The Design of Understanding

Let’s give this blogging thing another go after a couple of months post free. Last Friday I went to a place in London and listened to some clever people talk about some interesting things at an event called Design of Understanding. Here are some words that don’t do the event justice.

It was an eclectic mixture of speakers brought together by a seemingly nice chap called Max Gadney. He kicked off the day with some words of wisdom, the ones which caught my ear the most was ‘all forms of communication should impart understanding’ be the the way we perceive and use physical device or interpret a barely coherent post. This phrase seemed like a nice framing of the day. Here are some notes on my 3 favourite talks of the day.

Timo Arnall of Berg shared his love of film and how he believed it to be the most powerful means of communication. Berg are interested in how new technologies fit into the world. Film gives them the ability to show time, behaviours and to allow them to unpack (this may have been the most used word of the day) technologies. He showed a beautiful example made by Polaroid in 1972. An 11 minute film by Ray & Charles Eames that explained how the SX-70 folding SLR camera worked. No marketing guff of today but a clear and concise explanation of the science behind the device.

The myths that evolve around technology were another source of interest. RFID technology that is still perceived as a new technology even though there are around 4 billion RFID tags and chips in the world. This technology invokes irrational fears and leads to people creating things like copper wired jeans to block the devices being tracked. Is this in part due to the fact that so few people know how these things actually work? How they interact with the world around them? Berg produced a video visualising the fields around the device by using LEDs and sensors, mixed with long exposure photography.  The resulting video is a thing of beauty.

The use of film in this was by Berg has lead them to create something they are calling new grammar. The video almost becomes the product of their design work. The power of this communication form has been proved many times by Berg. Matt Jones wrote a fascinating piece about new grammar and its origins.

Timo ended with the Heathquote. Wise words from Chris Heathcote of Dentsu.

 “the world is going to get strange and magical, and people will be confused and fearful. Designers will have to do what they do best, helping people navigate these environments”

RFID (and its bigger brother NFC) will become increasingly used to the point of ubiquity over the next 5-10 years. How these technologies are designed to work in the world will be key. I think Berg will certainly help figure that out.

It was a bloody good start to the day.


Just before lunch it was the turn of  James Bridle. Not really sure how to explain who James is or what he does. In Max Gadney’s speaker notes he said this about James, which I think sums hims up very well.

“I am always impressed at how his interest in something means he needs to make it, not just to create an objet d’art but more that in order to investigate and understand he makes the thing”

I agree. He is also whip crack smart and a very funny fella.

One of the similarities between James and Timo’s talk was time. James is interested in the effect time has on things in this digital age. He created a series of books that documented the Iraq War based on every edit to the Wikipedia page about that event. A historiography of argument about a series of facts. James jokingly said that because of his background in publishing he always made books. He has also created a book based on his whereabouts over a whole year based on the tracking data from his iPhone, entitled Where the fuck was I. He has also published 50 versions of the Charles Dickens novel, Hard Times, with each version being slightly different. One edition is translated into Russian and back again into English.

Another element of time mentioned was the penchant for taking photos today with smart phone cameras and applying retro effects. As we strive to get our photos looking like the Polaroids of the 70s what does this do to the perception of time. If we see a street scene with a sepia tint we would assume it was from a bygone age. But what does the future look like? What are the digital effects or the contents of the photo to make it look more futuristic. This lead into one of James’ key themes of interest/research which he has called the New Aesthetic.

“For a while now, I’ve been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean. What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products.”

You can see this collection at the new aesthetic Tumblr. He said he was now receiving links from people asking ‘Is this the New Aesthetic?’ I can confess I am guilty of this.

I highly recommend you watch this talk by James from last year as he explains the topic in a far more eloquent way than I ever could. You should also check out his portfolio and some of the other things he has made such as Rorschmap (a kaleidoscope view of the world from above), A ship adrift (a bot set adrift based on weather conditions…currentlky somewhere over eastern Europe) and the recently launched Bus Tops, which he called ‘the worlds largest animated GIF sharing infrastructure’ i.e. connected screens on the top of bus shelters to display art. Lunch.


Last talk of the day came from Dan Hill. Dan is a Strategic Design Lead at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. They look into many things but mainly how design can be used to enable change at a city wide level ‘A single building cannot change a city’.

He spoke of the need to change the dark matter that binds the huge organisations/organisms that are cities.  The dark matter being the name Dan gave to the rules and regulations that the city must abide buy even though some of these rules are seemingly unwritten. Sitra looking into new building materials. They wanted to used compressed laminate beams for building structures as they are more environmentally sound than concrete but they are classed as wood, even though they do not burn. The regulations from the 1900s do not allow this. We see so many problems of the 21st century trying to be fixed by 18th century organisations and the rules they created. I can see no parallels with banking here what so ever.

Another example given was around food trucks in Helsinki. They have 10 food trucks for the whole of Helsinki. They all sell the same thing…which did not look pleasant. All restaurants close at 10pm. Drunk revellers seek food much later. They have no choice. The licenses required to open a food truck become available every 10 years. The dark matter of the city prevented innovation around the very important subject of food…or did it? Illegal food sales have began to spring up in parks. People sell food from their windows getting round the restrictions. One brave soul decided to build a crepe truck, Caminoette, and defy the rules. The city regulators were not happy but an 11,000 fan Facebook page and subsequent campaign lead the city, in election year, to reconsider its strict stance. What Sitra are interested in is how more flexibility can be added to the rules to allow for more spikes of innovation. Unpacking the dark matter to make it matter.

These three speakers were the primary reason I wanted to attend this conference. They did not disappoint. I would love to set them loose in a certain industry beginning with B. To see what Timo’s films would unpack, what James would make of the data and what Dan thought about the whole bloody thing. Wonder if I can make that happen? Why on earth would they want to?

There were more speakers and they were all good. Gill Ereaut spoke about the language of corporations and how the way people talk, or name departments lets the culture seep out. Luis Rey talked about the importance of illustration mixed with research, a desire to challenge and a sense of drama to alter the way historians thought about dinosaurs. Tom Armitage spoke of rules and mechanics in games and how the fun of play and ultimately understanding comes from the friction between those collections of rules and mechanics. ‘What toy do you give a 9 year old to show them what the future looks like? Video Games’

A fine first conference of 2012 for me. Thanks to the organisers and the speakers for a brain filling day. I will be the first to admit though that I am not smart enough to have understood all of it. Only so much design you can do.


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