Cheltenham Design Festival v 3.0

Well, the dust has settled on the 3rd Annual Cheltenham Design Festival, and I was keen not to simply throw my thoughts into the immediate ‘post event’ twitterstorm. Similarly, I don’t want to just focus on the talks I attended, as this would be unfairly biased toward those that appealed to my tastes alone, and I am as keen as the rest of the trustees to see this festival become ever more successful and a regular slot on the Cheltenham festival calendar.

Regardless of my personal observations, it was fair to say that the calibre of the visiting speakers was once again incredibly high, as was the overall vibe from visitors on the festival days.

I’m in a fairly privileged position – a) Square Banana is based in the heart of Cheltenham – a stone’s throw from the festival venue, b) I have met some of the trustees and have a sense of what they are trying to achieve with this, c) I am fairly well versed in the design disciplines supported and have a decent working knowledge of the speakers attending each year and d) I am not directly involved in the organisation of the festival nor get involved in the peripheral activity, other than to fiercely promote it to the wider world through the channels we have available. In these circumstances, it allows me to observe from near and yet enjoy the spoils with a modicum of insider knowledge.

It should be worth noting that prior to the festival, the trustees invited the great and the good of the design/creative fraternity in Cheltenham to discuss the intentions of the festival and to politely coax anyone interested in being a part of it, to throw their hat into the ring. We will see what comes of that exercise in due course and how the dynamic of any future organisational team will steer the festival in a new, fresher direction, or whether it will slow it down with politics. Whomever does become involved, I truly hope they do so for the greater good of the festival, rather than any misplaced intentions to climb the ‘notice me’ ladder.

So… what of my observations?
Like any half decent blog, I thought it might be worth creating some form of easily digestible list!


1. Laandaan tahn.

I guess my radar is finely tuned to this aspect of any event as, having worked in London (albeit only for a year or so), there is a tendency for all so-called ‘design’ events to be heavily weighted in that direction. Whilst there were quite a number of talks that were encouragingly inclusive and eclectically European, there was still the lingering air of ‘visiting the outlying territories to spread the word’. The panel discussion particularly did nothing to make me feel that those residing and working within London had any awareness or mutual respect for those businesses doing marvellous things in the apparent wilderness outside the M25…other than a little tokenism when it dawned on them that the audience was ‘not from London’. I don’t blame the speakers per se, as they are simply responding to an invitation to speak at a design festival, but it would be refreshing to see more UK based speakers who might bring a more holistic view of the wider British creative industries to the festival. More than that, how about some that are deemed ‘local’?


2. Don’t assume old isn’t new.

There is a tendency to see the young as shiny and maverick, whilst respectfully listening to the old as ‘experienced’ and knowledgable. In large swathes of our industry this is relatively true, but what struck me about the ‘tête-a-tête’ between Ken Garland and Sir Ken Grange at the conclusion of the festival was just how bloody sharp and aware they both were. They demonstrated that – whilst, like many from their generation, they still lament some elements of our inexhaustible technological march forward – they are just as aware of the human-centric issues facing modern society as any ‘top of their game’ social commentator, and the acute need to positively encourage the young to be creatively nurtured. They were both astute, erudite and amazingly relevant to modern design thinking. I could have listened to them talk to each other all day, and as a result I have a suggestion for the festival…

With guests as brilliant as these guys (and who need no curating as such) I would prefer to have them simply sit in two comfortable chairs facing each other and get them to discuss a subject of their choice. A ‘host’ constantly asking them banal questions like “Who inspires you?” does nothing to allow their conversation to flow freely, it constantly interrupts the anecdotal flow and doesn’t give the conversation a chance to meander off into really interesting territories. With lives and creative back-catalogues as rich as the two Kens have, an hour and a half of them chatting to each other with a loose agenda to discuss a few salient issues would be marvellous to watch….in my humble opinion. Not quite ‘an audience with…’, more of a ‘conversation earwigging’.


3. Indefinable design

In many of the talks I attended from individual speakers, it was clear that the ‘defined design discipline’ model is fast disappearing. Many people working within the broad umbrella of ‘design’ are no longer ‘graphic’ or ‘product’ or ‘digital’ designers. They seem to be more holistic enablers or creative keystones to businesses that are developing intangibles and services that are defying definitions – a notable example being Jack Schulze of BERG. As an experienced product designer and having heard him speak for an hour, I’m still a little unsure as to exactly what he does…despite him making it sound incredibly interesting and fulfilling!

Another aspect of this ambiguity or discipline-blending is the overarching issue of defining the word ‘design’ itself. Within our own ‘creative industry sector’ we have enough issues agreeing on a singular – often horribly broad – definition of the word amongst ourselves, so how on earth can we expect the wider ‘non-design’ sectors to possibly get a solid handle on what we do as an industry? Finance, hospitality, healthcare are all easily to digest, but ‘design’ is an indeterminable goo that can be used as a verb, a noun, an adjective or pretty much any other way the user chooses. The ‘Creativity in Britain’ panel discussion – as with last year’s session – got itself in a right tangle when using the terms ‘creative industries’ or ‘design’. It ended up skimming the surface or every argument and discussion point with rhetoric, cliché and excuses that left me feeling a little despondent to be perfectly honest. I’m not entirely sure that these panel sessions do anything but confuse. The guest are too polite to steamroller, and no-one is given the opportunity to really deepen their arguments. Whilst I’m always keen to see these panel discussions when they are advertised, I would prefer this format to be ditched in favour of something different. Something that allows the speakers to engage with the audience more swiftly or discuss the subject matter more fully.


4. Ideas rock

Following on from the emerging central, omni-skilled, design figurehead, it is apparent that ideas rule the modern world. And I mean proper ideas. Ideas that are rooted in understanding behaviour and people, rather than some half-arsed technology that needs a brand or reason to exist. The combination of these design polymaths and well rooted ideas is looking like it might change the world. Investors seem to be understanding the real value of design and not just ‘something Apple do’. A good number of the talks I attended really emphasised the greatness of good honest ideas and thinking about a real problem. In most cases, it was the thinking behind the idea, rather than the implementation of the solution that commanded the greatest respect of the audience. This in itself is phenomenally reassuring to see, at a time when we in the design industry are being bombarded with spurious tat about 3D Printing and how it’s going to change the world. I’m hoping that the same spirit of ‘idea hunting’ will rub off on the 3DP fraternity and we can finally put to bed the inconsequential whimsy of much of the 3D Printing spin we are subjected to. I for one would love to work with a 3D Printing business to help them shape something worthy from well honed origins.


5. Spirit of recklessness

I am in two minds about this next observation. It appears that whilst society and business is accepting of the more cavalier, design-centric, kickstarting ‘entrepreneur’, it is similarly accepting and encouraging of the ‘fail hard, fail fast’ mentality that so often accompanied the stock market cowboys of our recent past. On the one hand, it is clear that more people are having the audacity and confidence to throw convention to the wind and try new things, but too many people are being told that creating, developing and selling your own product – be in tangible or intangible – is incredibly easy…all you need is a camera, a kickstarter pitch and some flouncy renderings. “Hey, don’t worry about failing! You’re not a real entrepreneur until you’ve failed and lost your first million!” You can almost see the billboard writing itself. The design festival hosted a number of talks that seemingly promoted this mentality in the spirit of creative abandon and whilst I think that it is fantastic to encourage everyone to positively engage with their inner designer as an outlet for creativity, it needs to be done with caution. Although slightly less dramatic, it is akin to expecting people to start doing their own surgery. The skills that a product designer develops in understanding the multifaceted world of product creation are wide ranging and often complex. To suggest that ‘anyone’ can simply compete on the world stage with a home 3D Printer, a blog and a twitter account is a tad foolhardy. I fully appreciate that I am exaggerating somewhat but it may be more responsible to explain either a) the funding channels (and inherent complexities/negotiations) that allowed said idea to come to fruition or b) indicate the pitfalls that can often accompany the product development process. I’m all in favour of enabling people to create, but do it with more responsibility and less bravado.

I sense that I am veering off into a standalone blog post with this one, so I’ll terminate before I get carried away!


6. Variety, variety, variety

On initial inspection of the festival lineup when it hit our desks, I was a little underwhelmed by the general, across the board ‘recognition level’ of the names involved. I’ll admit now that I was being snooty and elitist. Last year saw a plethora of grand dames of the design industry grace the stage – a hugely impressive lineup that would put ANY design conference, festival or seminar to shame. However, having been to both, this year’s lineup had a much more rounded feel to it. To be able to go from a talk about interior space, vibrancy and colour with Morag Myerscough to an inspiring anecdotal talk about people and stories by Erik Kessels to an intense overview of the amazing innovations loaded into the new Range Rover to a chat by Mark Champkins about the Science museum and his life in invention was thoroughly inspiring. On reflection, I think more speakers from less well known, but equally interesting corners of the design and innovation space would really help to inspire all those that attend…not simply preaching to the converted i.e. BY designers TO designers. Stuff convention. Let’s try and broaden everyone’s horizons. More Jack Schulze. More Erik Kessels. To use a word oft quoted to Steve Jobs…more misfits please!

Whilst I may seem critical of some aspects, I am still a huge supporter of the festival and think that it has built up a hugely credible momentum. I went to as many talks as I could feasibly manage (and had the cramp to show for it!) and enjoyed every single one. It was great to have Sir Kenneth Grange on the one hand – a sage like Jedi of the design world – on the same bill as Kirsty Pinnell – a youthful, exuberant materials geek from the Williams F1 team talking about composite moulds! No talk any less relevant than the other.

I guess my main gripes are promotion and attendance. As with last year, it was clear that there is a distinct bias towards local undergraduate students and graphic design (not unsurprising really). Many talks were apparently sold out and yet the audience numbers in the auditoria did not reflect this, with about a third of seats vacant in many cases. As a passionate supporter of wider design awareness, I felt a little embarrassed on behalf of Cheltenham that the calibre of some of the speakers were not attended to the levels they deserve – a particular example being Laura Jordan Bambach of D&AD who should have commanded a packed house. After three years of the festival, I would have expected to see more attendees from the design industry present – it certainly has the clout and gravitas to do so. Maybe there should be more business related networking events to run alongside? Something to entice the design business types away from their studio desks and towards a fertile, opportune festival in Cheltenham. Can we tie up with a local venue to do some form of dinner or conference to coincide with the festival? Lots to think about.

It has been useful to compare 2 very different events that effectively have the same intention. On the one hand we have the 2 day, Cheltenham Design Festival with a list of talks attended by predominantly students, the public and a handful of local professionals. On the other we have the 1 day Develop3D Live event crammed full of speakers but with an attendee list consisting mainly of industry professionals. My experience of each was very different. I went to the CDF to hear as many of the speakers as possible and try to grab chance opportunities to speak to them (with varying levels of success). I went to D3DLive to listen to a few choice speakers but mainly to talk and meet with like minded individuals. I felt more ‘inspired’ by the CDF because of what I heard at the talks, but more ‘energised’ and connected by who I met at the D3D Live event. Each has their merits and failings, and two very different target audiences (of which I happen to overlap) but there are elements of each that I would urge each other to consider. I will eagerly continue to attend both events and each year, will most likely wish that – as this year – they cross-pollinate.

So here’s to CDF v4.0 in 2015. I haven’t even touched on the great work that the trustees do with school kids with their Saturday design schools, but notwithstanding that, I think the festival itself is going from strength to strength, and the very fact that the ‘obvious’ candidates have already visited and spoken at the festival these past 3 years, means we are in for a treat in years to come as more modern and game-changing individuals are sought to inspire multiple generations to create, empower and enable great ideas for our ever-fragile future.

Bravo.
Carry on.
I for one will be flying the flag for the festival as long as I have arms!

Got an idea? Do something about it!

On the 4th and 5th April, Cheltenham hosts the third iteration of its Design Festival.

Between the 31st March and 6th April, we are hosting the @Chelt52 twitter account.

With these two events coinciding, we thought it might be nice to do something of interest, relating to design and the local area and culminating in this first week of April.

How about a competition?
But not a competition with a chintzy prize.
Something useful.

We know that there are plenty of people out there with ideas for products. Not just designers, business types or entrepreneurs. Just people. Some of these ideas are utter rubbish and shouldn’t be given any more attention than a goldfish’s twitter feed. But some are good. Great even. Really great.

But, as we so often find, most of these ideas are left to rot. This can be for many reasons, but when it comes to an idea for a ‘thing’ and making an idea ‘real’, very few people actually know how to do it or who to turn to. Some people turn to patent agents, who charge them every penny they have to protect an idea that hasn’t had a chance to be nurtured and developed into something worthy. Others go to a factory somewhere with a tatty sketch and ask them to ‘make it’, with the resultant ‘thing’ making a dog’s dinner look like a fashion statement.

Some of these ideas – thankfully – make it to somewhere like Square Banana*, where we can treat them with the delicacy and creativity they often deserve. As a previous design boss of mine once said (I paraphrase somewhat) “Ideas are extremely fragile, they can be killed with a sneer. Treat them with respect and build on them.” Most people never have the confidence to take an idea for a product further than the dinner party conversation where they were first mentioned, and often because the person listening didn’t understand the brilliance of it and killed it with a shrug of their ignorant shoulders and a demeaning chortle.

*Square Banana is a product design consultancy. We specialise in creating products for people. We know how to take an idea and turn it into a living, breathing, manufacturable product which can be sold, bought, used and cherished. For a bit more info, have a read of our website at www.squarebanana.co.uk

The other, rather important thing that prevents ideas from flourishing into something real, is money. Good old hard cash. You will have heard countless anecdotes from Dragon’s Den failures stating how they have re-mortgaged their house to ‘follow their dream’ or donated all of their kidneys to ‘fund a marketing campaign’. It takes money to bring an idea into this world as a practical, commercial, relevant ‘thing’. Money that many people do not have. It seems unfair that only people with money or a proven track record should be allowed to have ideas for products. Surely everyone is capable of having a great idea for something?

That’s where we’d like to help.
We’d like to offer our expertise to someone with a brilliant idea….for free!

We would like to help someone take that flash of inspiration and give it some specialist TLC. Sprinkle it with creative magic dust and elbow grease to breathe some commercial life into it. Whatever it may be.

> So, the criteria…

  1. We would like ideas that have the potential to be physical products.
  2. We are really interested in the idea itself. The spark. We are very used to helping businesses take intangible opportunities and turn them into product realities, so you don’t necessarily have to know what it might be or how it might look. Leave that to us.
  3. We are not really interested in products that are of no real use to people or society. There should be a good reason for its existence and it should positively improve the world around us – however you choose to interpret that statement. It can be a tiny little improvement or a massive one.
  4. You have the desire and ambition to take your idea further. If all goes well, there may be opportunities to take the idea to market, so we want you to want this too!
  5. Be realistic. We don’t have the capacity to redesign a hovercraft or a space rocket!
  6. You need to be within fairly easy reach of our studio in Cheltenham. We are passionate about this area and would love the idea to come from the hidden depths of Gloucestershire or the adjoining regions.

> What we will do…

(With our cub-scout salute at the ready) We will promise to help the winning idea with what we refer to as a ‘Concept Design Phase’. This is what we do with pretty much every ‘idea based’ project that we work on. It’s where we take the idea and give it some life. We consider as many aspects of the idea as we can with a view to creating a solid, well-thought out product solution ‘concept’. We will consider how it is used, how it could be made, how it should function, how it might look and how much it might cost – amongst many other things. The resultant output from this chunk of work will be a resolved, visual, product concept that will look deceptively real. It is what many businesses commonly use to convince customers or investors of the worthiness and relevance of their idea before they commit to lengthy development programmes or expensive manufacturing processes. It is the ‘leap’ from hair brained idea to the first semblance of commercial reality. Such a design phase would be worth several thousand pounds under normal circumstances!

> What we need from you…

  1. An explanation of your idea, as simply as you can manage. This can be as detailed as you see fit, but bear in mind that a really good idea can be described in a fairly simple sentence. If it takes you several pages of 10 point, cross-referenced, legal jargon to explain the fundamentals of the idea, it’s probably too complicated!
  2. It can be typed, scribbled or drawn. It matters not if the idea is a good one. Just make it clear, legible and understandable.
  3. Your details. Who you are, where you live and what you do. You can be any age. All that we ask is that you have the time, energy and inclination to come and see us from time to time and work with us to bring your idea to life. We want people who are passionate about new ideas and making something that little bit better.
  4. You need to send your idea submission to us via email to contact@squarebanana.co.uk with ‘Mine’s the best idea!‘ in the subject field.

> How will we choose the winning idea?

Once we have received all of the submissions, we will sit down and review every single one. As a studio, we will choose the best idea amongst ourselves, but broadly speaking, we will be looking for;

  1. Originality
  2. Relevance to people and wider society
  3. Potential (local, national and global)
  4. Something that gets us excited…that indefinable ‘X’ factor.

Ultimately, we want to work on something that is incredibly exciting, and that we can see huge potential for (in every respect). This could emerge as easily from a dishevelled school pupil, a frustrated accountant, a scientific recluse or a retired shed-tinkerer. The idea is the hero here.

The closing date for submissions will be the 31st March, and we will be sharing what we can (some things need to remain confidential to allow the idea to be developed!) of the most interesting submissions and the shortlisted ideas with everyone via the @Chelt52 and @rbsquarebanana twitter accounts. Following this, we will be looking to meet with those shortlisted to have a chat, before announcing the winner as soon as we can.

We hope to involve the local (and wider trade) press, and would encourage any local businesses that would like to get involved with judging, sponsorship, partnership or any other offer that might give the winning idea even more life than we can, to get in touch. If anyone is interested, then please contact us directly via contact@squarebanana.co.uk or connect via LinkedIn here.

So I will leave you to cogitate, contemplate, ruminate and deliberate, and look forward to receiving those ideas in due course!

(If you have any questions relating to anything mentioned above, then please add your comment below and we will respond in turn.)

“I’m A Product Designer, Get Me Out Of Here!”

As tends to be the case, the subject matter for my blog posts emerges from unexpected social media banter and ‘discourse’. This is no exception, although it’s taken me a while to get around to writing anything down.

Late last year, there was a flurry – albeit rather short lived – about the need for more ‘celebrity’ role models within the product design and engineering fraternity (here is one such article), in an attempt to cajole and pressgang…sorry…inspire fresh young things into the profession that is apparently failing in this regard. In reading this ‘call to arms’ I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt. In agreeing with it, was I effectively opening my industry up to opportunistic, shallow, media loving types masquerading as product designers, or by disagreeing, was I selfishly wanting this discipline I hold dear to remain relatively unknown to the masses?

Having notionally considered this over the indulgent Christmas break, I’m fairly sure that whilst many designers are inherently self-confident and mildly arrogant about ‘their way being the best way’ (a trait not uncommon in the ‘best’ of celebrities), the broad culture of celebrity just doesn’t sit well with the core values we tend to hold true.

I will generalise horribly now, but from what I can see, our culture of celebrity tends to favour the immediate. Whether it is because ‘we’ (and by ‘we’ I mean the mass populous) can instantly understand what it is they do i.e. actor, singer, swimmer, model, comedian or whether we can immediately understand the by-product of their skills – for instance – wealth in the case of Sir Richard Branson or power in the case of a politician, it nonetheless offers an immediacy of understanding. I have no doubt that in making such a broad statement, I have laid myself bare to examples that fit neither of these, but bear with me.

I struggle to think of either A or B list celebrities that fundamentally do something that we need a little more time to fathom or that require more than a press soundbite to explain.

Our own, inward facing trade press is often filled with discussions about how exactly we should all describe ourselves and there are countless, petty arguments about the so-called wider reach of ‘industrial’ design over the seemingly lesser ‘product’ design (to be fair, I have my own opinion on this, but I still recognise that it is essentially, infighting). If I ever get asked at a dinner party or other such social gathering about “What I do…” I find myself having to use examples and a flip chart to even get across the simplest elements of the job. I tend to defer to using better understood professions to help in my explanation… “I sit halfway between an engineer and an artist” is a phrase I can often hear myself uttering. I will now apologise to both ‘engineers’ and ‘artists’ for my generalisation of their skills in helping to define my own!

To be honest, even the word ‘design’ has become a bit of a slag. It’s happy to attach itself to anyone or anything that has even the slimmest shaving of creativity. To be honest, if it wasn’t so integral a word, I’m sure most of the true design profession would cast it off into the wilderness. It sits in the same trashy cupboard as the words ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘innovative’. We are presented with so many, so-called ‘innovative designs’ that the terms themselves have become as utterly worthless as the empty, vacuous products they tend to describe.

Many proud and influencial people within our industry have gone to great lengths to attempt to explain the depth and breadth of design scope, but this in itself has made it ever harder to define it in a single, palatable phrase. Steve Jobs had a go. Dieter Rams did it in a series of 10 rules, and I have no doubt that he probably struggled to whittle it down to just 10! If you do a simple Google of what “Design is…” you are struck by quite how many definitions there are…and all can be argued as valid to a greater or lesser degree (and that’s simply within my own discipline, which is a subset of the wider design industry). It also doesn’t help very much, that in an industry where you are expected to be different and to stand out creatively, each and every design business has its own definition of the process and of ‘an’ approach. It’s a Catch-22. If we all agree to a singular definition that the mass populous will understand and unite behind a digestible manifesto, we may effectively admit that we are all offering the same thing.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I was inspired to design because it seemed to offer me an opportunity to satisfy the multi-faceted interests and skills I inherently had (or wanted to have!). I liked art but I didn’t want to be an artist. I liked the sciences but didn’t want to be a scientist. I liked mathematics, but didn’t want to be an accountant. I liked taking things apart and then building them again. I liked drawing, but not necessarily what was in front of me. I liked people and what made them tick. I liked finding things out by asking people – having conversations. In truth, as I have aged, I have found my interest in different subjects has shifted markedly, and yet the job I do has allowed me – in some way – to satisfy all of these cravings. It’s more than being a ‘Jack of all trades’ as I’ve often thought of it, as this infers that you have a poor knowledge of everything. And yet, I can’t claim to be a true master of anything either. Go figure.

I’m not entirely sure that anything about celebrity and what it currently stands for, could ever satiate our industry or represent it with the backing of those within it. I know that many product designers welcomed the Philippe Starck ‘X-factor-esque’ TV programme before it aired, but immediately slated and mocked it the minute it did. Not because Starck is any less bonkers than we expected him to be, or that his design work is less worthy than it was (that itself is open to debate), but the format of celebrity – namely the TV – did not lend itself to the depth and multi-faceted nature of the subject matter. We were more interested in the in-fighting, back stabbing and ridiculousness of the presentations and justifications than we were in learning about the wonderful influence of the design profession on our everyday world (incidentally, I have had the pleasure of meeting a few of the candidates from the show since it aired and it didn’t do them any justice). It fuelled the argument that design is flounce and fluff with no apparent depth. We shot ourselves in the foot.

We can’t be as unique and individual as the true artist, because we are tasked with working within pre-determined constraints, cost targets and to appeal to as many people within a target market as possible. Those designers who attempt to forge a celebrity status struggle with one-off commissions, badged associations and form led statement pieces and as a result tend to become more artists than designers, as they ultimately design to their own brand DNA rather than those of the client. They become their own brands. They cease to be true product designers – as I understand my discipline to be. The likes of Marc Newson, Ross Lovegrove, Karim Rashid and Philippe Starck. There’s nothing wrong with that (in truth I am jealous of their abilities to do this), and it may well be the only true route to what we might call ‘celebrity status’, but it is one step removed from the act of answering a brief set by someone else and truly designed for others. As I understand it.

Whilst we are opinionated sods (I’ll speak freely on behalf of all product designers), we also understand patience and the time it takes to gradually crawl under the skin of a problem and eat away at it, until it is solved. That takes tenacity and is definitely NOT instant. That shiny, perfectly formed object that sits in front of you has been through numerous iterations, cost reductions, assembly conundrums, ergonomic and usability tweaks, client tantrums and supplier roadblocks. The end result may seem simple and straightforward, but the road that took it there was bumpy, forked and riddled with diversions and dead-ends. This is not a road easily travelled by someone seeking celebrity status. The more I think about it, the more these two worlds seem to occupy completely different solar systems.

It is testament to how complex our discipline is to fathom, that the chap responsible for designing pretty much the most influential and iconic range of products of the last 20 years – Sir Jonny Ive – is someone who, outside of the world of geek fanboys, the tech litterati and designer-land, could probably walk through most cities with only the occasional glance of ‘double take’ recognition from passers by. This is a guy who has probably affected most of the first world population, and will no doubt continue to spread his influence wider, but who plays a serious second fiddle in the celebrity stakes to Paris Hilton or Justin Bieber, both of whom have given us nothing more than annoyance and faux-pas.

If I’m honest, I quite like the difficulties associated with pinning us down. It’s a bit like trying to decipher a magician’s routine. You know it’s possible and must adhere to the laws of physics but your mind can’t quite piece it together. Personally speaking, I get a kick out of taking a problem that a client is looking to solve, and resolving it in a way they couldn’t possibly have achieved themselves. Much of it can be explained and logically deduced, but it still takes a few magic beans to make it happen.

My wife was once asked what I did as a job. Once she had put away the aforementioned flipchart, she was met with incredulity and a response along the lines of “I never even realised people like that ACTUALLY existed.” The concept that someone was responsible for defining each and every aspect of a product, ensuring that it worked, could be assembled, manufactured, appealed to the right people and was the right price (amongst many other things), completely and utterly floored this particular person. I can’t work out if that’s an insult or a compliment, but it made me realise that what I do might be something that only a small percentage of the population CAN do. I quite like that realisation.

If I had a choice, I think I would prefer to influence and inspire a handful of passionate and eager young things into product design, knowing that they will be pursuing it for its own merit and the silent impact it may have on the wider world, than promote an industry in a more sensationalistic way in an attempt to get greater visibility across the board. You might call it protectionist, but I quite like the fact that this industry and discipline requires commitment, tenacity and passion to get along. If they are not the ingredients for celebrity status then so be it.

I’ll stick to my magic beans and a future of blissful anonymity.

Farts, fixers and filler

I was all prepared with my next blog post subject matter, and was happily collating my thoughts in the typically random order you have come to expect, when I read an article about modelmaking. More specifically, this article about modelmaking. A piece by Tanya Weaver of Develop3D charting the demise of a well respected modelmaking bureau as technology has seemingly wielded its robotic 3D Printed axe upon those poor unfortunate craftsmen.

I have been tempted to wade into the debate about the incessant march of ‘instant’ prototyping versus the ‘old school’, time served skills, but many others are doing this argument justice and suggesting that – as with most things – the success of those businesses that survive is in the adoption of new techniques to supplement the old.

No. I thought my words would be better served describing the magic of the modelmaker and how – if it weren’t for these dusty sods (said affectionately) – my career would have been found somewhere in a rather soggy drain.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my design career to date, to work in design studios that not only have astounding designers, but gob-smackingly talented modelmakers. I’m not just talking about people that are ‘pretty handy with a pillar drill and some sandpaper’, but genuinely awe-inspiring individuals who can simply create anything from anything. Admittedly they do it with a heavy dose of ‘inward breath sucking’ and often still wearing their bicycle clips, but create they do.

When I first landed a job at Kinneir Dufort in Bristol, the design studio didn’t have anything safe enough to unleash this naîve young upstart of a designer on, so for the first few weeks, I was sent downstairs to the modelmaking studio, and in particular to the vacuum casting room. I won’t bore you with the specifics of vacuum casting, but most product designers of any years will have undoubtedly seen their designs prototyped using this technique. It effectively uses a master part of some form (usually an SLA but sometimes something else), which is suspended in a cheap wooden carcass. Silicone is then poured around the master part until set and then the resultant silicone mould used to create multiple PU parts to wow and amaze your clients. Simple huh? How hard can this be?

Answer…VERY.

My first job was to shadow the guys responsible for setting the master parts in the carcass. This involves suspending an often fragile, lovingly finished part in thin air in such a way as to create a perfect split line in the tool and yet leave no blemishes, marks or scuffs on the ensuing PU parts. Please remember that silicone can replicate a thumb print on a ‘car-body panel quality’ painted surface so it is remarkably unforgiving. I know how it is done. I have seen it done a hundred times. The principle is simple when haughtily describing it to clients, but I dare anyone not capable of balancing a needle on a needle to try it. Let’s just say it involves nothing more complex than some sticky tape, a glue gun and some short lengths of welding rod, but it is nigh on impossible. My most delicate of touches was the equivalent of a rhino playing golf with a medicine ball. Not good.

I still to this day, doff my hat to anyone who is capable of this!

I’d like to think of myself as a fairly capable designer. I have had the privilege of working on countless prestigious brands and products and my work – to date – seems to have courted the right kinds of noises from clients (most of the time). I can use 3D CAD. I know how stuff goes together and how it is made. I have a reasonable knowledge of materials and of how to design the right thing for the right brief. Surely, with this knowledge and the technology and software available to me, I shouldn’t need someone as antiquated and curmudgeonly as a modelmaker to realise my design ambitions? Pah!

WRONG.

Yes, many projects I’ve worked on have not had the budgets for modelmaking or prototyping, but by a considerable margin, the projects of which I am most proud have been the ones where I have worked in parallel with a talented modelmaker. Undoubtedly.

Let me rename them for a moment. A ‘modelmaker’ assumes that they simply translate your beautiful design into something tangible, simply making what you have told them to make. This could not be further from the truth. They are ‘fixers’…’magicians’ if you will. They take something you *think* you’ve resolved and really sort it out. Like one of those Heath Robinson machines from a Wallace & Gromit film, where something goes in at one end, lots of steam and farts emerge along the way, but the thing that pops out the other end is finely honed, lovingly crafted and ultimately resolved. That hinge which you thought you’d successfully developed in 3D CAD? They have somehow managed to make it work even though it was impossible to assemble. That ‘fine spark’ texture which has to somehow appear on every tiny surface (apart from that little surface there which I need to be VERY highly polished)? Yes, they’ve managed it, despite having to somehow get a bloody great spray gun into a crevice the size of an ant’s lunchbox.

These guys simply work magic. They are like the A-Team. No-one else could fashion a war machine out a few bed-springs and a loose toilet seat like B.A.Baracus. Similarly, no-one can manifest your pedantically fussy design prototype using only a reel of masking tape, a tiny triangular file and a dollop of P38. I would urge anyone who has never seen a true modelmaker at work, to find one and watch. Just watch. Like a brilliant card magician, everything appears normal and you think you’ve got a handle on what’s going on, but then WHAM! …something happens and you are left speechless. I’ve often maintained that most models should be seen by clients before they receive their final coats of paint – where you can see the final translation from sow’s ear to silk purse. Evidence of their brilliance. How they have managed to replicate all manner of production materials and impossible things on a lump of plywood and resin with a deft wrist and a crafty combination of paints, lacquers and some tactical buffing! I’ve seen a fabulously realistic tree made from a drainpipe and some newspaper. A tasty lemon slice made from some acrylic and some white modelling foam. But most importantly they have taken my half-arsed design suggestions and given them the requisite magic dust that has enabled me to confidently present them in front of an expectant client to the aforementioned correct noises.

Rapid prototyping (or 3D Printing) can only ever rely on the data it has as an input. If the person operating the CAD software is a numpty, the ‘thing’ that pops out of the machine will be the three dimensional ramblings of a numpty. There is little scope for that crude, iterative exploration with a person more capable than you, of sculpting your brain ooze into something wonderful.

I will always have the utmost respect for a genuinely good modelmaker and I have worked with some brilliant ones (at Kinneir Dufort, SeymourpowellBox+Dice and more locally, ST Modelmakers). They are often softly spoken, good natured, solid people who are invariably used to having random scribbles and impossible requests thrust upon them, each time with a sage like nod and twitching fingers at the ready.

Which is why I read Tanya’s article with a sense of sadness. Modern society bays for more techno-blood. ‘We’ want things that are antiquated and old-fashioned to be replaced by shiny, clever autobots that are linked to our computer mouse. Indeed, that know what we want even before we know it ourselves. Modern modelmaking certainly has to adapt to these new technologies, and in truth, it would be virtually impossible to create a modern design prototype without some form of rapid prototyping (the phrase we used before 3D Printing came along), but the kind of iterative prototyping that comes from a semi-resolved design solution combined with a skilled modelmaker is unrivalled. That phase of a project when you need to ‘see how it feels’ or ‘check how it might work’ and the amazing realisation of form that emerges from a lump of foam or resinwood is second to none when you have the armoury of ‘modelmaking’ – not prototyping – at your disposal.

I do lament that many projects cannot justify the costs of a good modelmaker and that design projects are conveniently steered towards more CAD time and less REAL time. But that’s the situation that commercial software development and faster project leadtimes have created. We have – as an industry – pushed this beautiful part of the design process out. We’ve found quicker, slicker ways of doing the same thing, but I would argue that many products have suffered as a result. Less ‘consideration’ time. A lower appreciation of the ‘whole’. Fewer opportunities to ‘experiment’ in the earlier stages.

So there may be many reasons why the advancement of technology in modelmaking and prototyping is a good thing. I use these very advancements in our studio projects every week and find it hard to argue with the timings, costs and advantages. But I do sense that we may well look back in a few years and see that we have no options but to use this technology alone. The craftsmen, the magicians, the fixers have become operators, programmers and CAD-peeps.

I for one, will regret that moment when it arrives.

Red pill, Blue pill or a Babelfish?

Morpheus > “Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo > “The Matrix?
Morpheus > “Do you want to know what it is?
Neo > nods
Morpheus > “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to Church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been put over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo > “What truth?
Morpheus > “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell, or taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
Morpheus > “This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back.
Morpheus > “You take the blue pill….the story ends, you wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you want to.
Morpheus > “You take the red pill….you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Anyone over the age of about 26 will immediately recognise this as the memorable scene from The Matrix. Anyone under 26 will probably refer to this film as ‘retro’.

So why on earth have I started this blog post with an old film script?

In deciding what to write about, I have been considering a number of topics, but one particular subject that resonated most as a subject for discussion, was the infernal battle between designer and client. I say battle in the nicest possible way. I’m talking about the wall of misunderstanding, the metaphorical ‘behind the desk’ entanglement of cables, the push-me pull-you of Dr. Doolittle if you will.

I’ll use another anecdote to preface my ramblings…

Many years ago, Square Banana was invited to work on a great new project for a large energy company. It was to help them define, design and develop a product that monitored both gas and electricity for domestic consumers, and at the time, there was very little to benchmark such a thing. At the initial project meeting, there were the usual suspects from the client side, all comfortably surrounded by their powerpoint slides, line management, gantt charts and ‘targets’. All very lovely people. But all completely clueless about this rather superfluous and fluffy world of ‘design’ (cue exaggerated air finger action). I had been introduced as someone who knew how to ‘manufacture the idea’ – not a designer of any sort, and notwithstanding the fact that nothing currently existed in any shape or form on which to comment or advise. I won’t bore you with the details, but one such chap, over the course of the subsequent months and as the project progressed, took a keener and keener interest in what we were doing and how we were helping the team ‘create’ someTHING.

In one such project meeting, I happened to joke – when he had taken the mickey yet again about ‘you designer types’ – that with all the work we had completed on supermarket type products, it took me hours to get around the supermarket, what with my tendency to pick up and play with products to see how they worked, how they felt, how they were made, how they were assembled, what materials they had used etc. etc.

The pedantic nature of a product designer and the obsession with every aspect of an object, no matter how tiny.

A week later he returned to the project meeting, made an energetic bee line for me and promptly started to reveal how he had been to the supermarket and had suddenly become obsessed with the finer details of everything he put in his trolley. He had annoyed the hell out of his wife, turned everything upside down, bought things he’d never before considered and generally been a bit of pain. By his own admission he had gone from a man whose mind had never before given a second thought to the reasoning behind everyday objects, to a man possessed. He had become a mini-evangelist for product design overnight. The veil of – as he put it – his ‘so-called’ ignorance had been lifted from his eyes and he saw the multi-faceted world of design in an almighty enlightenment explosion.

But what struck me the most from this, was not the delight in seeing someone finally appreciate the finer nuances and wider impact of the discipline I hold dear, but that he had managed to exist up to that point in his life with literally no consideration of any of this at all. Nothing. He said words like ‘design’ when describing his new phone, but he really meant ‘colour’ or ‘shape’ or ‘shiny thing’. His understanding of what made something exist was binary. It was management, spreadsheets, factories in China and retail outlets. It had not been my intention, but by making him aware of the stuff that he had never before noticed, it literally made him see the world in a completely different way.

Like Neo, he had taken the red pill. He was tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Unfortunately he was useless at dodging bullets in slo-mo, but I’ll forgive him that. And to be honest I wasn’t sure if I’d done him a disservice or not. He never really seemed happy in his role ever again!

This particular incident (if you can call it that), made me realise that whilst it is very easy, as a designer, to lament our lot and curse the client who doesn’t seem to understand the subtleties of our work, realise the beauty of that particular surface or ‘get’ the emotional touchpoints carefully engineered into a product, we should maybe take a walk in their shoes for a moment. From my experience, every designer who is committed to their craft is a bonafide, paid up consumer of those darned red pills. They see the world slightly differently. They spend their life tumbling down the rabbit hole in Wonderland and can see the world ever so slightly differently. This isn’t always a good thing mind you, but it is – from what I can see – a universal truth. Designers don’t become so because it is a stable profession, or because it promises to pay well, or because it will help them become Prime Minister. They become designers because it is the way they are wired. The red pill has monkeyed with their DNA and created a monster. A rather pedantic, obsessive, LEGO loving, calm-ish, pencil wielding monster I’ll grant you, but a monster nonetheless.

So when faced with these monsters, we should maybe sympathise with our clients. Imagine being on their side of the table, attempting to understand the myriad phrases we utter forth, and it all blurring in an incomprehensible sentence of perplexity. We know what we mean, and we are darned sure we’ve explained ourselves fully, but we come from a background of creativity, visuals, spatial awareness and 3D. Many of our clients live in a world where ‘prototypes’ are mere sentences, ‘3D’ is what their new TV does, ‘modelling’ is a rather chilly profession and ‘research’ is Google. And whilst it is easy to mock, I can well see how what we do must seem alien. Magical but alien.

I’ve had countless introductory meetings in the past, where half way through a presentation there is a realisation that both sides are simply talking different languages. We might be using the same words, but these words have different meanings and the inferences and insinuations cause ripples that, if you are not careful to intervene, can become tsunamis of misunderstanding. Sometimes it is easier to admit mutual ignorance and ask ridiculously stupid questions (on both sides) in order to ensure that everyone is absolutely clear about what we are all here to achieve. More often than not, professionals fall into using terminology from their specific industries and are guilty of not actually knowing what it means, or in fact using the term incorrectly – an even greater cause of misunderstanding and confusion. Maybe we should all approach our explanations as if attempting to phrase them with words that a 5 year old would understand. It’s a great leveller and empties the pompous wind from the sails of the egocentric.

So when faced with, what might appear to be a client who just doesn’t ‘get’ design, have a quick think about their world and how it might differ quite tectonically with your own. When you are exasperated by the ongoing budget battles, spare a thought for the guy who has to somehow trust the fact that they are paying out future profit share to a bunch of people promising pretty pictures of things called ‘concepts’, created in a magical world of solid works, in the land of WarDrobe. It’s no wonder they get a bit jittery!

I’m not a particularly religious chap, but maybe the design industry has done a fairly good job of creating its very own little Tower of Babel. Where’s that babelfish when you need it?

I have to admit, I’m just as guilty as the next person of sometimes laying blame upon the ‘other side of the table’ when discussions become complex and stilted, or the project doesn’t quite progress through the design phases that you had hoped for, but if I’m being honest, maybe I haven’t done enough of a job to introduce them to my box of red pills.

Welcome them to Wonderland and get them to ride the rabbit hole with a Babelfish.

And don’t ever say that I talk a load of gibberish 😉

How things have changed

This was a comment piece I contributed to New Design magazine to balance a feature written about the 3D Printing media hype in their September/October print magazine. My thanks to Alistair Welch for agreeing to publish my opinions!

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We are in the midst of a bona fide revolution. A cataclysmic shift from the days of old to the new, shiny future of instamatic, on the spot, click of a button design. The future is here. The future is now.

Hang on. Wait a minute.

Unless you are privileged enough to have been stranded on a desert island, you won’t have failed to notice the endless torrent of ‘step change’ technology announced daily to both professionals and consumers alike, heralding a new horizon in product development and ‘idea enabling’ tools. From ‘affordable’ desktop 3D printers to 3D scanning apps for your iPhone, the omnipresent Cloud to the crowdfunding populous waiting to help you launch your fag-packet pipe-dream to grand acclaim, the twittersphere is riddled daily – nay hourly – with new launches, press releases and visions of creative immediacy. We are assured of great strides in untouchable markets with these magic technologies, simply waiting for us to embrace them and bring the previously unknown skills of the designer to the masses.

But here’s the rub. Whilst I understand that such technologies take time to settle, to filter down in an affordable way to the everyday professional practitioner, I have been struck by how little things have actually changed. Yes, there have been a glut in smaller design houses buying in affordable 3D printers, but they are there to bolster the design process and bring in-house what would typically have been sub’d out – a cost saving predominantly and a little bit of additional USP to dangle in front of potential clients no doubt. For sure, there has been a natural evolution of modern design practice as software has improved, simplified and become more affordable, but no more so than has been the case in the past. Tools have always evolved, software has always been re-written to be made more user friendly, more powerful and less complex, and designers have inevitably utilised these improvements to either speed up the process or include more iterations to ultimately eliminate risk. I guess you could cite recent moves by Adobe to move their products to the Cloud as a good example of evolution.

If I think about the work we do now, versus the work we did 5 years ago, I can see a demonstrable improvement in visual output, a marginal reduction in the cost of early stage prototyping, and an increased efficiency in the design process due to faster processing and software usability. But it is incremental. The way we design a product or approach a brief is no less rigorous and no more magical than it was. The power of design is in the thinking. The application of creative thought to an unsolved or tricky problem by a human being. We may well be able to ‘print’ more things for less money and make things look ever more realistic, but to coin an oft used phrase, if the idea isn’t worthy, it’s simply ‘turd polishing’.

I think the biggest obstacles we’ve faced in the recent delivery of product design to clients nowadays, are the ‘instant experts’ and their new vocabulary. If I had a penny for every new client or management upstart telling me how I should “get that 3D printed” or “kickstart it” I could feed my children like royalty. The prevalence of these new technologies hasn’t really revolutionised the fundamental delivery of design, but has emboldened the new generation of ‘kiss me quick’ entrepreneurs to cheapen and devalue the design process as something they can do at home. It used to be the case that our first meeting with a client would sometimes be to slowly introduce them to the benefits of design, the process, the expectant output and the cost. Now, we often have to untangle the proverbial lawnmower cable of misunderstanding before we even get the chance to talk about the process at hand. I’ve had many a conversation with clients about the fact that professionally accessible 3D Printing has in fact existed for 20+ years in a variety of forms and no, it can’t be used to print that scrawl you’ve just presented to me on a Powerpoint slide.

So, what of these new fangled (or not quite so new fangled) tools? Do they have a place in the life of a professional designer? Of course they do. The dust will settle and the good stuff will float to the surface. Pragmatism and affordability will reign, and coupled with the brilliance of the human brain in the form of ‘good ideas’, it will empower ever more capable users and practitioners to invent, create and develop ideas to a level where they may be considered commercially relevant. It will allow ever more smaller teams of creative people to compete on the world stage, and for small ideas – if they are brilliant – to be procreated to the masses…as they should be. Accessibility + Brilliance if you will. Accessibility and affordability alone will not revolutionise anything – it will simply cheapen our profession and destroy the hard work done by many design leaders these past decades in educating people about the true value of design thinking. I’m not being protectionist about this. Indeed, I’m a fan of the open source design mentality. We just need to be careful that we simply don’t unleash these tools upon the foolhardy and uninitiated with wanton abandon under the auspices of ‘design at home’ or the rather ominous ‘maker culture’.

Design is still about good old fashioned brain power and the application of creative thought. How we manifest these thoughts may be changing and evolving, but for the time being, we see no reason to heavily invest in many of these technologies (although I may well be made to eat my words) and will continue to concentrate on good ideas and the most effective way to convey that to our clients as we see fit.

And the winner is….

I may well drive the meat cleaver of division between my readership in this post. Stand well back as I am about to tackle the touchy and opinionated topic of awards. Bear with me though as whilst I will initially dissect the subject matter with the aplomb of a prop forward wielding a sledge hammer on an ice rink, I hope to make amends towards the end.

When I was deciding what to write about, I threw a few choice questions out to twitter and LinkedIn to see what the reactions were. True to form, you did not disappoint. Whilst many are taken with a heavy pinch of salt and fortunately limited to 140 characters, there are some consistencies of opinion that cannot be ignored.

Before I wield the knife though, I thought I’d set the scene. Cue wobbly scene transition…we’re going back in time…

As a wannabe designer, learning my trade initially at school, then at university and in the very early days of my design career, awards were the bomb. I don’t mean simply a ‘nice to have’. If you won an award you were ‘it’. King of the hill. The cat ‘wot got the cream. It was almost an impossible dream to even consider that you might actually be considered for one, let alone win one. It became the de-facto response for any design careerist…a measure of your ultimate career success in this industry being the recognition of your unbelievable design talents through the peer acknowledgement and shiny receipt of any one of a handful of noted awards. Red Dot, IF, IDEA, DesignWeek, DBA Design Effectiveness. That was about it, but it was enough. Anyone who managed to get one of these was showered with rose petals and bathed in swedish donkey’s milk…or something like that.

I digress somewhat, but my point is still valid. These awards were bona fide aspirational and – secretly – you never really expected to *actually* win one. It simply became a target to aim for. Each and every year, the submission dates came and went and if the studio you were in ever won such an award, or featured in the lavishly published directory, you walked with a swagger and the studio felt alive and vindicated.

It’s a bit like the dream bubble of consultancy. As a young designer (and I can hear the same answer being issued like hallucinatory ammunition throughout the land right now at every degree show) all graduating product designers wanted “to work in a consultancy”. These were places where mythical beings sat and crafted beautiful objects for us all to fawn over. No consultancy can ever live up to the expectations of a shiny new, eager designer…and never will. As soon as you get to work in one of these ‘consultancies’ you soon realise that reality, and gravity, and smelly toilets do in fact exist in these places just as they do in the real world and whilst they are indeed a hot bed of fantastical things, these very things come to life in a fairly pragmatic and ‘elbow grease’ heavy way.

The same can be said of awards. They are things of brilliant shiny beauty, right up to the point when you actually win one. I’m not sure quite what I expected to happen when I won an award for my design work. Trumpets? Leprechauns? People turning to stare at me in the street? Maybe it was because the design that actually won the award was something I wasn’t particularly proud of and very rarely speak of since. Or that I started to see the less than pure design logic for selecting something as a ‘deserving’ winner. Could it be that those awards that I held oh-so-dear to my very core beliefs as a designer-at-large, were not the ultimate accolade I thought they were? Naîvety and innocence can be cruel cousins can’t they?

However, despite the maturing cynicism I still think that the major awards I mentioned earlier were – in crude terms – a great benchmark for measuring the calibre of a design studio. Because there were only a handful to be had, and they had notable and well announced submissions, most ‘studios’ tended to submit entries, resulting in a fairly decent spread of entries and a competitive playing field.

In stark contrast, and rather timely given that I’ve been considering this post for some weeks now, recently my twitter feed has simply been rammed with announcements of forthcoming awards, ‘last day to enter’ calls, judging panel PR slots and the ultimate roll-call of those ‘lucky sods’ fortunate enough to win an award. The problem is, I simply can’t keep up. I don’t follow *that* many people and I’ve already lost count. And that’s just the awards that are relevant to my industry. If I include apprenticeships, food, hospitality, tourism, enterprise and so-called entrepreneurialism, I could probably knit a scarf for a sizeable llama with all the threads dedicated to award announcements.

I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old sod (although to many I have probably proved this to be true already), but it’s all just a load of white noise now. If – nowadays – someone tells me they have won an award, it doesn’t make me any more inclined to a) be impressed or b) respect their abilities. And that is a crying shame. The very thing that used to be the separator between designers, has now consumed itself and destroyed the very foundations upon which it was built. I guess we can blame the very mechanism by which you are reading this…the internet and social media. In an ever more fragmented society with thousands more channels through which to consume information and express opinion, we have demanded our industry be ever more segmented and analysed to the point of destruction. And to each of these segments, we need an award to determine the ‘best’ – well at least the best for the next few days – until another ‘best in class’ is crowned. Ho hum.

I don’t want to demean awards. It’s my observation that they have done this to themselves (if ‘they’ are indeed a sentient organism capable of such a thing)!

Which is why I can’t help but feel like my Dad when I start to hear myself saying “It’s not how it used to be.”

A good example came to my attention recently. Nathan Pollock is a very close friend and director of a small, but growing product design consultancy in Australia called Katapult Design. We were colleagues for a time and I respect his abilities wholeheartedly as only a choice few people I would ever consider going into business with – a true measure of trust if ever there was one. He and his team have recently won a Red Dot award and Australian Design Award for a TENS machine they designed for a client of theirs (you can view it here). In fact, they also managed to bag the ‘Best of the Best‘ at the Red Dot, which for a consultancy outwith the usual suspects is quite something. Nathan and I recently had a conversation about his approach to entering these awards and if you total up the financial commitment Nathan and Katapult has to make, simply to prepare, enter, attend, receive and promote these awards (particularly a European award for an Australian company….tot up those airmiles!) it quite makes your eyes water. That award will *really* have to do its stuff to ensure that Nathan breaks even, but he has made a calculated judgement about the risk to reward ratio associated with it.

Having worked – albeit briefly – in Australia, I can vouch for the fact that most established Aussie design agencies are hell bent on awards and it becomes akin to tribalism (that’s not to say that the same tribalism does not exist elsewhere…I’ve noticed it in many different parts of the world). Agencies pit their trophy cabinets up against each other in the ultimate contest of virility, and the opening gambit at new business meetings is the rather comedic town-crier-esque splurge of award credentials. I can also vouch for the fact that the more forward thinking, nimble agencies look to be bucking this trend and are being more tactical and strategic with their thinking…and I have no doubt that in a few years, the good ones will be stealing our clients with aplomb 😉

In weighing up the risk vs. reward for entering the Red Dot, Nathan has been clever enough to focus on European design accolades. Regional and national awards tend only to be inward looking (despite the blurb on their websites to the contrary), particularly for such far away places as Australia, but the established, wider European awards (like the ones mentioned earlier) do still hold some stock and can bring extremely valuable exposure to consultancies like Katapult. Exposure they could never achieve without either spending a LOT of money or seriously pissing someone off!

So, much as Nathan has decided that his award strategy is about global exposure for a ‘remotely located’ agency, it seems that transitory, grass roots PR is just about the only benefit an award can really bring nowadays. Many of those I canvassed on LinkedIn and Twitter, having already vented their spleen lamenting the ‘down sides’ to awards, did acknowledge that awards – if publicised correctly – can bring much needed positive PR and in turn, lingering awareness in a fickle, transient business world filled with 3 second attention-bites. But it also strikes me that if you look at the sheer effort and cost involved in securing an award (not to mention the risks of not winning), I would argue that some clever bit of attention seeking (like a contentious blog post or internal, conceptual studio project) might well be better received by potential clients. I certainly feel utter apathy to any statement resembling “we’ve won an award” and view such things with an unhealthy dose of ‘smoke and mirrors’ scepticism. As I mentioned earlier, with so many bloody awards swimming in the same pond, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that those judging the awards may not always be the people suited to such judging or completely aligned with your discipline. If I won an award, I’d want to know that the people who have deemed that my work was deserving were those I respected and utterly admired.

We don’t ‘do’ awards, as you may have gathered. I have a slightly jaded view of them and have boiled our reasons ‘not to enter’ down to a few key points;
1. They are too expensive (entry + awards dinner + travel etc.)
2. I wouldn’t know which ones to apply for (there are simply too many to know which carry the right level of klout in the industries in which we operate – which is a considerable number)
3. I don’t trust them (I want to be judged on design merit and I don’t believe this is the case for most awards…in some cases I might arrogantly argue that I’m more qualified to judge the work than the judges…I did say ‘arrogantly’!).
4. Application of effort elsewhere (I reckon the same level of PR and brand penetration *could* be achieved with other, more interesting and less conventional methods)

I had considered including the comments received from others in this post, but I’m worried I may completely nail the coffin shut on this if I fill even more of this post with some of the slightly less-than-gracious opinions of my peers. I’ll leave it for them to add a comment at the end, or you can see a few of the contributions here.

So how can I balance this up a little? Well, I thought it might be interesting to create a set of judging criteria that I think reflects modern design practice and how I would want my work judged. I’m not saying that many of these criteria are not employed by some of the many awards out there, it’s simply my crudely thrown together ‘fantasy award criteria’. It’s not exhaustive, but here’s a few to be getting on with…

a) Budget magic (BM)
“A silk purse from a sow’s ear” is a good phrase. Compared to the pittance you got paid, what magic did you manage to weave? How did you make that original proposal budget stretch – without snapping – to the point where you were able to satisfy the client AND deliver a brilliant piece of work. But not pumping hours into it for the sake of it at the expense of profit. The real magic is when you can do all of this AND still make a profit. To coin Paul Daniels …”That’s Magic!”

b) Harry Hassle (HH)
We’ve all had them. The client that requires a LOT of expectation management and regular 20 minute updates. Where you spend more of the budget discussing how you’ve spent the budget than actually doing any work. This should be heavily factored in to any award criteria. How much of a pain in the arse was this to get through the approval channels, without the resultant design being stripped of anything noteworthy?

c) Under the bonnet (UtB)
Stop looking at the shiny stuff and get real. How the hell did they manage to reduce 73 over-engineered parts down to 12 beautifully simple components that are now cheaper than the 73 original ones. It might not look pretty but appreciate the ‘real’ beauty of the solution. Have a bloody good look at that split line and the clever way the designer has managed to squeeze it all in, keep the assembly costs to a pittance and allow it to be dis-assembled equally quickly, whilst ensuring no stupid people can sick their fingers where they might do themselves a disservice.

d) The ‘Nan’ Effect (tNE)
It’s all very well creating something that appeals to a bespectacled hipster with tweed pants and a patent leather sling bag made from free range Ecuadorian goats, but can my Nan use it? Does she ‘get’ it? More importantly, with a single sentence, could I explain it to her without her responding with “2 sugars please”?

e) Relevance (Re)
Similar to the above, but does the design actually fit the market it is designed for? Has it been designed to appeal and be affordable to the target market – which may well be janitors in Rhyl? (I’ve got nothing against janitors in Rhyl per se…I was just trying to find an example of someone we may not normally consider). It might be a design for a very ordinary looking dustpan, but that dustpan can now be purchased by everyone who so desires, not just those that shop in John Lewis who need it to match their avocado slicer colour scheme. The designer has bent over backwards to ensure that it does NOT look elitist and designery, is f**kin’ cheap and has a tiny carbon footprint. What do you mean you didn’t notice it? That’s the point Cletus!

So my equation, to rate the relevance of each of these would look like this…

(BM+UtB+tNE+Re).HH* = sheer bloody brilliance

*because we all know that ‘client politics’ is the biggest lion to tame!

I would be VERY happy to doff my hat to anyone who has won an award based on the above 5 judging criteria. In fact, I’d probably want to work for them. Whilst I’m aware that I am making light of much of this in my descriptions, there is a serious point to each of the above. They represent the ‘hidden realities’ of every client project. More importantly, they are the major components of the success of a project and of your abilities as a design consultant/provider. An award that acknowledges these skills would do more for the credibility of a designer and his/her reputation than anything else….in my humble opinion.

Well, here endeth another tome from the Square Banana soapbox. I would encourage anyone to suggest their own awards criteria and share good and bad experiences, as it helps to clarify the wider context. As with previous posts, if I’ve overstepped the mark and misrepresented the situation horribly, then I’m happy to adjust …within reason!

If I had 3 wishes…

Well it appears I’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. A few months without much to speak of and now a glut of posts in a matter of weeks. I guess it’s down to a number of things that have prompted me to think about a raft of business and personal issues and apologetically wallow in a little self-reflection. Pondering the past, evaluating the present and imagining the future.

I’ll warn you now…this is a biggie.
You may need to refresh your coffee cup before getting stuck in!

The main thrust of this post is growth. But have no fear, this will not contain any form of shrewd business logic or financial acumen. As you have probably come to expect from these posts, I tend to shoot from the hip and wear my heart on my sleeve (and other such figures of speech you may wish to include – which basically mean I ramble on with little or no research). It will primarily be based on anecdotal evidence and first hand experience.

Over the past months (as I have eluded to in previous posts), I have been keen to discuss the future of ‘Square Banana’ and ‘Russell Beard’ (very odd to be talking about myself in the third person) with a business coach and how these two elements might differ, integrate, deviate and prosper. I’ve taken steps to try and implement some of the shorter term strategies that seem to make sense, but it is the mid to long term aspiration of growth that has been monkeying around in my brain and it simply refuses to settle or focus on a specific goal. So I decided to investigate…

The traditional model of design consultancy growth doesn’t necessarily sit well with me. The idea that more work = work people = more work = more people etc. feels a little too organically open-ended. Not that it hasn’t worked for a huge number of consultancies. It has, and many of the biggest and best are still here because of it. It’s not that I think it doesn’t work, but funding channels and growth models have changed a great deal in the last 5 years alone. We now live in a vastly different world with a plethora of these different models abundantly evident in the techno-biz pages of many blogs, rags, journals and periodicals around us. In fact, it’s often tricky to keep up with them as they change and adapt to the force of consumer opinion.

I’ve been privileged to have experienced a number of design consultancies that have experienced ‘fairly’ rapid growth, but they have – to my mind – paid the price in doing so. A small-ish studio or tight-knit design team has a palpable soul. A unified heartbeat if you will. A feeling that whilst everyone may well be from different backgrounds, of differing experience levels and working on different projects, they all seem to be marching to the same drum. It’s a fabulous feeling but something that tends to be noticed in retrospect…once it has been lost. Growth past a certain point tends to erase this soul. The larger consultancies that manage to preserve this ‘essence’ should not be underestimated as it is a bloody tricky thing to maintain and nurture as the ship gets bigger. I always remember attending a Design Council training course (Professional practice level 2 – with Shan Preddy – if I recall correctly) where a director of a branding consultancy based in the South West said that they planned to only grow to 12 people. This included admin staff. In other words, no more than 12 people could occupy the building. I liked that sentiment and as the years have progressed I tend to agree more and more. Not necessarily with the 12 value, but with the idea that a design business has an ’employee cap’ which shalt not be breached. That number and how you calculate it is ultimately up to you and how you feel your business best needs to operate. (BTW – I have no idea whether that particular director stuck to his guns and has made a success of that plan).

With these experiences swimming around my brain, I decided that the best thing to do was to seek tales of historical growth and growing pains from those who have been through it successfully and with a track record to prove it. Design business owners who have (or had) successful studios with substantial numbers of people delivering award winning work. I won’t divulge the various people I managed to ear-bend but needless to say I was fairly surprised by what they had to say. The most interesting and revealing statement I heard was that, despite now having a large, blisteringly successful design business, if the person in question had their time over again (and in the modern era) they would seek to establish a very small, ideas driven, design service agency that would never get particularly big at all. In fact, they admitted to never really ever having aspired to growth at the level they have attained, and in some way lamented the beast they were since responsible for creating. I find this fascinating. In fact, the latter part of this statement rings true with quite a few mid-to-large design business owners that I have had the pleasure of speaking with over the years – the sense that they now find themselves spending the majority of their time worrying how they are going to feed the salary monster, rather than actually doing the one thing they set out to do when they registered at Companies House in the first place….design. I guess – deep down – that is why I have remained ‘on the tools’, a practitioner rather than a manager…a ‘player manager’ if I’m to use a footballing analogy. Without consciously deciding to do so, I guess I’ve probably resisted natural growth due to my inherent desire to DO the designing. I understand that this is an unsustainable business model, but I guess I’m trying to unpick the reasoning.

So, the idea of capped growth and a more honed, S.W.A.T. team ethic tends to sit better with me than the more open ended model mentioned earlier. To my mind, it seems to fit with the types of work we typically get involved with and can certainly – if positioned correctly – appeal to both SME’s and global businesses alike. Switching from football to rugby analogies for a second (Union code for the rugby pedants out there), I would liken it to a Barbarians Sevens team (if such a thing existed). A mixture of different skills, personalities and levels of experience but whom all play together well, are at the top of their game and can switch skills if necessary. Everyone mucking in. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a perfect model for ‘business’ i.e. a distilled profit making machine. A relatively flat hierarchy will always have its problems, but it feels like it would allow the two differing personas of ‘design’ and ‘ business’ to co-exist relatively easily for the greater good of the bottom line and for the integrity of the creative output. My gut tells me that I would be as satisfied as a designer as I would be as a businessman. The tricky thing will be to find like minded creative and business minded people who can fill the other 6 positions (figuratively speaking)!

So we’ve established my ideal design business framework. But how the bejesus do we get  there. To that I have no answers. From my personal perspective, I seem to be stuck in a timeloop where I seem to be eternally shackled to either a) sales b) designing/delivering or c) business ownership issues (those indefinable tasks that seem to eat away hours of your day). These things tend not to be mutually inclusive and it’s a constant struggle to balance them effectively without falling off the eternal precipice of joblessness that ever-lingers about 3 to 4 weeks in front of me as I stumble (in as graceful as way as I can muster) through the year. I can very easily see how with 5 people in a studio, these issues can be carefully delegated and managed to maximum effect, but I often struggle to see how I get from here to there without keeling over with overwork or running out of that most precious of resources…cash!

So how do I get Square Banana to that point where we have a studio filled with 5+ capable others who all fulfill the necessary roles required for maximum efficiency and creativity, and yet we are incredibly relevant as a business unit? The modern press is awash with funding success stories. Dragon’s Den, Kickstarter, Crowdcube, The Thiel Fellowship…the list goes on. Lots and lots of ‘buck the trend’ tales of maverick designer-makers taking the unorthodox approach and securing hundreds of thousands (if not millions) in deals to help them grow their businesses – some of which, despite my best efforts, I simply cannot begin to comprehend. We tend not to hear about them as they grow, but only at the point of ‘springboard growth’ when they become catapulted from zero to hero…and become the new poster-boys/girls for the ‘do it yourself’ generation. In truth, they tend to be businesses that are either selling a ‘thing’ that appeals to the masses or a technology/app that capitalises on a market trend or societal shift. The funding channels also seem to be polarised – the investor is either a gazillionaire with money to throw at a risky venture (and some healthy PR to boot), or you are attempting to appeal to a huge number of armchair investors with anything from £5 to £5000 to ‘spare’. The idea that you are recruiting a hoard of supporters, advance customers and marketing advocates. It’s powerful stuff if done correctly, but tends to be relatively short term, focussed on a singularity and riddled with a potential groundswell of dissatisfaction from people/investors unaware of the time and complexity inherent in bringing something to market (if you are to believe the forums and comments sections of many of these).

So where does ‘design consultancy’ fit into this? It is neither selling anything tangible, nor spearheading a new, groovy tech. It is selling brain equity. Thinking. Problem solving. Ethereal magic…albeit process driven magic! I’ve often wondered whether a design business like ours could effectively appeal on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Crowdcube, but I’m not sure it’s tangible enough for people to comprehend. It’s hard enough explaining to someone what product design is, when given a fully engaged audience, let alone attempting to sell mini-packets of equity or ‘product promise’ as internet soundbites through a computer screen. Someone may well prove me wrong, and I’m curiously intrigued to try it myself, but ‘hunch’ tells me it can only end in disappointment or utter complication and confusion. In another guise and a number of years ago, I actually used a crowdfunding site to seek funding for a product, and have been somewhat soured by the experience, but that story may well be for another day.

What about a loan from the bank? You’re kidding right? Admittedly I haven’t broached it fully with my bank manager, but let’s just say that given my recent, brain boiling, anger inducing experiences of attempting to secure a mildly conservative business overdraft facility recently (from a bank I have been with for nearly 20 years I hasten to add) I don’t hold out much hope. Unless they take children as part payment (they have all their own teeth)!

There has been much talk of recent successes with South West initiatives like the Bristol Growth Fund. Trunki (under the wise leadership of Rob Law) has been rightfully successful in securing an impressive amount of funding to help grow their product range and help get into more international markets, but I’m still dubious about how well a fund like this would judge the worthiness of an intangible service offer such as ‘design consultancy’ when so many other businesses selling ‘things’ are much easier to quantify and ‘grow’ in the most tangible sense. Maybe every design consultancy should have a product of their own to enable their tangible business potential to be measured more easily? Strangely enough, given the sheer number of product design agencies in the UK, there are only very few that have ‘side’ projects of commercially valid product launches. Therefore (with TomTom) and Yves Béhar/Fuseproject (with various high profile products – Jawbone being one) are the obvious exceptions to this, but it does seem odd that with the talent resource available to each design business and the offer they provide to clients, that it isn’t the norm rather than the exception. For my sins, I have actually tried doing it (albeit as a separate business venture) and it didn’t work. I plan to bore you all with this in a few months…

Much has been made in recent times of means by which ‘small businesses’ can access vouchers, start-up or growth loans from the Government. There are more ‘incubator units’ than I can thrown a stick at, and there is talk of getting students to by-pass university (as many employers are complaining of the lack of real world skills these graduates are coming out with) and head straight into the big wide world with a helping hand and some pocket money to support them. This is great if you are an individual or – literally – a very small business, where ‘up to’ £25K can seriously give you that leg up to where you may need to be (note the prevalence of the term ‘up to’ in most of these schemes). What happens if you are a small business where £25K would get lost in a matter of weeks? Not wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it’s peanuts.

Then there is the tried and tested channels for ‘proper’ funding. The ‘acquisitions and mergers’ boys. The ‘business angels‘ with various recent tax incentives to ‘nudge’ them towards making investments (SEIS is one such example). I was made aware of a recent report by Lord Young (click here to download) where he sets out all of the options. It reads well and as a SME, it ‘feels’ like there is support out there and a genuine desire to help Britain’s small businesses to grow. As the stats indicate, if they are supported and helped to grow, the country will recover. I can’t work out if it’s all lip service and the examples they use are simply those people that would succeed despite everything listed in the report. There’s also a nice case study about Crux in there – run by 4 guys I have had the pleasure of working with in times past. Very different to Square Banana, but nevertheless flying the flag for well intentioned product design thinking in the South West.

Right! Enough of that. I’m getting far too sterile and dry in my writing. I need to inject a bit more whimsy and emotion before I run the risk of producing a well-balanced piece (whatever that may be)!

So what’s the answer. In short, I’ve no real idea. I’ve got a few hunches and a gut feel for an ‘ideal’ design team that could deliver brilliance. All I actually know is that I currently run a business that has an amazing client list, works in pretty much the widest cross section of projects you could venture to name and that could become something very impressive indeed. I firmly believe it, but as it stands, I can’t see the benefits of the slow organic growth mentioned at the start of this post. I only really see benefit in turbocharging this business and giving it the opportunity to accelerate up to that Barbarians Sevens team. That size of team brings with it a co-operative chutzpah, a team vision and a powerhouse of thinking that isn’t diluted by size or crippled by being seen as ‘too small’. I reckon I can build that team.

So, in true Aladdin style, I figured I’m due 3 ‘virtual’ wishes. So in relation to what I think might work as a growth framework (in specific relation to product design consultancy and – very specifically – Square Banana), here they are:

  1. Cash. Design businesses are beholden to cash-flow (not that others are not) and this is the key factor in limiting realistic ambition. Even being prudent, to attempt to squirrel away enough cash to enable the kind of growth that would deliver the powerful design offer I know is possible from the business, would take an inordinate amount of time. I’m not talking about an ‘open wallet’…simply access to cash that could facilitate growth, give the business a bit of a security blanket whilst we build the machine and be repayed or re-invested once the machine is pumping! And pump it will.
  2. A credible big brother. This is a careful one. Whilst I don’t really know how this would manifest, I like the idea of having a partner/investor who is a credible entity in their own right. By ‘credible’ I mean that they are a brand that understands consumers, understands design and has an infrastructure to benefit having access to a business like Square Banana. A partner that would not restrict our abilities to work in any market sector we choose to. Designers don’t really make great ‘businessmen’ per se, and I’ll be the first to admit that whilst I know the design industry back to front, I’m not sure I’d be reliable enough to make the kinds of sterile, unemotional business decisions that so often signal a successful turning point in a company’s history. I could lie and say that I could, but I’d be kidding myself and blowing smoke up my own arse. Design is an emotional game…at least in the territories in which we operate. We are brilliant at designing for people. Consumers. But it takes an altogether different person to make shrewd business decisions that are devoid of such emotion.
  3. A ‘belief’ punt. Whomsoever decides that they might want to help this brilliant little business needs to do so with a healthy dose of ‘close your eyes and jump’. To use a carefully spelled word – a PUNT. No ‘interference’ to try and turn it into a ‘model’ business or attempt to turn us into an in-house design team. No attempt to relocate it (we really like Cheltenham as a hub) or ‘borg’ it. Not interested in that. It would take very little (in corporate terms) to really give this business a rocket boost, but it will take faith. Faith in people. Faith in me. You are probably not going to be able to project forward 2 years and look at an exit strategy. Design is a fabulously exciting discipline to be in, but by its very nature (in the realms we operate) it is precariously difficult to predict. It’s not soap powder. It can’t be held. It is a little bit of cognitive gold dust. But it can work utter wonders. Utter bloody wonders. I can give you a list of testimonials that support this.

So there are my 3 wishes. My heels are clicking like you wouldn’t believe (although reassuringly I’m not wearing sparkly red high heeled shoes). I may come across as naive, slightly clueless and a tad bonkers, but I believe in this business. So much in fact that I don’t simply want to make it bigger for the sake of it. I want to make it right. I want clients to WANT to work with us because it FEELS right. Not simply because we have the right shiny kit, or the right accreditations, or the right awards, or the right associations. I like the word ‘enigma’. Something somewhat indefinable and intriguing. To coin an over-used Star Wars phrase….”The Force”. Intangible, enigmatic, empassioned, powerful and magical.

This isn’t meant to be a ‘pitch’ or a plea for help (although if you happen to be a gazillionaire with a great branded business and you fancy a punt on a fabulous design business in the centre of Cheltenham then by all means give me a call). I enjoy writing about our tribulations and uncertainties and I enjoy hearing feedback. It’s amazingly cathartic and it’s very reassuring to know that many of my posts resonate with many in similar situations. It can be a lonely game, running your own business, and I use this forum as a sounding board. It seems to be working.

I would really value comments on this one.
Maybe between us we can come up with some answers?

author : Russell Beard  |  Founder

Square Banana S-S-Studio

After 7 years of working from a home based studio (a decision taken primarily to enable me to see my daughters develop to an age where they start school full time – I’ve seen far too many of my peers and immediate seniors while away the hours in a studio as their children grow up out of sight…much to their chagrin), we finally bit the bullet and moved into a new design studio, smack in the centre of Cheltenham earlier this year.

Having spent years adapting to the constraints of ‘home décor’ and the ever watchful eye of my better half, it was a strange thing to be given free reign to devise a fully functioning space purely for work. That’s not to say that the last 7 years haven’t been spent in a singularly work-focussed space, but a studio within a domestic habitat is not the same as a building designed or tailored to be an office space. With a blank canvas, it took me a while to settle on what I thought was necessary.

Fundamentally, I didn’t want the space to contain a desk for each person. I’ve worked for most of my career in studios where everyone has their own desk space (some tried hot-desking when CAD stations were a rarity, but it just ended up with lots of unclaimed, dirty coffee cups and half scribbled Post-It notes occupying the ‘free’ desks) and I found that a large part of each and everyone’s individual desks ended up becoming a ‘dumping zone’ and ultimately a cluttered, unusable area. People ended up working in the immediate frontal zone to the left and right of a keyboard and I reckon 60% of the deskspace in the studio effectively became an impromptu store cupboard. I’m sure that in a well disciplined studio, this never happens, but I’m a bit of an untidy animal at the best of times, so if given the opportunity to secret superfluous crap somewhere, I will.

So I decided to design and commission a single, enormous studio desk around which everyone would sit. It’s not a ‘system’ clipped together. It’s a dirty great slab of 38mm birch ply, covered in a hardwearing ‘Square Banana’ brown laminate, with a few selected holes and slots tactically placed to allow any (and all) cables to be snaked away under the slab. In fact, it’s so big that it’s been christened ‘The Mothership’. It had to be made in 3 sections and each section crane lifted into the back of the van we used to pick it up. It’s so heavy that we needed to design a completely bespoke welded steel frame made from 2″ box section tube. It’s bloody marvellous and works an absolute treat. One end of the ‘Mothership’ is used as a studio ‘desk zone’ and the other is a layout table, client presentation area, part time canteen and all-round multi-purpose surface. It gives the studio a great central hub and encourages everyone to face towards each other (albeit with computer screens interrupting quite a few lines of sight).

In addition, and running parallel to the longest side of ‘The Mothership’, we have an uninterrupted wall. No windows, doors, light switches. Nothing. A perfect surface to create a ‘scrawl wall’ – a complete surface which can be scribbled on any way we choose. After a fair amount of investigation into suitable surfaces, the easiest, most cost effective and most versatile turned out to be 5 equally sized panels of galvanised sheet steel covered in self adhesive, hard wearing white vinyl. We can use magnets, pens, post-its, tape, blu-tack…anything we want. And when we are done, we can wipe it clean and start again. If it ever gets mucky beyond repair, we simply peel off the vinyl and stick a new bit on. Simples.

With a wall full of storage (and a tactically placed large LCD TV hooked up to Apple TV and the computers in the studio), some rather natty reverse printed vinyl decals for the windows (bananas of course!) and a dirty great cutout of the Square Banana logo on the opposite wall, we now have a very functional, creative and adaptable space that we can tailor to suit an influx of designers, clients, suppliers, different project activity, layouts, discussions and multimedia presentations. All good.

So far, and a few months into the new studio layout, things seem to be working well. It would always be nice to have more space, but like at home, the more space I have, the more (usually unnecessary) stuff I manage to acquire and horde. An open space with nowhere to hide is a great way to promote tidiness and a fantastic way to make working as a group of designers in a studio a little bit more collaborative and a lot more sociable (in the very human sense). Give it time, and I may well want to revert back to a ‘closed cell’ structure, but for the time being I’m relishing it.

Anyway…after rambling on about my logic, I thought you might like to see a few sneaky peeks of various parts of the Square Banana Studio. All suitably arty of course!

If ever anyone is passing (we’re in a rather fabulous old renovated factory courtyard along St. George’s Place) and fancies popping their head round the door for a coffee, just let us know. We’d be happy for the interruption.

studio_shotsauthor : Russell Beard  |  Founder

Apparently I’m ‘A Creative’

Having recently attended the Cheltenham Design Festival (and written about it), it made me start to question the terminology by which we are being labelled – as designers. It is not the fault of the CDF per se – more something that was brought into sharp focus with endless references to the term ‘creative’ by those both attending as the audience and those taking to the stage as speakers.

I’m not talking about the ADJECTIVE or the VERB. I’m referring to the NOUN.

Apparently, sometime in the last few years, I have – unbeknownst to me – become ‘A CREATIVE’. Whilst I understand the context of this term, it has recently become the de-facto terminology for anyone that wields a pencil or has a vague working knowledge of Adobe Creative Suite.

From what I understand, and casting my mind back to earlier stages in my career, it is the terminology of ad agencies of old…and the BIG ones with flashy atriums, multiple reception desks and foyer waterfalls. I say ‘old’…anything older than 12-15 years I guess. It was the term used to describe the room full of bespectacled, satchel wearing pencil wielders who ‘did stuff on a Mac, that wasn’t artworking’ by those who were ‘account handlers’ or ‘client liaison managers’. In white-walled meetings with clients all over the globe, such account handlers would say things like “We’ll have ‘our creatives’ look at that” as though it were akin to throwing a hunk of prime goat carcass into a cage filled with meat deprived lionesses. Feed the brief (suitably morphed and mutated through countless middle management iterations) to the ‘creatives’ who would press their magic Mac buttons and shit would happen. It was a way of defining the people that did that specific part of the advertising/branding process and added a certain chutzpah to the ad-agency formula. By keeping the ‘creatives’ at arms length and away from the client (other than possibly a chance presentation at some stage once they had been de-flea-ed of course), it kept the magic of the process invisible and intangible. I can understand that logic within that world and it worked well. Bravo to them.

However, this moniker seems to have oozed through the very floorboards and latched itself – limpet-like – to every single, breathing person that claims to have a vaguely non-linear thought. I like to think of myself as creative. Similarly I like to think I am logical, pragmatic, flexible, visionary (OK…I’ll admit…slightly tenuous), knowledgeable and approachable. I am a fully formed combination of all of these aspects.

In fact, I am a f**king product DESIGNER. Yes….DESIGNER. Not simply a ‘creative’.

I am trained to understand multiple facets of the product development process and my brain contains more than simply fuzzy creative thoughts that ‘suits’ couldn’t possibly understand. I have a Bachelor of Science degree. I know how shit works AND I can draw funky shapes on a marker pad (as my kids so eloquently put it…”Daddy colours in for a living.”) I apologise for getting slightly irate at this – I simply get frustrated by this constant need to badge a singular skill and delineate it for the sake of simplicity. If I am a so-called ‘creative’, am I also allowed to define myself by other such adjectives? Maybe as ‘an inspiring’? “Yes…we have a studio full of inspirings to work on your project Mr. Client…don’t you worry about a thing!

In truth, and being slightly less dramatic, I can understand how it has come about. The design industry has (in times past) always struggled to visibly and confidently place itself as an equally viable business entity within the business community, always being seen as somewhat fluffy and superfluous, in comparison to the ever-present marketing, accounting and sales. The industry has made great strides in recent times and design has almost shot past itself (like an Angry Birds catapult) in attempting to gain credibility. I guess the rise in kickstarter campaigns and entrepreneurial startups has given rise to people badging themselves as ‘creatives’ in an attempt to put distance between them and the establishment – almost as a PR exercise – and to sound more enticing to the journalists looking for ‘maverick’ stories. It’s now ‘cool’ to be a creative business person. However, we seem to have gone from a time when no-one understood what ‘designers’ did, to a time when people started to ‘get it’ (thanks to Sir Ive) and now we’ve almost ubiquitised the term to a point where it means nothing and everything to everyone. If I refer to myself as a creative now, I feel like I’ve been farmed, like Neo in The Matrix.

I decided to be a product designer because it was a truly cross-disciplinary profession where I got to satisfy my creative urges, draw stuff, make stuff, solve stuff, and see stuff through to its fully formed conclusion. I was inspired by artists and engineers, architects and businessmen, sculptors and craftsmen. As we refer to ourselves in the blurb on our website “We are a strange combination of visionary, artist, engineer, marketeer and accountant”. It’s why it’s often so difficult for people to understand what we do – as it is simply too wide a skills spectrum to easily comprehend – in comparison to the straightforward and established profession definitions we have grown up understanding.

We may well BE creative, but I am not simply A creative. I know it might seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but I’m very proud of what we do and the skills that our profession require and to have us ‘badged’ in such a simplistic way just riles my shackles….or something like that.

Right. Spleen vented. Relax.

author : Russell Beard  |  Founder