Design of Understanding 2014

My first conference of 2014 was the majestic Design Of Understanding, otherwise known as the Max Gadney show. A personal selection of what he thinks is interesting and he clearly has good taste.

Will Hudson of ‘It’s nice that‘ started the day with a talk about something born out of a university idea to gather and publish things that make people feel good about themselves. He spoke of how the name frames their approach to content and editorial (you can’t be snarky when your reason for being is showing something nice). He also spoke of the challenges of growth, now he has a staff in double figures he worries about his attitude to risk and does everything he can to not kill the youthful exuberance of ideas. He referenced the young entrepreneurs of today the Zuckerberg’s, Karp’s, etc. but also said age and freedom of thinking is not just a product of age…which is a a relief.

Inadvertent Yorkshire

Inadvertent Yorkshire

Tony Quinlan constructed a narrative about how companies keep trying to construct narratives….and failing. ‘The moment a company writes down their values they have failed’. The obsession with companies to craft a story, the management version of story, normally where the product or the service or culture was the hero. Most companies avoid stories of failure when most resonance and learning came from those very stories. The micro stories from the water cooler would carry more weight for the brand especially with staff but they are never considered for such corporate messaging. Terry gave a brilliant example of taking the light from stories and applying them in a different context. The sanitation issues of Bangladesh. Villages happy to have a field set aside for defecation needed to be taught about the latrine. The more experts said you should have them the less they wanted to hear it. The key was social status. The message that worked was ‘Marriages where the home had a latrine were more successful’ The use of social status and shaming had a bigger impact than instruction ever could.


David Sheldon-Hicks had the coolest job by far. He designed fake computer interfaces for films and games. His company, Territory Studio, produced the interfaces in the film Prometheus and his insight into how the creation of those interfaces made for a fascinating tale even though he was not the greatest of presenters. The balance of fake/post shoot effects vs real working computer scream on set, Prometheus was more of the latter and the ship had over 100 working screens  meaning a lot of cabling and a lot of computers. The amount of craft and skill that went into something that could be on screen for seconds, cropped in the shot or even blurred, was astounding. When asked how they used data to feed the fake UI’s he said

‘As long as you give NASA credit at the end of the film they are happy to give you pretty much whatever data you want’


Andy Kirk gave an excellent statement union of data visualisation. I have attended one of Andy’s data design courses and his knowledge of the subject is exceptional. He spoke of the big data viz events and trends of the year. The New York Times look at how the US speaks, Gun Deaths and lost years, the age of cites and the mesmerising Earth by Cameron Beccario which beautifully visualises wind patterns on out planet. Andy has published his slides so you can see all the work he referenced.

He also explained the state of the ecosystem and it was clear he had a very negative view of the infauxgraphics (mega long scroll nonsense), marketplace (a space for the crap to gravitate toward). He was however more positive on the state of tooling and how the wealth of tools were starting to talk to each other more, holding Tableau and R up as a good example. More work to be done on the explanation of the space from a recruitment and understanding point of view but clearly a real growth area.


Jo Roach the cofounder of Makies, the 3D printed dolls talked of the struggles of being one of use first 3D printing manufacturers and the value of great PR and the luck of timing in the rise of 3D printing and media interest. From 3D printer David Cameron and Prince Harry to the tactic of sharing wildly what they had tried, built and envisioned helped them find a solution to the most random of problems eg the wear and tear on the doll joints being solved by silicone injection. The challenges facing a toy retailer of getting across the ethics and value of design for a £70 item vs a £10 Barbie was their big challenge for the future. I wish them luck and hope they succeed.


I felt that a strange sort of hushed reverence befell St brides for the talk of Durrell Bishop of Berg. Whether that was because people knew of his past or just realised they were in the presence of a great mind it was an interesting phenomenon and one that was cruelly hampered by AV issues. He spoke of the need to face the design challenges of today, rather than the creation of beautiful static things of yesteryear, the vase, the chair, today the need was for the explanation of the technical and the graphical. His way of looking at the humble VCR thought the use of simple kitchen implements (the sieve a screen, a tap for the tuner, a bottle as the recording mechanism etc.) helped see the workings in anew light. A new language for the interaction and behaviour of the machine. We cannot understand that which we cannot see. He called for a need for new designers. We are faced with the new mega systems in the world primarily designed by software engineers. Graphic designers have not been able to step up…who will?


One of my favourite talks of the day was from Matt Sheret of the Government Digital Service talking about a subject I have no real interest in, comics. It is just a medium that has kind of passed me by but Matt’s interest, enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject just pulled you in. He explained how to read comics…a seemingly needless exercise but his explanation the gaps between the panels acting a context, making the reader work to fill in the story for the next scene. He spoke of the challenges of new methods of consumption effecting how comics were read, touch screens lending themselves to the flicking between panels and giving the capability of zooming into the scenes. The challenges of the form across new mediums, that morphed and jumped across new channels such a twitter, tumblr, YouTube and ending up at lost and broken urls on MySpace or trapped behind the broken iOS updates of apps. He gave a brilliant quote about the failing of the old world to adapt to the new

Middle aged future

Middle aged future

‘DC comics is a good example of how moribund an industry can become when you just have 40 year old white guys writing stories for 40 year old white guys.’

This resonates with me on may levels but as a soon to be 38 year old am I trapped in the same old also seems I am worried about my age. I digress. It was a great talk. Matt has posted some notes/videos and links to further reading from his talk.


The last ‘talk’ of the day was actually Max interviewing Russell Davies while using a set of slides Max had created as some thinly veiled reference to his questions. Very thinly. It was of course brilliant. What follows is a lot of notes/quotes and rambling explanation from me.

Russell has lots of experience working with big organisations (Nike, Microsoft, W&K and now the Government) and he seems to effortlessly produce solid gold nuggets of insight every other sentence. I like to think these are a mix of the cuff thoughts beautifully worded mixed with some well honed bon mots crafted over many a plate of eggs, bacon, chips and beans. So here are the best quotes I managed to (hopefully correctly) capture;

On Nike Run London. A campaign for W&K to get non runners to do a 10k run. ‘no inspirational Nike shit, this will be hard, the first month will be hell but it will be worth it’. It was about helping people start, not becoming the very best athlete.

‘We advertised all over the underground to catch people at their bleakest moment’

He gave some great insights on why Nike were better than the other sporting goods manufacturers. They hired people who could get things done by any means. This meant they could deliver just an extra 10% more than the competitors.

‘The only hard problem in big organisations is getting something done’.

When Russell questioned why they did not try and fix the internal problems he received this amazing piece of wisdom about large organisations

‘No matter what you fix in big companies the crap always arrives’.

Nike also had some good habits that helped them immensely. Regional managers would be set the normal sales target but also if you could not show that you had done something new each quarter then you would be done for. Another example of doing differently was the brief for the World Cup. A series of pictures of Ronaldinho that just said things like ‘Fast’. No laborious guidelines and rules, pictures and a word. ‘Post literate’ A kernel of an idea and latitude.

BoJo, MaGa & RuDa

BoJo, MaGa & RuDa

On brands ‘The only people who believe in the power of brands are those that sell belief in brands and those that are really against brands.’

‘Brand is a poisonous word. Brand is just a side effect of an interesting project’

On the advertising industry and his time at Wieden’s.

‘A lot of my success has been making the type being big enough and not mumbling. Clarity is key.’

He spoke of how Wieden’s had a way of framing the work that made them stand out

‘Try and make it better than anything you could look at, at the time’.

On pitching he was a big believer in just saying what you really mean. An example he gave was an architectural firm that presented to some board and just stood up and said ‘look at this building it is beautiful’. A person with charisma and a clear message not laden in concept will more often than not win out.

‘Advertising is a brilliant industry to leave. It is like a foundation course for the creative industries’

Russell has also been lucky enough to present to Jobs and Gates….

‘Billionaires are the best people to present to as they have no concept of constraints. To successfully present to company CEOs you have to realise their weakness, the gaps in their power’

Calling back to Will’s talk at the start of the day it was clear he was not a great fan of the Silicon Valley obsessed tech world and the fascination with young white startup stars.

‘Being young is not a sustainable business model…The privilege of being able to work 18 hour days with no commitments’

If you keep giving privileged young white men lots of money then some of them will make impressive things but clearly that is a limited strategy in many ways.

Although on he subject of age he wished he had started his Really Interesting Group collective when he was a younger man to benefit from that youthful lack of commitments especially the need to earn so much cash (I must admit I would like to see them reform as some sort of super group in their 60s and see what they would produce). Get a very smart bunch of people with differing but complementary skills and interests and get out of their way

‘The Magnificent Seven as a business model. Give them a mission and set them on their way’.

Either Russell did not talk too much about GDS or I was too busy listening and took lousy notes. What he did stress was the work that had gone into the writing. ‘We have writers, not interested in prose but in communication’ he mentioned that the Government used to write clearly but somewhere lost there way and brand experts got involved and messages got lost in concepts. What the world need was a return to the likes of Tom Eckersley

‘The government used to say things like tidy away your hammers’

Tidy Away Your Hammers

And on that note I shall end these very long notes. I could maybe do with a few years at Wieden’s & Kennedy to learn about brevity and clarity. Thanks again to Max for putting on a good show. A great day of increasing my understanding of a great many things.

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