments of horror or frustration, realising there’s a key piece of stuff missing from your kit yet not enough time to get that together (eg. “Agh, wouldn’t it be perfect if I’d done that little booklet and could give her this right now!”)

Nevermind, I say. You will figure it out, because your message and ideas grow from travelling a brave path that’s taken a lot of graft to follow, and if you just turned up in your pants alone I bet you’d still communicate the lovely essence and quality of all you hold true. (BTW. Please don’t just turn up in your pants. That was not an invitation.)

Communicating your lovely ideas is an adventure. It takes time and experience to build the kit you need. Let the path unfold, have fun exploring, see what your people engage with and set up camp there for a while. Listen, and have faith in the journey. 

You’ll soon figure out what you need when you find [the thing you didn’t know was a thing] is not there in your kit box.

A bit like arriving at your campsite and realising the rubber hose connecting the gas bottle to the cooker is missing… (sorry about that M – add it to the checklist?)

So, wherever your adventures in thought and work and life take you, happy devoted kit building, people!

On the banks of Lake Taupo, NZ

Touring Lake Taupo, NZ

how to engage with a designer : pt1



Sometimes the thought of talking to a designer or agency about your visual stuff just feels tricky. It shouldn’t. 

Whether you’ve had experience working with designers before, or are new to the game, what’s best to focus on when weighing up design services on offer? I reckon connecting person to person has a massive amount to do with helping your communication mission taking off smoothly right from the start.

I outlined some key things to think about in a previous post. Here, I’ll concentrate on the emotional aspects of these initial chats, that can so often get forgotten about but which I think drive our projects. 

Today’s focus is on the heartfelt considerations in choosing the right person to work with.

First of all, are they proven? 
Simple (perhaps obvious) one to start off – do you like their online portfolio and does it show their relevant skill? If it gets your heart going that’s a really good thing! 
 
You may get excited by examples of their work and see something you feel really speaks your language. That’s obviously a good sign. An emotional response means that their way of saying things is visually resonating somewhere deep down, and is a potentially powerful tool for getting your message across too.
Visual language can connect in a heartbeat. Listen to that.
 
Some designers have a distinct style, and it may or may not hit the right notes for you. That’s okay – not everyone goes for the same things, the way not everyone likes the same music. 
 
Perhaps you found them through referral, so what do others say? 
 
 
Second, what does their biography say? 
Check out their track record on a biography page. Is it rounded, relevant and interesting? 
Someone with a bit of life experience will not be phased by twists and turns that inevitably go with building a business, and the changing demand on your brand design or visual content as a result. 
Awards? Well, yes of course they are nice, but they aren’t everything. I say this having won a few awards, and also spent years being out and about making adventurous projects happen too, so can definitely see both sides here.
 
Sometimes people with the most interesting life stories will bring just the perspective you need to make good decisions about your communication. 

Remember, this is about character. Do they have it, and do you like it?
Next is empathy.
Do not underestimate the value of empathy.
 

Do they get you? Do you get them? Do you like them? 

Once you have met up, have they listened to you, and asked relevant questions that help get to the heart of the matter? 

On the unusual and non-linear orbit of design and visual communication, having personal empathy for one another will really help in negotiating the right course.
And do you respect each other?
 

Choose to believe that that great biography counts for a lot, that they really know their stuff about how humans communicate, and are also willing to talk to you about that in plain english! 

However, in the middle of this, are you reassured that they understand and respect your expertise, challenges, market, audience, budget? This is so important.

Mutual respect for the expertise you both bring will carry you an awful long way. Be prepared to ask vulnerable questions and listen out for wise insights they offer in response. 

 
To jointly realise those dreams for your business, showing trust and being able to let go a little will be important, but it goes both ways. Do aim to meet face to face, at least with a video call if not in person. We all pick up more than we imagine this way. And finally…
Don’t be bowled over by swagger and bullshit. Please. The world will be a much better place without that.
***

So to sum up:

Does their work make your heart beat faster?
Do you like their character?
Do you empathise with each other?
Do you respect each other?

And DON’T be bowled over by arrogance.

When I think of my favourite projects of all time, respect and empathy have been mutually present all the way through, and have been crucial to overcoming hurdles along the way. 

I’ll pick up in my next post to talk about some of more practical considerations, such as budget and project management. In the meantime, enjoy the soundtrack and do get in touch with thoughts, questions or useful experiences – it’s always good to swap notes then we design people can learn how to do it better.

***
 

“Sometimes you feel so deserted,
but hold on ’cause help’s on the way”

{Today’s Soundtrack: The Chemical Brothers – Sometimes I Feel So Deserted}

Halfway Down a Long Path

Now roughly half way through this 100 Days project, I want to take a moment to check in with some ideas that have occurred as I’ve progressed, and the reasons for taking a break before continuing.

As mentioned at some point in recent posts, rattling through 100 Days really is a long time to be rattling, and is rattling really a good use of my precious time? What am I learning here? What is better in the world as a result? It’s a long time to keep mechanically repeating a task or approach with either no critical judgement—”I’m just doing it for its own sake, and that is good enough.”—or with no sense of direction either.

I realise I want direction. 

I realise I want the wealth of all those days to add up to something significant.

I want that wealth of thought or effort to show either in a resolved, embedded attitude of mind, and/or better skills, and a rewarding body of work too.

Agreed – sometimes its important to just play as that’s when your mind can loosen up and become free enough to let new things happen.
Somewhere in here though is a neat point about the purpose of regular discipline and the benefit in forming a new habit. By definition, a new habit will not be so polished to begin with. Being accountable to the world by sharing all this online amplifies inevitable personal vulnerabilities, and maybe these last couple of weeks I just needed to take a breath and then here’s the next thing I realise:

I realise that being publicly accountable with the things you make day after day is a little nerve-wracking and slightly exhausting, and quite difficult to do unless you have the strength of a rhino, which I don’t

This began with the question, “What could you do with 100 days of making?”
I have a new question. Now I have glimpsed what’s possible and I know the effort involved, how can I make my next 50 days really count? 
 
{Today’s Soundtrack: Shivum Sharma – Flicker}

_how to commission a designer


Wouldn’t it be nice if we all talked the same language. 

When asking the advice of an expert, ever get that feeling we’re on different planets? 

I think about this a lot, aware of the uncomfortable times people have come to me and apologised up front for not having ‘the design jargon’. (That’s not necessary, by the way.) 

“Am I asking all the right questions? Can I trust this advice? How much??’
Design-land, and talking to designers, feels like alien territory to lots of smart people who need their help. Why is that? 
Maybe because we design folk don’t think in straight lines, solutions come from all angles, and the process seems unpredictable to many. It can look from the outside as if we’re just making things up. Well, there’s the weird thing – we are making things up, but I hope in an informed and insightful way. 

Good visual communication is about lateral ideas, making something out of nothing, creating useful focal points in an empty space. It’s all about making things up, in a good way, and it’s a wonderful, problem-solving thing to be able to do.

How, then, do you engage with this person and come to trust in a strange process? How do you gain confidence in a designer you don’t know?
Simply, at least in an enquiry and the early conversations when you’re thinking about commissioning someone, I believe it boils down to the following checklist: 

  • Are they proven – what is their online portfolio like, and do you like it? 
  • Is their biography interesting and relevant? Do they come with some life experience?
  • Do you share an empathy for one another’s mission?
  • Is there mutual respect between you as you find out about one another’s expertise?
And then practical things like: 
  • Budget – what can you expect for your cash?
  • Project management – are processes fair and efficient both ways? 
  • Deadlines – setting and keeping them.
  • And finally, do you actually like them?!
In the interests of interplanetary relations, I’ll go into each of these things in more detail through a couple of linked posts to follow, but it may be handy to keep these questions close to hand next time you want to talk to a design person about your design needs
Do keep in touch and let us know if you have experiences that would be useful to share with others about all this. I’ll leave you for now with a topical soundtrack, and wish you every success as you chart your design journeys!
{Today’s Soundtrack: David Bowie – Life on Mars}