There are many times that I feel a looming feeling of imposter syndrome, but none more so than when surrounded by people expert in an area that I have only a passing knowledge. And that’s exactly how I felt on Friday last week when I found myself amongst the crowd at Here 2014.
Here is a one-day symposium around creativity, but it is definitely leaning towards the visual side of creativity, that is design and art direction. Now, I’m versed in many aspects of typography, design and most definitely being creative, but I dared not utter the words, “I’m a creative, but I do copy!” out loud. I would have probably gotten away with it had I not bumped into some people I knew. Proper designers.
The thing about being outside your comfort zone is that you can only learn something you didn’t. So while I may have felt like an imposter, I also had a sense that I would come away having learned a lot more than if I had already understood, in some depth, what it felt like to design.
To help immerse myself in the day, I decided to sketch my notes. Thankfully, the Here 2014 goodie bag was chock full of great stuff, including a Sharpie (although you’ll never find me without one, thanks in my love of Artefact Cards). It’s from these notes (aside from the final speaker, Christoph Niemann, as they turned off the lights at the back of the venue and I’m even worse at drawing in the dark).
Here are my take outs from Here 2014.
First up was Nalden, the co-founder of We Transfer, one of the conference sponsors. The main one, as it goes.
The first thing I noticed was the subtle smile that exists in the We Transfer logo. It’s one of those little details that says a lot about a company. A good start. We learned that Nalden grew up in a tiny village where there was nothing to do except play video games – his introduction to technology. With little outlet, Nalden shifted his attention to the web, and began blogging. One of things that he did was put a big background image on his blog, which he used to advertise other companies and blogs. It was this that set the scene for We Transfer’s look and feel.
Never will the service have loads of banners. It makes for a better creative experience and the site is designed to be more than a utility by building partnerships with others in the creative industries. And it’s working. They now process over 10 million files per day.
Others echoed much of the advice Nalden shared during the day, such as ‘Trust Your Gut Instinct’ and ‘Widen Your Horizons By Getting Out Of The Office’. (In case you’re wondering, Nalden speaks in title case.) He also had a final set of principles:
- Make things simple.
- But don’t be afraid to embrace design and technology.
- Just keep the focus.
- Release early and often, using feedback to iterate the product or service.
You can see how these manifest in the service. And while there are loads of other sites that do what We Transfer do, I have to admit that I don’t use anything else.
2. Mirko Borsche
I instantly liked Mirko Borsche. While undeniably successful, he came across as incredibly down-to-earth and approachable. Someone you could collaborate with. And as he got into his talk, that truth was exposed in the work of his business, Bureau Mirko Borsche.
After training in London in the 1990s, Mirko began his career in advertising. It was only in 2007 that he founded his own practise. And they have a good way of working, one that’s reminiscent of Mother London. There are no dedicated seats for staff. Everyone sits around a single table (actually Mirko’s kitchen table, as his studio space doubles as his home). This means everyone works on laptops, so they are not tied to a desk, and they always have a new neighbour, introducing them to different ideas and work.
One of the other things that they collectively do is put the work up on the wall, to display it together. This echoes a similar thought from a Google Firestarters event I attended where 72 & Sunny shared the same insight. It’s a striking thing to do, and it also harked back to the fact that Mirko still gets excited to see his own work out in the wild.
The other thing that Mirko made a point of was that every single hire brought craft with them. By that, he meant that they can draw, and draw well. It’s a key tenet of the practise, and it really comes through in the work they produce.
Of all the graphic design skills evident in the body of work, typography is obviously important to everyone employed there. I could have spent hours looking at the many different treatments. But there is always a theme; this is especially evident in the work they did for the Bavarian State Opera. This is because they often work with a single artist, photographer or illustrator for each individual programme. It’s a dedicated effort that makes it feel more like art than a commercial piece of work.
Whatever it is, it’s working.
Marion began with a bit of perspective. At scale, she said, our endeavours on this planet pale into insignificance. Yet, even though this is the case, human imagination allows us to find our place in something so unimaginable.
But from such hopeful beginnings we were quickly brought back down to earth with a bump. Here’s the fact that did it: In the UK, the most searched term last year was ‘How do I draw’. Which is strange, as drawing is something that isn’t taught. We don’t learn it. Marion explained that, in a class of 30 kids under the age of seven, 25 of them will stop by the time they are 10. This is a travesty, and stems from a belief that drawing with realism is the only way to be good at it.
She encouraged us to find create playful environments in which to work – and in which our kids (if we have them) can create. We should encourage expressive art and drawing. It’s what led to her bringing out what is now a range of books on drawing.
She took us through her process, which was more like a kindergarten classroom than that of a commercial artist. To help Marion discover her own process, she set up cameras around her studio to capture it. What she noticed was that she was rarely sitting down when she worked – only when she comped together items at her computer (which she said was boring to watch). By physically doing things she believed that her creativity was released and extolled us all to get up more, go for a walk, to a gallery, or even to draw first and bring the ideas to a computer later.
It’s funny, but I have been saying the same things to one of my clients recently in relation to their designer. It’s a hard skill to learn – and as a manager, it’s a really hard thing to allow your designers (or any creatives) to do – yet, it could well be the best piece of advice shared that day.
4. Penny Martin
The morning session finished up with a Q&A with Penny Martin, editor of The Gentlewoman magazine. It was conceived as an alternative to the current crop of women’s magazines and it about showing women as the intelligent people they are, rather than sexualising them as many other ‘fashion-led’ magazines do these days. The Gentlewoman is centred on a woman’s personality. That’s an idea I can get behind – and with a circulation of 98,000 it’s obviously true of many others.
Of course, being successful brings it’s own challenges. How to stay ambitious while meeting the expectations of the audience – and the internal team? One way is to remain true to the idea of talking about women but in a modern sense. Not to patronise, but to have a platform that celebrated them.
This idea of being focused is a thread that is carried through the entire magazine. No one, no matter how big a celebrity they are, gets final sign off on copy or images. There is a trust that the magazine has built up with its editorial tone and so they continue this through to their collaborators. It was refreshing to hear.
5. Lernert & Sander
After a coffee to refresh the senses, it was time to hear from Dutch design duo Lernert & Sander. They talked about failures, and showed off an excellent sense of humour.
Opening with a photograph of the pair in ill-fitting jumpers, they shared an insight that everyone should take on board: never wear clothes in a photograph that you’d never normally wear. Yet it was clothes that brought them together, having bonded over wearing the same pair of shoes at the launch of Re- Magazine.
Then they went on to talk through their failures and what they learned from them. First up, the insight that if you’re afraid to present something it’s probably good. This was demonstrated with their commission for Selfridges. The first idea was to showcase the new Shoe Galleries with shoes made from items associated with housewives. Of course, they worried it was sexist so they came up with a second one: cakes that look like shoes.
The problems was, Selfridges loved them both and wanted to make both. For Lernert & Sanders, the issue was one of the concepts (the first one) was conceived exactly as they wanted. The second just didn’t match their own standards, so much so they attempted to distance themselves from it. Luckily, it’s hard to find examples of the fake-cake online. Or maybe I just didn’t search hard enough?
Second insight: if something works don’t change it. They did this for a Diesel music video and it meant no one had ever heard of the singer they were meant to be promoting.
Third: Speak up before it’s too late.
Fourth: A bad brief = trouble. However, don’t go off brief. That’s worse.
Fifth: never present via email. They did this with Chanel, and are still waiting for a reply.
Finally, my favourite insight into their failures: if someone says the project is special, they mean it has no budget.
The overall take-out from this rather comedic talk (which I mean in a good way) was that failures are a great way to keep your work fresh. You learn nothing from always getting it right.
People talk about failing fast, but it was refreshing for someone to actually present their failures rather than only the successes.
6. Sam Jacob
I’d not heard of Sam, but I had heard of FAT. In fact, I have their manifesto printed out to refer to, which I do often.
Sam began by asking us to consider two things: the earliest known tool, created millions of years ago, and the International Space Station. He asked: did design originate 1.6 million years ago when man’s imagination first shaped physical things? And is it this imagination that allows us to create new worlds, such as those in space? Of course, the answer is yes. And it’s a part of what FAT did over 20 years.
FAT did everything backwards, Sam informed us. Yet they also came full circle, as his talk demonstrated. They created their manifesto as a joke, a parody of what was happening at the time, in 1995. Then they set about making it real.
What they discovered was, behind every fiction was a truth, and this became their USP. It was this contrast that brought together different disciplines, people and crafts. They discovered that, at this intersection, the magic happens. Functions are challenged, patterns get broken.
I’ve long championed the idea of hiring people into advertising and marketing who aren’t formally trained in those disciplines. FAT proved it can work for something as formal as architecture. It’s what allowed them to write their own history, even though they’d made an attempt to do so right back at the point of their creation.
As Sam said, they’d always done things backwards.
7. Eric Yahnker
After explaining how to pronounce his name, Eric Yahnker did some self-promotion. It’s warranted. As you may not have been there, it was about his latest exhibition at Paradise Row, London. Promoting over, it was on to storytelling.
Now, Eric was funny. He’s built a career on it – and his amazing ability to draw. His work is, in his words, in a place that has his heart next to a pair of balls that are waiting to drop. That is, it looks fairly shallow, but it’s actually quite deep.
We were treated to a story about how Eric came to be an artist, rather than anything else. His break was on South Park, the movie, where he learned about animation. Previously, he knew zilch about it, but as he noted, coming into something with no background knowledge can be a good thing. This took him to some Seinfeld work, and then a suckling of the corporate teat on some Microsoft work (which, bizarrely, I’d done a campaign with when I worked on the account in the UK). After that, he realised he wanted to just do art.
His early work took lots of time, but didn’t give him much of a boost. He spent hours doing things like picking apart a GAP sweater, or cutting the text of Moby Dick into alphabetised piles. In his career, he’d done some time-consuming things, but all great. It had produced a list of Life Rules, which Eric kindly shared:
- Don’t live with your parents.
- Do school because you want to.
- Have a trademark look (but don’t be a douchebag).
- Always tell the (creative) truth – don’t lie to yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to self-promote.
- Accept criticism. It’s what makes you realise you’ve made it.
- Procrastination is absolutely necessary.
- Work shit jobs when you find yourself hating what you do.
- Put aside some ‘fuck you’ money, so you can always say no to the things that aren’t good for your soul.
- Don’t live with your parents.
Eric told these with hilarious asides. I’m not even going to try to do them justice. What I would do is recommend you see the man talk, or better still, talk to the man himself. And definitely go see his work.
8. Marina Willer
As the first female partner at Pentagram, Marina shared a lot of visual stuff that she and her team liked. I can’t show you that. What I can share is the main observation of her talk: G.A.S. That’s Give A Shit.
Work with people you adore and you can share ideas and experiences with. Don’t waste time on working with people you don’t like. Because at Pentagram, no one tells you what to do.
The other thing that Marina shared came from her having twins (and echoed the theme from Marion’s talk). She wanted us to keep our creativity and playful views on life. And to keep asking questions – she had an excellent slideshow highlighting the brilliant things her twins had said.
She made her point through Helveticatising – using Helvetica on things to demonstrate how it was spoiling the world. Not the font itself, but over-reliance on it. She wanted us to stop things always looking the same. To prove it, she took some of Pentagram’s work and changed the font to Helvetica. Instantly, it lost it’s personality and verve.
A good piece of advice – applied to fonts, certain words, ideas, and anything else that you can create more than one version of.
9. Agi & Sam
Two young fashion designers, terrified about public speaking. They needn’t have been, they did good. They talked mostly about how they’d started out, how they’ve always striven to bring modernity and tradition together in their collections.
Highlights included their mantra: make a collection by any means necessary, which has seen them use commercial printing that’s done on plastic banners (the type you see outside pubs and hotels) to make their fabrics.
Having met while interns at Alexander McQueen, they weren’t getting any breaks. Three things changed that: asking for help from mentors, social media, and learning how to run a business (which actually taught them that expensive things don’t always sell).
I wrote down a phrase they said, which I think is a good thing to share with you: if it feels right, it’s right. The third time gut instinct came up in talks.
10. Ewen Spencer
A photographer who was born in the north-east (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to be exact) and now resides in Brighton, on the south coast of England. Ewen talked about how mistakes can teach you important lessons – but that you have to act on what they teach you.
He’s most famous for his photos of British culture. It all began by Ewen taking photographs of the local northern soul scene as part of his degree show. Over time he kept up the idea of capturing cultural movements in the UK. This culminated in him publishing his 2005 collection, Open Mic, which documents the early days of the UK Grime scene. Ironically, Ewen doesn’t like Grime music.
This is what has made him famous, leading to him being commissioned by the likes of ID magazine and other culturally relevant magazines. He used these commissions to pay for his own side projects, keeping back shots and creating a story that he wanted to tell.
About five years ago, he shifted his focus to a sub-culture in Italy: immigrants. He travelled there, and to Greece, to shoot images of people sidelined by society and to try and tell their story. It took Martin Parr to point out it wasn’t working, that the work felt worthy. Ewen had failed.
It’s tough to pick yourself up from that. Yet, among the shots Ewen found some images of young Italian kids on scooters. These, it seemed, were more in line with what he should be doing. But it took a mistake to get him on the right path – and having it pointed out to him by someone he obviously thought a lot of.
His oeuvre has now been captured in three zines, taking in the youth in Italy, Miami and Marseille. Youth, culture. Youth culture. You can buy the zines, and his other books, in his shop. They’re recommended.
11. Christoph Niemann
I’m not sure, even to those who don’t know design, that Christoph needs any introduction. His illustrations have graced the covers of The New Yorker magazine and the New York Times, and also been used by Google. Oh, and he’s written some books. He’s got a website, obviously.
He began by reminding us that even though we’ve doing things for years, they are still hard. I could hear Russell Davis, from GDS, quoting Michael Slaby (which I wrote about in this blog post).
Christoph also talked, briefly, about collaboration. It was the springboard for the rest of his talk. But he wasn’t talking about collaborating with other illustrators, but with his audience. The moment when they got the joke, which was always evident in his work.
Then… well, then the venue lights went off. I couldn’t see. So I had to sit back and listen to anecdotes riffing on this idea of collaborating with readers (viewers?) of his work, about how he drew the New York marathon while running it, for example.
All I managed to do was draw a light bulb and write the words: They turned off the lights??
And that was it. The day was done.
I didn’t feel like an imposter any more. I had spent my day drawing, thinking and being creative. Which is how I spend most of my days. And how I wish to spend many more.
Here London was a good reminder of how to go about that.