In pursuit of an idea

The Design of Understanding conference was a welcome celebration of how stories can help to make great work

It’s an old rhetorical device, but one of the best ways to communicate something complex is to describe it indirectly, using the language of something more familiar. At the recent Design of Understanding conference at the St Bride Foundation in London, the metaphors came thick and fast, and from an array of sources. Here, perhaps unusually for a ‘design’ conference, there was more to think about than look at – after all, the 11 talks exploring how ‘ideas’ can be designed to be more understandable were billed, it seemed to me, with a slightly conceptual edge. To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

That said, it was still a surprise to see a clip from Men in Black load up during the first talk, from It’s Nice That’s Will Hudson. The INT co-founder screened a scene where Will Smith’s character sits a test with a group of other candidates to determine if they have what it takes to be an MiB agent. As the others try to write on papers resting on their knees or up the sides of their egg-shaped chairs, Smith saunters over to a heavy table and drags it noisily towards his seat. The solution, which had sat innocuous and ignored, was right there all along.

It was the thinking behind this kind of act of rebellion – of doing something else while others plough on regardless – that chimed with Hudson’s main point; that a mindset of “youthful exuberance” can often lead to a new direction. It’s an approach built upon simply trying new ideas out; when having the benefit of accrued experience would perhaps question attempting them in the first place.
But while a mind geared to trying anything will occasionally hit the mark, Tony Quinlan of Narrate Consulting stressed the importance of collaboratively sharing our experiences and stories. When we do learn things, he said, we learn from others as much as ourselves. And this can mean learning from failure as well as success; something that the “corporate commandments and values” trotted out by brands in the 1990s failed to acknowledge, Quinlan noted. Too often, he recalled, a company’s ‘story’ would be cleaned up and ironed out, becoming less true and less believable in the process.

Helping to create an entirely new world, yet still making it believable, is part of David Sheldon-Hicks’ enviable job at Territory Studio, the creative outfit which made the screen graphics for the eponymous spaceship in Ridley Scott’s 2012 film, Prometheus. The studio’s job, said Sheldon-Hicks, was to create “an interface language to sell the sci-fi environment”. The surprising revelation was that all of the digital sequences, which played out on physical screens fitted into the set of the spaceship, were rooted in reality: much of them making use of data supplied by NASA.

At the opposite end of this maximalist approach was Durrell Bishop, a product designer who has worked at IDEO, his own company Luckybite, and is now at BERG Cloud. Bishop’s interrogative attitude to product design was stimulating. The design of most contemporary objects is abstract and hidden, he surmised – an iPod or DVD player gives away little of how it works; unlike the simple, direct functionality of a vase or chair. With our gadgets and high-tech kit, we know ‘what’ they do but almost nothing of ‘how’ it is done. Metaphor can help. Durrell’s co-founder at Luckybite, Tom Hulbert, once explored how a VCR works using the metaphor of a kitchen sink. The two taps were the ‘tuners’ which distributed the transmission (the water); a sieve placed under one of the taps was the display screen. A ‘recording’ was explained by putting a bottle under the stream of water; a bottle and sieve side-by-side implied the unit was showing and recording a channel at the same time. Durrell’s point was not that we reconfigure video devices to resemble kitchen equipment, but that if we don’t ‘see’ these aspects of the machine, how can we know or even design them?

The communication of ideas was at the heart of the other talks, too. Jo Roach of Makies showed how the dogged pursuit of an idea, in her case the setting up of a bespoke doll design company, can lead the idea itself down many different paths; while Andy Kirk presented a fantastic talk on the growing popularity for data visualisation, with a host of examples from the last year. These kinds of visualisations should “reveal things”, said Kirk, everything from finding the quietest parts of a city, to seeing how the recent ‘bridge closure’ in New Jersey affected traffic (and potentially governor Chris Christie’s career). Journalist Andrew Webb later offered a detailed look at how our knowledge of making and preparing food changed over the 20th century, with ideas shared through cookery books, then television, and more recently, blogs.

Online is where ex-BBC journalist Nic Newman picked things up with his talk about the changing face of news. “People don’t like to share stories which are ambiguous or complex” and therefore “important” news is often not shared, he said. The problem, he continued, is that this evidence is often used to drive editorial direction. Depressing as it was to see what really succeeds online (i.e. snappy celeb-driven stories are most ‘shared’), there was some hope in the form of the continuing survival of long copy. Readers are sharing lengthier pieces, Newman revealed, it’s mid-length stories which are fail to sustain interest. In fact, these longer texts are often the ones pushing what the web can do, as in the New York Times’ ‘Snow Fall’ interactive feature.

How online has changed our cultural production was also addressed by Simon Esterson of Eye magazine and Matt Sheret of the Government Digital Service, who gave a talk about comics. Sheret is a gifted speaker and his deconstruction of how comics ‘work’ – how the reader fills the space between the panels so that “two images become a single idea” – showed he cares passionately about what happens to the medium. Sheret claimed comics creators can just ignore the web, or lean into it and treat it as the new page. But the problem is the internet is risky and can break: a dead link in Philippa Rice’s My Cardboard Life halts the narrative; while Chris Ware’s McSweeney’s app comic no longer works with the iOS7 update. It’s also an experience that cannot be kept, unlike its printed forebears. Just as with treasured paper editions, Sheret said, we need to build our own boxes for digital work – “an attic for the internet”.

Closing the day’s sessions, conference organiser Max Gadney of agency After the Flood interviewed Russell Davies who has direct experience of how online has the power to change people’s day-to-day lives, via his work on the GOV.UK website for the GDS. Like Davies’ best work, from the Nike ‘Run London’ 10ks developed while at Wieden + Kennedy to the groundbreaking GOV.UK, clarity of idea was and is the most important thing of all.

Within GOV.UK there is something of the clear directness of the government poster campaigns from the 1940s – the “tidy your hammers” approach, as Davies put it. Indeed, being aware of the tools we use to create things also seemed apt in this context. Over the course of the day, most of the speakers at DoU had come back to the same thing: that design is really how we make ideas work. 1

The Design of Understanding conference took place at the St Bride Foundation in London on January 24. More details at

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