Reasons to be Creative 2015: Roundup

Having not been able to attend last year, it was good to be back in Brighton this month for Reasons to be Creative 2015, the annual festival of design, code and creativity. This was my sixth visit to the festival, which gives you a reasonable indication of how I feel about the festival and the city.

Every year a common thread appears organically that links many of the talks. This year that thread was “great ideas, with great execution”, embodied most strongly in the work of Dominic Wilcox, Jane ni Dhulchaointigh, Jeff Greenspan, Stefanie Posavec and Noma Bar.

These are my highlights of the festival.

Monday Highlights

Proceedings kicked off on the Monday with Adobe’s Tony Harmer demonstrating their evolving and expanding range of mobile apps. Many of these are designed to take the place of the sketchbook in a designer’s process, enabling them to iterate ideas immediately in the digital realm, obviating the need to translate ideas from analogue to digital. The integration with Adobe’s familiar desktop applications via Creative Cloud is impressive.

While I see the logic behind these apps, I’m sure many designers, like myself, will be loathe to give up their pencil and sketch pad just yet. For many of us sketching ideas on paper feels natural; a quick, low cost, easy way to test and iterate ideas. Often, I can see a layout in my mind’s eye, but I need to sketch something very roughly to test it out, before I can start to realise it. This could, of course, be a generational reaction, but years of sketching on paper have engrained it in my design process. New designers, fresh out of university may have jumped from paper to screen already, or started there in the first place, and for them screen might feel more natural than paper.

A nice piece of scheduling allowed me to spend the rest of the morning attending two complementary sessions about designing with data. In the first session, ‘How to use data in your creative process’, Mike Brondbjerg looked at ways to create art from data using Processing and P5JS (a JavaScript implementation of Processing). Mike acquires his data from a wide variety sources, from Arduino Pulse Sensors to portraits of dead US Presidents. This was an entertaining and informative session, with practical advice for incorporating data in your work. I highly recommend that you take a look at the eye-catching portraits in Mike’s Dead Presidents project to get a sense of what’s possible. A more detailed overview of this session can be found on Creative Bloq.

The second data session was Stefanie Posavec’s  ‘Data as emotional material’. Describing herself as a ‘Data Illustrator’, who’s tired of formulaic infographics, Stefanie seeks to communicate subjective and emotional messages through data. A great example of this is her ‘Air Transformed‘ project, which visualised air pollution and it’s impact on human health by way of a necklace. By enabling people to, literally, feel the burden of air pollution, she was able to reveal to people the extent and cost of air pollution in a way that a thousand bar charts never could. We need more projects like this if the impact of humanity on the environment is to be ameliorated.

Annie Atkins’ session, ‘How to avoid ending up on the IMDB goofs page’, has altered the way I watch television. Permanently. I became aware of her work earlier this year following an article about her work on Wes Anderson’s film, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel‘ in Creative Review (this issue has sold out, but it’s worth tracking down in a library or elsewhere for this interview alone). Even so, I still hadn’t fully appreciated the amount of graphic design work required by films and TV dramas. Nor the breadth of work, requiring a wide variety of analogue and digital skills, to produce work from any era, covering many graphic styles, and all backed up by rigorous research — crucial for avoiding the cinematic pedants waiting to gleefully call out the slightest font faux-pas on IMDB. I thoroughly enjoyed this session, it was a real highlight of the festival, Annie is an entertaining speaker, who gave us a fascinating insight into this less common graphic design role. In many respects it seems like a dream job, though exacting movie directors and high pressure deadlines leave you in no doubt that it can also be a very tough job. And now I can’t watch TV in the same way, for example: a scene in the final episode of French drama Witnesses on Channel 4 featured two A5 diaries, approximately 250-300 pages each. Every page appeared to featured some kind of drawing, collage, prose or poetry. As the detective flicked through them no more than 20 pages were properly visible to the viewer. This left me pondering the idea that a designer somewhere in France has probably created over 500 pages of artwork has never been used and will never be seen.

For many speakers Annie Atkins would be a hard act to follow, so it was wise scheduling by John Davey to assign the late afternoon slot to Noma Bar. Noma is renowned for his elegant, clever and excellent use of negative space in his illustrations. I’ve been aware of his editorial illustration work for many years, but Noma’s talk also covered his sculpture, gallery and installation artwork. It was through this work that we saw how Noma has taken a single idea — clever use of negative space — and developed it, evolved his art and prevented himself from repeating himself, getting stale and running out of steam. For me this was as impressive and interesting as the work itself.

The day ended with artist Dominic Wilcox delivering the evening Inspiration Session. Dominic sees the world differently to most people, his is a world of reverse bungee jumps where the land jumps to the person, stained-glass sleeper cars, xylophone bins and electric spoons that let you know when to eat. This was a hilarious session, Dominic’s ideas are surprising and very funny, especially the session ending demonstration of his Cereal Serving Head Crane Device which delighted the audience. I highly recommend checking out these videos of Dominic’s work or buying of Variations on Normal.

Tuesday Highlights

Stacey Mulcahy‘s ‘Programming Play’ session addressed ways for developers to avoid or cope with burn out. Her work helping kids learn how to code was inspiring. A comment she made about the importance of immediate feedback in engaging children in coding, led to remark from John Davey about how good an environment Flash was for learning how to code. I couldn’t agree more, having found programming in BASIC as a child to be unremittingly dull; dozens of lines typed from a magazine resulting in very little happening on screen — these days kids can learn coding through visual environments, such as Scratch, that offer immediate feedback. It was many years before I took any interest in coding again. Interest that was revived initially by Director, but subsequently and especially by Flash, both environments where the output of code could be seen on screen, immediately. They were also environments where you could have a high degree of certainty that if your code worked locally, that it would also work online, cross-browser, cross-platform; an important factor for encouraging confidence in your coding skills. I think Director and Flash were responsible for bringing a generation of people from design and art into coding, people who would probably have been turned off  by traditional computer programming, but who’ve played an important role in the development of interface design, interaction design and web design. While the demise of Flash was inevitable, I hope that something takes its place in encouraging and enticing people from art and design backgrounds into coding.

Jeff Greenspan’s session ‘Be Your Own Brand’ wasn’t what I expected — in a good way. Rather than a discussion of branding from a design perspective or ‘how to promote yourself on social media’ talk, Jeff instead talked us through his many funny and thought provoking art projects, such as, New York City ‘Tourist Lanes‘, Brooklyn ‘Hipster Traps‘ and an Edward Snowden Statue. Through these projects other people’s perception of Jeff changed and his ‘brand’ evolved, and without him actively trying to brand himself.

Prior to Jane ni Dhulchaointigh’s talk I was vaguely aware Sugru, but ignorant on the story behind it’s development and of how incredibly useful it could actually be. The story behind Sugru is a classic story of invention: a great idea, incredible persistence and resilience, and triumph against the odds. What elevates Jane’s story above that of other ‘small inventor triumphs over international conglomerates’ stories are the tales from Sugru users about how they’ve used the product and the difference it’s made to their lives, such as Foridha and her Sugru improved wheelchair.

Tuesday’s Inspiration Session was delivered by Yuko Shimzu, an incredibly talented and late-starting Japanese illustrator. Her illustrations alone would be enough to inspire. However, her story of escaping a life of increasing corporate tedium with limited horizons to head to the USA should serve as a reminder that you’re never too old and it’s never too late to start again or follow your passions. Furthermore, in a culture which increasingly values ‘bright young things’ over ‘old heads’, her continued success serves as a reminder that, ultimately, talent will out.
And if you want further proof that age is no barrier to producing great work consider this: Hokusai was in his seventies when he painted his masterpiece ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa‘.

Wednesday Highlights

I have admiration for anybody who does a live demo, especially when it includes both animating and coding, two things which can be tricky enough to demo on their own. So hats off to Chris Gannon for combining the two successfully in his session ‘How To Animate SVG‘. I use SVG regularly, but don’t usually animate them (I tend to do most of my animation work in After Effects), so I’m always on the lookout for new tools and techniques. I was impressed with the JavaScript library GSAP (Greensock Animation Platform) Chris used for this session. It may not be totally free, like Raphaël or Snap SVG, but the support provided by Greensock sounds very impressive and it looks a very capable animation platform.

Title Design for movies sounds like a great job, proof that you’ve made it as a Motion Designer, with kudos and money to follow in very healthy amounts. That is until you listen to Danny Yount recount his career in Title Design. It’s clearly very hard work, with tight, limited budgets and timeframes and — sometimes — very demanding clients. Despite this Danny’s portfolio proved that it’s possible to create great work. He ended the session by passing on advice that’s applicable to any designer, such as “Being a demanding prima-donna does not make you a better designer”,  “Our work should never be free commercially” and “Learn to let go”.