Sheffield Design Week Conference, 18th June 2015

Session 1 – Invisible Design

Deyan Sudjic introduces. He mentions a number of names for the thing being discussed: invisible design, or anonymous design. Anonymous because it is multiply authored, and because it doesn’t carry the ego of the designer. Invisible because it’s ubiquitous, familiar, and disappears into the background. Eg, qwerty keyboard. Mention of Kerouac’s working with a single, long sheet of manuscript when writing On The Road on the road; I read this as working outside of the typewriter’s affordances.

Henrik Kerbel
Working for A2 type, has collaborated with Margaret Calvert on three projects, under discussion today.

First, the New Railway typeface that extends the face already in use in BR, NHS and other gov contexts and makes it digitally usable. The end result takes up a bit less space on the page than Helvetica Neue.

Second, New Transport (similar to GDS Transport). Designed because of Beautiful reinvention of the original Transport typeface, with lovely attention to detail: “ink traps at small junctions” =

Moscow Metro, typeface and pictograms. Unconcerned by ethical worries, worked on the faces for a UK based design contractor.

Ben Terrett, GDS

Spoke engagingly about Closed 1700 websites, and amalgamated the remaining 300 into one site. The design process takes into account the history of government communications: WW2 was the first time that governments needed to speak to a lot of people at once, and the simplicity of the design decisions was taken on board. Later, government communications became more branded, more “campaign shaped”, more about persuasion than information. The traffic metaphor (web traffic/road traffic) led to a confluence with the Transport typeface. Also, building on Margaret & Jock’s thorough usability testing: the research had already been done that proved this was a rock-solid typeface for information delivery in a clear fashion.

This design is not invisible, but it is boring. But the emphasis here is on moving from a mode of communication that is less about persuasion and more about usability: people stay with usable communications longer.

Corin Mellor
Working for the family business, David Mellor design. The emphasis of the company was on “changing people’s lives through good design”, for example producing “cutlery for the masses”. Showed some fab examples of post-war street furniture designed by the company: modular bus shelters, “street signalling system” (traffic lights), “lighting columns” (lampposts). He kept mentioning the idea of service: “public service through good design”. The ideological underpinning of this everyday mundane design work is utopian, and somehow noble. It feels, though, like this is at odds with Toffler’s demassification and is inherently modernist in its thinking.

In my view, the invisible design here is about making the ideology embodied in the design invisible.

Panel discussion
Bullet points:
Henrik described the need to seek out invisible design during quiet moments.
Deyan describes the characteristics of invisibility: frictionless, where you don’t notice the seams, and ‘less is more’ modernism. Efficiency as an underlying ideological framework for all of this went unquestioned, to the extent that Deyan described a Kalashnikov as “good” design. Good does not mean morally uplifting in his view – does this mean that he condones morally reprehensible yet efficient design? Dark patterns? Manipulation? I personally had a hard time getting to grips with how uncritical this whole discussion became.

Session 2 – New Maker Economy

Andrew Sleigh
A survey of maker spaces in the UK. The headlines are that they are hard to pin down, keep popping up and disappearing again, and this is because they operate on very thin margins. The most popular reason for people’s participation is to socialise. Direct digital manufacturing will be the big scale-up for this but will not create a ton of jobs.

Paul Beech – Pimoroni
Great outline of how the business could grow really quickly because of new technological advances.

Jessi Baker – Provenance
The first female speaker, half-way through the day, hooray! Very interesting ideas about how decentralisation can and will affect the supply chain of material products.

1. Distributed manufacturing and design.
Where things are made matters to customers. Village industries weren’t viable during the ‘mass production’ era but soon will be again.

2. Sharing economy to circular economy
Every material is grown or mined. The linear model of grow/mine, make, use, dispose of is flawed and not sustainable. We share stuff as well as data: people time-share dresses, or other things: no one customer owns the product. Is this a way forward? Time-share everything?

3. Powerful decentralised computing.
This is where it gets interesting. The front end of the internet is decentralised, but the back end is very centralised, in google/facebook/twitter’s servers. This centralisation creates vulnerability: single point of control, single point of failure, bottleneck. Bitcoin allows the transfer of units of value between people, with no central bank or intermediary that stores that transaction. Blockchain can be used for the secure transfer of value that isn’t just monetary value. uses blockchain to show product info, as a way of guaranteeing authenticity securely. The stories behind the products become a selling point, a store of value. They use NFC chips.

Session 3

Andy Altman, Why Not?
A good run down of the comedy carpet project, which was entertaining to watch.

Danny Antrobus – Better with Data
A good outline of what work has been done with the better with data project in regard to air quality in Sheffield. There are some shortcomings he outlined in the strategy but the main points were that they are working on it.

Some artists were commissioned to use the data, and seeing data as culture is a bg way of starting to get a design audience to think about data.

Kingsley Ash did a sonification of the data; Kasia (?) did a piece that measured exhaled breath for pollutants alongside the actual readings for the city, and Stefanie Povasec did a piece with etched glasses that obscured vision in line with pollutant levels.

Some useful data sources:

British Council Residency Presentations

Most interesting here was Jane Hall from Assemble. Her research project into Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi spawned a whole new body of work and has led to her current PhD study. A welcome reminder that architecture is a social practice, and is that first and foremost. I also took a lot from the visual quality of her presentation: it was the best designed set of slides of the day, and the film she produced in Brazil is a great way of making research visible. I should learn from this.

Made You Look
A screening of this new film about analogue design processes in digital times. It was enjoyable, but the key takeaway for me was this: the personal characteristics that an auratic object becomes imbued with are indicative of a private relationship with the maker. One of the talking heads in the film from the London Print Club spoke about how a particular designer’s £800 prints had muck from the designer’s cakey fingers on the back. This is real value, because it offers real proximity. That’s what people are buying when they buy a hand-made artwork: a tactile, permanent object that offers an aesthetic experience for sure, but also a sense of proximity, of private interaction, with the producer. There is definitely something in the private nature of that interaction that I think is important.

Review in brief:
A nice day out, but more diversity among the panellists next time please!