Feb 162012

On Tuesday I went to the Design Museum for a talk by Hans Wolbers founder of the Dutch creative agency Lava which won European design agency of the year in 2010. The event was organised and hosted by the folks at LongLunch.

This was my first LongLunch event and Hans delivered a fast paced, insightful talk packed with real world advice and plenty of humour. Many of his points were about design fundamentals told using interesting stories which gave them new legs and perspective. For example, the theme ‘Clichés Are Good’ was a vehicle for showing the importance of having a common visual language.  The point was made using examples of toilet signage that he had seen on his travels. To paraphrase, “Once you understand the cliché you can build from there”. This makes perfect sense when thinking about the act of communicating.

The journey of creating the visual identity for a Korean web hosting company was used to show the importance of knowing your audience and the context. Even though we know these principals, it was fantastic to hear first hand the experience of another agency. Here, the reasons for 3 promising concepts being rejected by the client only became clear when Hans arrived in Seoul to make their final presentation. The rejected concepts had used circles as part of the visual identity but everywhere he now looked circles were associated with Pool/Billiards which apparently is hugely popular there. No wonder the client hadn’t given the thumbs up. Luckily their final concept used a different direction and was approved.  This underscores the importance of creative budgets being large enough to have a proper research phase, especially if there’s a global component. Otherwise you might hall foul of some cultural mis-match.

Which led nicely onto a couple of great points about negotiating budgets. The problem of getting clients to see the cost of an idea based on the value it creates rather than the time it took to create it, is an old and familiar struggle. Designers such as Yves Behar and others are beginning to transform the perceived value of creative thinking by using new revenue models which essentially create business partnerships. Hopefully as design increasingly becomes part of the boardroom and permeates through organisations just like fundamentals such as budget control, we will see its value increase. Ultimately, its power can be decisive in business. Hans’s point here was to try and be as creative with your approach to business as with your output (this is a good example by Brooklyn agency Breakfast). He offered a couple of bits of advice, one of which is beautifully simple in showing a client how the budget effects not only the result but also the journey of creating it. He described how he used to have on the back of his old business card a triangle. In one corner the word “FAST”, in another “CHEAP” and finally “GOOD”. He would tell clients that they can only have two of these points, never three. For example you can have FAST and CHEAP but it won’t be GOOD! Say with Dutch accent for full effect. Nice.

During the Q&As I asked Hans his view on the merits of an agency being specialised in Visual Identity as brand was something so complex and diverse. Could being specialised limit opportunities given that there is so much integration and convergence now? His response was interesting. He is moving to a film production model whereby the core team is creative generalists, as in the writer, director and producer, and the specialists e.g camera crew, are brought in once the core idea and strategy is formed. Hans said his core team would be made up of creative generalists who were visual thinkers and story tellers.

I’ve sumarised just some of the points and examples Hans gave during what was a fine demonstration of story telling itself. The talk never dragged and he kept everyone engaged from start to finish. Thanks to LongLunch for making these events happen. I must go more often!

Aug 232011

At Voxygen we have been working with Skype over the last two and half years on several strategic and marketing projects. I have recently wrote on the Voxygen blog about one of these which includes the use of data visualisation. You can read the full post here.

The need to understand and make data useful is nothing new and turning numbers into a visualisation has been around for a very long time. The challenge here was to help improve the sales process of Skype’s business product ‘Skype Connect’. Our solution was to develop an online tool that would enable a sales person to quickly produce an indicative savings quote before having to analyse lots of detailed information.

I wanted to use data visualisation not only to improve understanding of the data, but also to help reinforce Skype’s brand through the way the information was presented. Working with designer Paul Butt at Section Design we developed 8 data visualisations that worked both digitally and in print. Voxygen then coded them so they animate real time onscreen and can be outputted to PDF. Here’s some of the early concepts for one of the visualisations and you can see more on the Voxygen blog.

It’s worth making a small reference to the bigger picture. The nature of data is changing. The volume, complexity, types, access to and crucially who is generating it, are all changing.  This will continue to increase as the ‘internet of things‘ gathers momentum and smart connected objects become common place. For example, networked healthcare devices that monitor, manage and advise patients or ‘the well’ of their realtime and forecasted health on a genetically individual level. Designing useful and interesting ways to present and utilise data is becoming more important given the opportunities and benefits that can lay buried in the numbers. ‘Designing Understanding’ will play a key role in extracting these, evidenced by the growing field of infographics and data visualisation.

Mar 082011

One of the great potentials of digital marketing is to target content to potential customers in ways never possible before. The simple premise being better targeting equals more relevance, which increases engagement and more sales.  And it works. Digital advertisers and marketers have increasingly rich data sources such as Facebook and very, powerful tools e.g. eTrigue to gather intelligence on which to develop, target and track campaigns across a variety of media.

A whole new era of advertising, content, and experiences is now well underway fuelled by this deeper marketing intelligence and audience insight, in tandem with a host of technological advances such as mobile tagging, location based services, emerging mobile payment options, smarter smart devices and a more networked world. We have augmented reality billboards to real time offers pushed to our devices based on a range of rules and circumstances.

So we’ve figured it all out, right?

As with so many innovations there is often a potential downside. I sense one here and it has the same sentiments as the following exchange in the Matrix (when the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar are discussing what food really tastes like):-

“It’s a single cell protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins and minerals. Everything the body needs. ”

“It doesn’t have everything the body needs. What about the soul?”

The missing ingredient?

The character is simply implying that the gloopy substance was missing an important ingredient – soul, that food was about more than just the right nutrients.  Yes digital marketers and experience designers have the ability to serve relevant advertising but is the definition of ‘relevant’ too narrow?  Too much targeting (power and control) removes something truly relevant to people, surprises. I’m not talking about ‘you might like this’ variations, I mean random, non-logical, unpredicted, genuine surprises.  The unexpected.

Surprises and random events seem to me to be important aspects of life. The quandary is that sometimes we don’t know what we are going to like until we’ve experienced it. Our decisions can break previous patterns. People’s tastes and needs change. Do they all do so in predictable ways? Can everything be encapsulated in an algorithm or data trend? Perhaps not, as Google is now finding, as it increasingly has to compete with Social Search and ‘recommendation engines’ like Twitter. Even if each of us does fall into a definable box, will targeting us so precisely always be the right thing to do? I don’t want to be bombarded with irrelevant messages but I’m not sure I only ever want to see products or services that someone else thinks are relevant to me either.

What to leave out…

I’m not advocating that we abandon rich data sources and tracking tools which can provide incredible intelligence and insight. However, I am saying that these things are incredibly powerful and have the potential to ‘cleanse’ experiences into predictable boring boxes, undermining the potential of digital. Too much of it we might end up like a kid sick on chocolate. One of the challenges for digital marketers, experience designers and technology companies, is to ensure that there are some genuine surprises on and offline.  Leaving scope for the unexpected is highly relevant.

Feb 032011

Last Friday I attended the Design of Understanding Conference held at St Bride’s Library in London. The excellent event mainly dealt with how the design of data and information affects understanding, but the eclectic bill of speakers also touched on things such as the way digital media is transforming museums.

I wrote a post for my company blog Voxygen which summarises of the main ideas and themes….READ ON

Nov 152010

In September this year I attended PSFK’s London Conference. As well as excellent User Experience, Technology and Design presenters as you would expect, the organisers also included talks from conceptual artists and activists. A little unexpectedly, the standout presentations for me came from these more unusual speakers.  Not only because they were offering different and often quirky perspectives, but they were also just great communicators.

PSFK made all the talks available last week, so here are my personal favourites from the 2010 London conference.

1) Riitta IkonenI can’t explain exactly what I took away from this talk, except I laughed a lot. Riitta’s work involves quirky ways of communicating ideas or a message.

Riitta’s PSFK Page

2) Dougald Hine

Dougald’s PSFK Page

3) Thomas Thwaites - funny and thought provoking presentation about his toaster project which suggests how little each of us knows about how technology works and the power of economies of scales.

4) Usman Haque – I liked this idea of moving from public sharing data to public making data.

Usman’s PSFK Page

5) Matt Jones - main idea I took from this excellent talk was the idea of making things that become embedded into culture.

Matt’s PSFK page

Jul 252010

Last week I took part in a brainstorming session for a new service after being invited by someone I met on a course recently. When I arrived there were 10 other people who were taking part in addition to the organisers.  There were industrial designers, material experts, experience designers, branding and business development people. What there wasn’t was any pay involved. So I was impressed and intrigued that the organisers had attracted what appeared to be, even before things got underway, an amazing bunch of diverse and creative people.

The suggested potential of the group was quickly confirmed when the ideas started tumbling in after just a quick briefing. A deluge in fact. The quality of thinking was outstanding. I regularly found myself muttering “that’s a blinder” to someone’s idea. Brainstorming sessions are always interesting but especially with people you’ve never met. There’s no agenda or emotional baggage that can come with internal sessions, but it’s experiencing the thought processes of new people that fascinate me. For example, one person in particular kept seeing possibilities and lines completely different to anyone else. These were unique mental leaps and perspectives. If I was one of the organisers I would have been barely able to contain my glee at the quality of ideas that tumbled in, for free.

Now Crowd Sourcing, as I understand it, is engaging with your customers to help design and create or improve the products and services they buy from you. This was something different. This was a group of intelligent and creative people who had turned up to give their precious time (half a day) and ideas for free. Creative philanthropy plain and simple. Why did we do it? Asking myself this very question even before I agreed to go, there were three reasons.

Firstly, attending such a session provides a chance that you may meet some interesting people and business contacts. Yes it was half a day out of the office, but I file this activity under “making your own luck” or “putting yourself in a position where good things can happen”. That motivator was certainly met during the day. Also as someone who is not a natural networker being blessed with a face that looks permanently angry, these types of activities are less daunting than typical networking situations which involve a large room, no agenda, wine and name badges. Secondly, the service in question was interesting. Being asked to particiapate in shaping it, even if illousory in reality, was a powerful motivator. Finally, the person who asked me is also interesting and likeable.

I have no idea what motivated the other people in the group; perhaps the same reasons as me. Reflecting on the day, it was first hand proof that a positive relationship, an interesting project and a chance to meet new people can all trump money when it comes to gathering creative input. If you have these ingredients you might be able to gather a group of willing participants that, in the words of one person on the day, “that could rival TED“.