Last Thursday I attended Break Conference, where content, graphic, product, UX and web design practitioners took to the stage in Belfast’s Assembly Buildings to explore the edges of design. As the spiritual successor to Build, organiser Christopher Murphy conceived an event that hoped to remove the artificial barriers erected between these different specialisms.
Having long wanted to attend a conference featuring such a breadth of disciplines, I’ve spent the intervening days digesting what I heard. Common themes emerged, as did a surprising conclusion.
The importance of language
Design, often considered a practice largely concerned with aesthetics, must also consider its relationship with language. This topic was always likely to feature given the day’s first speaker, Sarah Richards, formally Head of Content Design at the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS).
Learning about the government’s policy on Afghanistan previously meant visiting six different websites, a situation more problematic should your livelihood depend on understanding certain legislation. Sarah’s team audited 75,000 pages of content on Direct.gov, Business Link and 24 ministerial departments, before transferring the meaningful parts (around 3000 pages) to a single domain: gov.uk. All content published by government must now adhere to a strict styleguide; devoid of any jargon or waffle and written in plain English.
Not only has this exercise saved money (it’s cheaper to serve a webpage than answer a phone call), but people are more likely to find the information they need, read it and take action. “Good design keeps people out of jail”.
Making content more accessible was a theme echoed by Alex Klein. Frustrated with the way computing is being taught in schools, he created Kano, a computer that children can build and code by themselves.
Taken at face value, Kano is unremarkable; it’s simply a computer based on the Raspberry Pi. However, unlike the Raspberry Pi with its 400 pages of instructions, Kano’s manual is a beautifully illustrated story that introduces each part of the computer in a friendly and fun way.
Words can empower, but they can also deceive
Pitched as “a rant in your general direction”, Dan Rubin bemoaned products that are marketed with such a degree of hyperbole, that it verges on deception.
Color Labs for example claimed to be “transforming the way people communicate with each other” when in reality their product had no meaningful usage. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Victorian salesman sold snake-oil by making bold claims about the medical conditions it could cure. Adverts for Camels in the 1950s stated that “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette” — health benefits suggested by association.
I guessed where this was headed, and a quick-cut of an Apple keynote confirmed my suspicions. Awesome! Incredible! Amazing! If you’ve ever used a Magic Mouse, you’ll know that it’s definitely not magical. Dan urged makers to be more humble when promoting their products, if only because it can lead to better design. Quoting Theodore Levitt, who said:
If thinking is an intellectual response to a problem, then the absence of a problem leads to the absence of thinking.
If you believe your product is already great, you will not give much thought on how to make it better.
(Khoi Vinh’s recent post iPad at a Crossroads supports Dan’s implied suggestion: Apple is starting to believe its own hype.)
Design teams should be multidisciplinary
A goal of the conference was to “explore how what we do as designers is changing to reflect an increasingly fluid and multidisciplinary form of making”.
Sarah immediately set the tone by speaking about the need for content and graphic designers to work together in order to solve problems. For example, when it came to testing early prototypes of gov.uk, copy written in plain English wasn’t trusted because it didn’t meet users expectations of government. Only by adding a black header with a crown logo and GOV.UK written in all caps was the required air of authority provided.
Hamish Muir, co-founder of graphic design agency 8vo, spoke about his work for Factory Records, where posters for the Haçienda club were produced collaboratively, at full size and without the use of a Mac. Noting that the poster offers a concentrated space to explore type, language, form and colour, he thought computers impeded creativity by placing a barrier between people working in a team.
In one of Alex’s many tangential rants, he spoke of his frustration with teaching methods that try to pigeon-hole children; those that are good at STEM subjects, those that are more creative. This approach misses an opportunity to combine both skills; computing can be a creative endeavour, after all.
Learn through play, improve by doing
One of the goals for Kano was for it to be “as simple and fun as Lego”. The product doesn’t come pre-built, but instead has to be assembled. Stickers are included so children can customise it and make it their own. This is a product borne of iteration; Alex tested its viability by creating a series of prototypes which he took into schools and evolved based on feedback from children.
Inventor of mouldable glue Sugru, Jane ni Dhulchaointigh spoke about how the genesis of the product came though playing with different materials. By combining silicone with wood dust, she created a mouldable substance that could fix or adapt existing products. Her story was one of near bankruptcy as she initially tried working with large store-based retailers. The product only got off the ground once she accepted the need to “start small, and get good over time”.
Approaching existing problems with a different perspective can often generate new ideas. Nik Roope, founder of digital agency Poke, explained the reasoning behind Plumen, his design for a low energy light bulb that’s desirable less so for its environmental credentials, but because it’s actually a nice thing to own.
The power of open
Alex described the four “everywhere principles” needed for a product to achieve mainstream adoption: cheap, simple, open and physical, and it’s the web that often enables the first three of these.
Adrian Shaughnessy spoke about how the web helped him to find an audience for his graphic design books even though conventional wisdom suggests Amazon and Google’s image search has killed the market for publishers of such books. Only by launching the product online was Jane able to build her business, with social media allowing her to speak directly to customers. A timely reminder that we should not take the open nature of the web for granted.
Ever the critic, and concerned that I was enjoying the conference too much, during the lunch break I wondered out loud whether the consistent themes were indicative of an echo chamber. Would any of these ideas be challenged?
The future of the web was the focus of the day’s final talk by Peter Smart, Director of UX and Strategy at Fantasy Interactive. With the web only 8500 days old, Peter attempted to envisage the next 8500. By looking at emerging technologies like haptics and ambient interfaces, he imagined a web that is tangible, adaptive and invisible.
Beyond Google Glass, how might we design for a web viewed via smart contact lenses? Peter played a video in which a user, eyes glazed over, interacted with the furniture in his living room, which in the final few frames is revealed to be entirely empty. I honestly couldn’t tell if this cold dystopian vision was meant as a parody. Peter’s predictions of ever more disruptive advertising, with tailored messages interrupting breakfast didn’t sound like much fun either.
Clearly excited by these technologies, this otherwise polished presentation lacked any substantive critique. While I appreciated the wide-eyed optimism, mentioning Google and DARPA in the same sentence without reference to the current political or cultural landscape seemed wilfully ignorant. We’ve been sold the story of how technology can improve our lives repeatedly over the last decade, yet only now are we starting to understand what we have to sacrifice in order to benefit from it.
Dan’s earlier talk was still resonating, so when an earlier piece of elaborate stage craft was revealed to be a clever way of distributing his business card, the presentation felt like snake-oil salesmanship for a future nobody wants.
Comparing the empathic work of Jane and Alex with the glossy predictions perpetrated by technology giants, I left Belfast hoping for a future realised by designers seeking creative solutions to actual problems, rather than the ones imagined by corporations engaged in fantastical research and development. After all, their products ultimately exist to solve one problem: how to generate value for shareholders.
Beyond the personal stories of triumph over adversity and insights into the speakers’ work, I thoroughly enjoyed some of the more indulgent aspects of the day. Be that Hamish displaying his colourful work in black and white for reasons of colour reproduction, or Adrian devoting a portion of his talk to the work of FHK Henrion, who he regarded the best British graphic designer of the 20th century. As a somewhat disenchanted graphic designer considering a future tied to the command line, my love of the profession was thankfully rekindled.
With Break, Christopher was able to create something wonderful. While I’m not sure it needs to be a yearly event, I’d welcome the opportunity to revisit Belfast and some of these themes again in the not too distant future.