Flashing Lights

Andy Polaine is inspired by the more creative direction of 2007’s Flash on the Beach event

The tools that we use as designers define the work that we create. Think of type created with a brush and ink versus chisel and stone. So I was slightly wary of being asked to be part of Flash on the Beach 2007 in Brighton (flashonthebeach.com). Should we really be having conferences about a single tool? What would Pencil on the Beach or Photoshop on the Pier be like?

I need not have worried. John Davey, founder and organiser of Flash on the Beach ensured there was a healthy mix of presentations about creative processes and practices alongside the technical and practical Flash sessions. With a mix of designers, programmers, producers, professionals and students in the audience there was something for all the 825 attendees (300 more than last year).

“A lot of the feedback from last year was that it was a little heavy on the technical side,” says Davey. “This year I pulled in a lot more speakers talking about creativity and more female speakers too. The plan was that people are either going to be educated by a technical presentation or inspired by the creative. From the feedback this year and reading all the blog posts, it seems it was almost the perfect balance.”

“For me the whole purpose of Flash on the Beach is that it is an opportunity to get a whole load of people together who I want to see and to be a great host. Everything else after that is icing on the cake. I want the speakers’ skills and experience to waft over you and hopefully some of it soaks into the skin.”

Quite apart from the quality of the presentations, Davey knows how to be a great host. Over the years, I’ve been part of many conferences, but I have never known such a warm atmosphere and generosity from the organisers. The venue in Brighton’s Dome also added to the informal, familial tone. Many conference venues are sterile, executive affairs, but standing on the stage at the Dome, with its gold and red nineteenth century curves, I felt like I should be performing a track from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All of which made a big difference to the interaction between the speakers and audience throughout the event.

It is always both inspiring and depressing to listen to such an accomplished array of practitioners and presenters. On the one hand I couldn’t wait to get back to creating some new work, yet at the same time the kind of incredible Processing (processing.org) projects that Robert Hodgin (flight404.com) showed and Erik Natzke’s (jot.eriknatzke.com) brilliant Flash experimentation left us all breathless and thinking we might as well retire.

As the conference unfolded it became clear that the vector was no longer the dominant graphic style. Recent versions of Flash now handle bitmapped images and video very well and the Flash community have embraced the pixel – something of a renaissance for us older new media designers in the audience.

Particles systems were all the rage, from Seb Lee-Delisle’s session (sebleedelisle.com) culminating in Pyrotechnics to the People, an interactive fireworks show projected onto the front of a church in the city centre, to Bradley Grosh’s hyperactive escapade through the joys of 3D particle sprites in Maya (gmunk.com). Mario Klingemann (quasimondo.com) came in to fight for the value of 2D imagery in the face of all that 3D sexiness.

The folks from Adobe heavily sponsored the conference and were there to present a sneak preview of the next version of Flash. It’s interesting to see the inherent tension that was played out across the presentations. Adobe clearly sees a profitable future in expanding Flash’s capabilities to create rich desktop and enterprise-level applications. The flip-side of this is that it has become an incredibly complex tool and people may be less likely to feel inclined to simply ‘noodle around’ with it, as Brendan Dawes remarked.

Feeling confident enough to play around with the tools and see what you can create, avoiding the default settings (and thus the default style) was a large part of Dawes’s presentation, “If it ain’t broke – break it!”. Dawes’s approach tends to be one of pulling things apart, diving in and just having a go in order to discover new ideas beyond the pre-set filters.

Along with Dawes, the antidote to this technological determinism was delivered by the wisdom of experience in the form of Hillman Curtis (hillmancurtis.com) and Neville Brody (researchstudios.com). Both presented projects that had little to do with any particular technology, but their story of creativity.

Brody went through the constantly evolving identity work of his Research Studios and Curtis took us through the ‘Anatomy of a Scene’, exploring the films that he makes to recharge his creative batteries. Rather than being an escape from his commercial life he sees it as an integral part of being able to do that work well.

“I have a responsibility to whatever brand I’m promoting, but I also have a responsibility to do what artists do, which is reflect, react, evolve and if I’m lucky to put some­thing back into it that will influence the world,” he says. He went on to relate a story about seeing an unusual scene on the streets of New York and realising he was wondering out loud, talking to himself.

“Sometimes the information is just too much and you have to allow yourself to talk to yourself. Push some stuff out of the way and make some room for you to have a conversation with yourself. It can take many forms, mine happens to be with a video camera, for others it might be photographs or a sketchbook.”

Wise words, but I’m also happy to hear what others had to say. Next year’s Flash on the Beach is already being planned, I can heartily recommend getting your towels on the best seats early.

Andy Polaine is an interactive designer, writer, and academic


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