What went down at Design + Banter 9

lightning talks? we’ll give you lightning talks!

On Tuesday night  Shoreditch Village Hall in Hoxton Square played host to the second Design and Banter of 2014. Despite the threat of an imminent tube strike, it was a sell-out event, the mix of lightning talks and free craft beer by now down to an exact science at what has fast become an institution on the London web design scene. 

This time around the General Manager of IBM Design Phil Gilbert had come to speak about what they were building over in Austin, and kindly agreed to pick up the drinks tab for the night as well. 

Having IBM associated with an event built around contemporary design thinking might seem a little incongruous at first, but that’s to forget the work of IBM in the 1960s where Eliot Noyes collaborated with Paul Rand and Charles Eames on IBM products in a team of designers that would make Apple weep, so the connection actually makes a lot of sense. Luckily Phil Gilbert was on hand to drum that in.

Anyway, the talks were a little longer than usual this time, and packed a real punch, so instead of editorialising too much, what follows is a blow-by-blow account for you if you weren’t there or you want to remember.

Joseph Smith - Passion, Politics, Punk

First speaker Joe has worked all over the place doing different types of design work, but his passion is for social enterprise. He talked through his struggles trying to achieve that goal, through working as a kind of outside ‘design consultant’ for public and non-profit projects and eventually deciding to do it himself with some friends and found the Makerversity.

He recalled hearing Chris Armstrong at an earlier Design & Banter decrying that designers have a tendency to ‘scratch our own itches’ and that they should instead be trying to change the world, doing ‘design for change’. Joe sees this as a bit grandiose; he isn’t trying to change the world but he does believe that designers can be doing more to improve day-to-day life for the people most in need of support.

In his experience building web products for public projects and social enterprises, he and his colleagues became de facto design consultants as they were the sole voice of design thinking, which wasn’t an ideal position to be in. They worked on projects to improve social care, tackle youth unemployment, coordinate meals and build products for social workers, all with mixed results.

‘Designers [with their skillsets] are well-placed to improve things, but design work in that space has a lot of unforeseen challenges.’

There was a deep culture clash as a result of the knowledge gap. There wasn’t an adequate feedback layer for the design, and equally the designers had no background working in the organisations that desperately needed modern solutions. Joe sympathises with the business who might feel that these desingers are inexperienced in business matters and end up telling them to suck eggs. As a result, the products suffered. 

‘Working in a consultancy role, you can’t push your own agenda.’

He said that in theory the work sounds extremely rewarding - in the morning you can solve social care, then in the afternoon turn your attention to youth unemployment. The reality is very different. After all, as a designer, how much can you know about the problem you’re trying to solve without a background in that world? Joe echoed a wry critique when he said: ‘It looks great but will it help solve youth unemployment?’ 

The problem is confounded because design as a discipline is deeply entwined with the world of profit, much more so even than social enterprises that may aim to achieve a profit. Joe conjectures that this is because modern design started with the industrial revolution - ‘design for industry’ - and as such design language still reflects that thinking. It is the language of business targets and goals. Within that designers are limited by their disciplines - a service designer will give you something different from a product designer and so on.

So how can designers stop making ‘good but shite’ work - work that doesn’t really solve the problems? Joe suggests this is to ‘get inside the project’, meaning to take a more holistic approach to the project, so as well as straight design you are doing business planning and engaging with the issues. 

This way when the design work starts you are crafting what is really needed because you are coming from an informed position. That is the start, and this was the chief learning Joe shared with the audience, but he decided to put his money where his mouth is and start a new venture. After all, he says, ‘Why do designers who’ve never started a business, go in and advise businesses? It’s bullshit.’

Joe has used this thinking to start Makerversity. The structure of Makerversity flowed naturally from Joe and his co-founders’ political beliefs about shared ownership and fairness, balanced with trying to build a sustainable financial model. It’s an intentionally independent venture without shareholder funding so that although things move more slowly, they can retain complete control and see out their goals for it.

The Makerversity website unsurprisingly does a great job of describing the work they do, but in the main as well as being a learning space, they work with youth charities to promote and run apprenticeships and internships so young people can pick up the skills they need for the modern world. 

It sounds like an extremely worthwhile venture, that’s resulted from a lot of good thinking. Joe invites us to ‘see where it’s at in 5 years’ and I wish him the best of luck.

Phil Gilbert - General Manager of IBM Design 

Phil takes to the stage, resplendent in Steve Jobs-esque turtle neck and eyeglasses, and begins with a joke, ‘Have you heard of IBM? Did you ever think you’d be listening to someone from IBM speak here?’ 

The implication is clear, what on earth are IBM doing sponsoring and sending their GM to speak at London’s premier event for web design thinking?

Phil will go on to elaborate that IBM is attempting a holistic notion of design, simultaneously taking them back to the origins of the company, while also reflecting and extending what is happening now with web products.

Phil explains that he’s been there for four years, before that he was a serial entrepreneur, and he never expected to come to work for IBM. He says he’s not an IBM expert by any means, that instead he signed up in the early stages of a project almost unprecedented in its ambition.

‘This is something new for IBM, that may or may not work out.’

At the top level of IBM it was decided that a change was needed. In a company that employs 400,000 people, they had to build a lot better product. It was decided that better design thinking was the way to that path; by reinventing how they do design they could reinvent the whole company! Phil’s challenge was set.

A senior colleague at IBM hoped to be supportive, when he remarked to Phil, ‘You know you only need 25% to reflect the new culture to have a massive culture change. Wait, Shit! That’s 100,000 people.’

Clearly the only way this is going to work is to take it one step at a time, as they are in the very early days of a longer journey, but IBM Design is planning on hiring between 1000 and 1500 designers to help embed that change.

‘Big isn’t better, but that’s what we need for culture change on this level.’

Phil explained that there is a massive opportunity to succeed in this, and that they’ll write the book in 2020 at the earliest, to see if they were right. They could be wrong! 

‘JK Rowling has come out and said that the ending of Harry Potter is all wrong. Well maybe it’ll turn out that I’m wrong and I’ll end up marrying Hermione.’

After laying out the challenge, Phil attempted to bridge the connection with IBM’s roots as the company that said ‘good design is good business’ and would build one of the best design teams in living memory.

Phil believes that design is now about engagement. IBM used to have the problem convincing people that design was something to advance humanity, not something to be afraid of, and that’s no longer the problem. Instead it’s that to some people IBM can look like Woolworth’s - a huge institution that no longer exists - and they could end up that way.

At IBM they aren’t just trying to apply design thinking, but reimagining everything. They face the same problems as most large tech companies - online is now the sole place to interact with customers, and the generation gap has never been wider among those customers. How can IBM speak to an audience with such a disparity of access to technology?

‘Product = brand’

There is still a separation between communication design and product design, but that is narrowing. This goes back to IBM’s motto since the 1920s, of building not simply a great visual experience but also a thoughtful approach to communication.

Phil went on to give a detailed breakdown of how the process is working, with the caveat that these are early days, and they are taking it ‘step by step’. They now have 60 teams in the company using the new design thinking, and when they publicised this fact internally, a lot of the wider company wanted to join in.

Phil says that the impediments to design thinking have been eradicated at the top and ground level, and that changing the minds of middle management will be a longer journey, and they are hoping to achieve the desired outcome of a complete culture change by 2020 - 2025.

‘Culture eats strategy for lunch every day.’

Phil left us with the thought that IBM are delivering product to the market every day, so this needs to be informed by design practices at every level for that product to stand up. After all, they aren’t going to stop coding and wait.

To editorialise for a moment, I feel that ultimately if this process can produce another Eames or Rand, then it will probably all have been worth it.

Luke Murphy-Wearmouth  - Reframing Web Design - the Process of Theatre Design

After a short interval (chiefly for the assembled throng to refill on beers), Luke was given the unenviable task of following a talk that namedropped more design greats than you can shake an SK-4 record player at. Luckily he’s a seasoned-pro on the talking circuit and took a very different tact from the previous two speakers. 

He was here to talk about the correlations he’s noticed between theatre design and web design, and how the former can inform better process in the latter.

He explained that he thought web design has grown up, that it’s reached a level of maturity where we need to think more about what we do and less about the tools, be they Photoshop, CSS or Javascript.

Luke used to be a theatre designer as well as doing web design, and he worked chiefly on set and lighting design. He began to notice the parallels between theatre and web design where:

Set design - layout

Costume design - content

Prop design - interaction

Lighting design - colours

 - where audio design is the only outlier.

Theatre designers use this base layer to create scenes, in the same way web designers use these aspects to build websites. Theatre designers also do their own version of wireframe building by building white box models, devoid of context, so they can build the real set from this first step.

Luke took a real-world example of web design he’s fond of, with Layervault’s Designer News page. In theatre design, he explained, lighting has two aspects - hue and value - and that DN does an excellent job of using light and value to pull focus and gently the guide the viewer through the page. As a collective, Luke thinks web designers should be thinking at this level.

Phew, what an evening! 

Afterwards the by-now slightly tipsy designers stuck around, showing no sign of worrying how the hell they would get home. After all, they had a job at IBM Design to land. Eventually however, the dust settled (and the beer ran out) and there was a mass movement to the bar around the corner. What followed cannot be repeated here, but see you at the next one for the big 1-0.

Design + Banter is an intimate event in London bringing together 175 designers from the city’s brightest startups and best agencies. 

The next event is happening on March 3rd, again at the Shoreditch Village Hall. Head to their website to be added to the mailing list for a chance to get a ticket for the tenth event, but be warned, they usually go in under an hour!