Category Archives: Digital

I’d like to thank…

I was at the Museums + Heritage Awards show in swanky Northumberland Avenue in London last night as the Goes to Town project I worked on at the Museum of Natural History was shortlisted for an award in the marketing campaign category.

Happily, we won, and against tough competition – places with more people and bigger budgets (at least, I think they have bigger budgets and more people).

So as well as everyone at the Museum, I’d particularly like to thank Simon Meek at Okayso and Charlie Piggins at Mode of Thought, who worked on the branding and designs for the displays, mobile website and also on the promotional videos. Here’s one:

I also got to wear a Goes to Town labcoat on stage and  make a silly speech about a rabbit, hedgehog and flamingo. And look beardy and bespectacled with Marcus Brigstocke.

Open source – the art of creative collaboration

Collaboration is very much a part of the zeitgeist. Social networks, open innovation, crowdsourcing and an emergent co-design philosophy all point to a breakdown in silos of professional practice and a coming together of previously disparate parties. Across the world, groups with shared interests are using social media to debate, collaborate and act on their ideas in a way that has never been possible before.

In consumer branding too, collaborations, whilst not exactly new, are becoming more prevalent and are taking on new forms, in particular by engaging consumers to generate creative ideas. Over the last few years, companies have started to draw the public into the process of design and development by using crowdsourcing initiatives and open design competitions. The idea, says Joe Bakowski, managing director of graphic design agency Stocks Taylor Benson, is that online crowdsourcing and design competitions allow customers to feel part of the brands they love and use.

‘There is no doubt that crowdsourcing and competitions can be used to generate a buzz around a brand and make customers feel involved and I’m sure it can offer certain small-scale and short term benefits for the brand,’ says Bakowski. ‘By throwing design open to a multitude of people, the brand may also end up with some very good ideas. In fact, with thousands of people submitting, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them in isolation might be better than those from the brand’s design agency.’

A crowdsourcing initiative recently run by Sony, called Open Planet Ideas, has gathered suggestions from people around the world on ways that Sony’s technologies can be repurposed to tackle environmental problems. ‘Open Planet Ideas is an exercise for us to be open and honest,’ says Tak Kawagoi, director of Sony Design Europe. ‘It’s very interesting to use new ideas from consumers and it’s good for us to understand them better.’

To some, this may seem very appealing but there is plenty of resistance to crowdsourcing and open competitions when it comes to actual design work. As this article was being written, a closely balanced yet passionate debate was unfolding on the Facebook page of Adobe’s Creative Juices initiative, a forum set up by Adobe for professional and non-professional designers to share work, ideas, discussions and design techniques. The controversy stems from a competition thrown out to this community to design the new Creative Juices logo, where the designer of the winning logo receives a copy of Adobe’s Creative Suite 5 software.

Some in the community, many of whom are professional designers, feel that the competition is a ruse by Adobe to source numerous creative ideas for free. It can then select the best one and implement it across all its Creative Juices promotional activity, in turn promoting Adobe products to existing and potential customers. Others see the competition merely as an innocent method of allowing creative people to share their work, receive peer recognition and feedback, and ultimately to give the site a community-sourced logo.

Whilst Adobe Creative Juices is a relatively low-key open design competition, it does reveal some of the awkwardness which surrounds public design collaborations, especially on high-profile or commercial platforms. Detractors believe that open competitions devalue both the design process and the skills of professional designers.

Last year, Gap found itself dealing with the seemingly shambolic launch of its new, professionally designed logo. Almost instantly, the new logo – an oddly anachronistic Helvetica and gradient-square affair by New York agency Laird & Partners – was pounced upon by online commentators, many of whom decried it as a big mistake.

In a strange tactical shift, Gap then launched a fleeting open competition to search for a second new logo, asking people to ‘share your designs’. The crowdsourcing bugbear raised its head – free design work for a multinational corporation, anyone? – and in the end the whole thing petered out with a reinstatement of the original blue square logo.

Meanwhile, Marka Hansen, president of Gap brand North America, admitted a mistake: ‘We’ve learned a lot in this process. And we are clear that we did not go about this in the right way. We recognise that we missed the opportunity to engage with the online community. This wasn’t the right project at the right time for crowdsourcing. There may be a time to evolve our logo, but if and when that time comes, we’ll handle it in a different way.’

The Gap debacle says a lot about both the power and pressure created by online social media – and brands’ willingness to bow to it – as well as the treacherous waters of crowdsourcing design ideas. According to graphic designer Ben Stott, brands that feel the need to ask consumers for designs are already lacking a necessary connection with their customer base. In Gap’s case, Hansen’s comments would appear to confirm that assessment.

‘I would be shocked if a client who didn’t already have this type of collaboration as a part of their strategy suddenly asked to do something like this,’ says Stott. ‘But then there are brands like Nike who do amazing things that involve people without [participants] really even thinking about it.’

Two things are coinciding here: the unprecedented ability of consumers to debate and respond to a brand’s behaviour, often en masse, and the increased access to creative technologies, allowing more people to design and produce their own content, whether graphics, film, photography, animation and so on. Crowdsourcing and open competition are one response of big business to these two developments. And whilst not everyone is a great designer, if the crowdsourcing net is cast wide enough there’s a fair chance of a catch.

‘Creativity has been democratised for some time and we are now starting to feel the effect of this on the design community,’ adds Stott. ‘Technological advances raise the bar on what everyone can achieve, making us all content producers. Photographers have had it far worse than designers: everyone is a photographer but, as we know, not everyone is a good photographer.’

So do crowdsourcing and open competition threaten design as a profession? The standard design industry response has been to admonish ‘crowdsourcers’ as devaluing design by holding what is essentially a gigantic free creative pitch. Yet most designers don’t really see the public as a threat.

‘Crowdsourcing is an amusing and enjoyable diversion; if in doubt, ask the populous,’ says Howard Milton, chairman of design group Smith & Milton. ‘But crowdsourcing can never belittle the design profession because we all know it is an amateur pursuit.’ According to Milton, we will ‘continue to dip in and out of this source, but it will never replace a well thought through brand design’.

Stott claims that the industry should react with greater poise to crowdsourcing and open competitions. ‘When the design community comes out and screams it looks like protectionism; like we’re saying that only we can design, using our special powers. I have no problem with it at all – and most examples are generally bad in any case – but I do think it will evolve to become something that is less obvious and unnatural than it is now.’

Design competitions and crowdsourcing may still be in their awkward infancy, but a more tried and tested method of collaboration comes through brands linking with high-profile artists and named designers. Coca-Cola’s tie-ups with fashion designers such as Manolo Blahnik and Matthew Williamson, Citroen’s special edition DS3, decorated by Orla Kiely, Issey Miyake’s and Paul Smith’s reworkings of Evian bottles and Adidas collections designed by Stella McCartney are just a small selection of these kind of brand-designer offerings.

Perhaps one of the longest-running and most consistent artist collaboration programmes is that by vodka brand Absolut. Beginning in 1985 with an advertising poster created by Andy Warhol, the brand has remained committed to strong links with the art world ever since, working with such figures as Spike Jonze, Jay-Z and Damien Hirst. ‘Absolut has a rich legacy of creative collaborations that have ensured the brand has continued to evolve,’ says Vlastimil Spelda, marketing director for spirits at Pernod Ricard UK, Absolut’s owner since 2008.

Of course, professional design agencies should also be capable of evolving a brand, so where do artist collaborations come into an overall marketing strategy? According to Spelda, they are complementary to the more brand-focused design work that is commissioned from agencies. ‘Collaborations provide an effective marketing tool through which brands are able to creatively express their personality. They drive consumer interest and deliver standout and presence within the trade,’ he says.

But Milton believes that if designers were offered the same freedom as artists, similar left-field results could be achieved. ‘There is an assumption that jobbing brand identity is incapable of taking a brave creative leap, yet the ability to grow a brand in the right direction – even in a massive jump – is far more likely to come from the designers who understand and work with brands every day. Regrettably, they are simply never given the chance to fling emotion into the mix because the marketer lacking in real creative confidence will seek to repress and minimise personal risk.’

Absolut’s Flavor of the Tropics duty-free edition was created by design agency Williams Murray Hamm, but agency creative director Garrick Hamm acknowledges that the brand gains something more than just effective design when it collaborates with artists. ‘For Absolut, working with artists is part of an overall strategy. It’s not necessarily about the design output itself – most good design groups should be able to push the brand – but it shows they move in these artistic circles.’

According to Milton, the artist-brand collaboration merely provides a ‘quick PR win’. ‘It’s the addition of cool and the quality by association stamp,’ he says. ‘Basking in the reflected glory of a renowned “creative” might seem attractive to some marketers. For once, they take a hands-off position and let the artist have centre stage, reaping the plaudits and admiration for their daring. This is something few can do when engaging with the “professional” designer.’

In the end, any collaboration rests heavily on the strength and synergy of the relationship. A weak link or a cursory ‘artistic’ flourish will be transparent to consumers, while a committed, long-running programme of focused artistic endorsement could prove very effective. And whether fresh design ideas are sourced from practicing artists, through open competitions and crowdsourcing, or from a standard design agency process, one thing is now for sure: the public, more powerful and vocal than ever before, will respond to the outcome, as Gap discovered.

‘[Technology changes] have turned the world on its head in the past few years and designers have to up their game,’ says Stott. ‘We can’t control everything and we’re no longer closed off from everyone. Younger designers know this – they try things out quickly and online, ditch what doesn’t work and move onto something else. But traditional design has this process: we go away and think and set up a structure. We may have to rethink our process. In 15 years’ time, graphic design will not exist as the profession it is now.’

 

Case study – Brancott Estate / Sarah Herriot Design

Wine brand Brancott Estate, creator of the original Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, commissioned jewellery designer Sarah Herriot to create a range inspired by the landscape of the company’s New Zealand vineyards. Herriot was selected partly because she was raised in New Zealand and has an affinity with landscape, but also because of the overlap between Herriot’s and Brancott’s customer profile.

‘Our customers are culturally astute, affluent and discerning so we have to work hard to connect with them,’ says Matthew Bird, marketing controller at Pernod Ricard UK wines, Brancott Estate’s owner. ‘A design collaboration is an effective way of reaching consumers. But to make it successful it was really important for us to take a lot of time to build a relationship with Sarah, establishing basis on which we wanted to work together. As a result, there was a lot more time spent upfront compared to a normal design agency process.’

Herriot’s designs include a women’s pendant and a pair of cufflinks, sold via the companies’ websites. ‘It’s important for me to be able to tell people why I’ve made things in the way I have,’ says Herriot. ‘These pieces capture the vineyard’s location and there is the story of where I’m from. But I wouldn’t necessarily do any collaboration; it couldn’t go against my design ethos and I need to feel happy with the process and results, as in the end it will have my name all over it.’

This article was written for Marketing, 14 April 2011.

Ahead of the game

If the internet age has taught us one lesson, it is that when people are connected to each other, they spawn new behaviours. Sharing and collaboration underpin many aspects of the information era – from open source, open innovation and crowdsourcing to social networking, flashmobs and online gaming, they all have their own organic dynamics.

Video games, in particular, have the power to connect large numbers of players in one virtual space. And it is often the creativity of the players, as much as of the original designers, that leads to the most interesting developments in emergent game play and games design.

By linking together, gamers have dreamt up new rules and behaviours that flex a game’s original design and turn it into something else – something co-designed by the players.

Halo 3, a first-person shooter developed by Bungie for the Xbox 360 console, is home to a good example of collaborative play. Texas-based digital consultancy Rooster Teeth Productions customised the rules from one of Halo 3’s existing game modes to create Grifball, agame-within-a-game that has all the elements of a full-blooded, 16-person sport. Grifball has been so successful that leagues are springing up all over the world, Grifball character action toys have been manufactured and Bungie has now included the game in its official community playlist as a permanently available game.

’People like making up rules – it’s our natural game-playing mode,’ says Holly Gramazio, lead games designer at gaming consultancy Hide & Seek and curator of Sandpit, the group’s experimental gaming nights.

’When you’re young you make up rules and decide how to play something. But as people get older, they tend to feel less comfortable doing this. Nobody stops in the middle of a game of five-a-side and says, “Hey, let’s see what happens if we draw three circles on the pitch and if you step into one you have to run backwards for the next 30 seconds.”’

Little Big Planet 2, created by Media Molecule for the Sony Playstation, promises players ’a powerful new set of tools that vastly widen the scope of possibility, [handing] you the power to create whole games’. These tools let players create characters, compose music and direct cinematic sequences, as well as design whole playable environments.

This reluctance to change the structure of play is being broken down by video-game titles that actively encourage people to design their own gaming environments.

Not surprisingly, Lego has also unveiled its ’kit of parts’ video-game offer, Lego Universe, which takes the enduring appeal of block-by-block construction and throws it into a virtual world populated by other players and their Lego contraptions.

Although player design is a key selling point of both Lego Universe and Little Big Planet 2, they still provide plenty of pre-designed game narrative for players to follow.

The real runaway success in design-it-yourself gaming is the ultra lo-fi Minecraft, a title created by Swedish developer Markus Persson in which players ’mine’ polygon blocks from the earth and use them to build whatever structures they can dream up. Aside from a few monsters roaming the territory at night, that’s pretty much all there is to it – you create your own gaming world and share it with the other players and their constructions.

’I realised that a game that is simple, yet dynamic, has the potential to be turned into a really great game,’ writes Persson.

’I believe that I can combine enough fun, accessibility and building blocks for this game to be a huge melting pot of emergent game play.’

This simplicity has netted Minecraft more than five million registered users, 1.5 millionof whom have bought the paid version of the game. In 24 hours alone, on 1 March, more than 40 000 new people registered and more than 11 000 paid for the title.

’Minecraft is fascinating,’ says Max Reyner, insight editor of The Future Laboratory’s trend network LSN Global. ’It’s very lo-fi and you don’t really do anything with the designs afterwards. It reminds me of people who build model architecture in their attics. The difference, though, is the audience that can see the design when it’s completed. Minecraft users can place videos of their designs, complete with audio commentary, on sites such as You Tube, and suddenly there is an audience of several million people.’

This is the big change. Historically, some games shipped with a built-in level editor – a piece of bespoke 3D design software that allowed people to design their own gaming environments. Similarly, games like The Sims and Civilization are built on the appeal of player-as-God, fashioning and controlling their own dominion.

But at the time these were largely solitary pursuits; without other players there was no scope for the emergent game play that is particularly exciting about today’s gaming.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as Eve Online are almost entirely constructed from organic emergent game play. Eve’s design, by Icelandic company CCP Games, is rich but also very open: it says, here’s space, some planets and some spaceships – off you go. The sandpit is yours – make your own rules’.

This article was written for Design Week, 24 March 2011.

Augmented reality in the museum

In October last year, a pair of somewhat mischievous new media artists staged a wholly 21st century intervention at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It involved placing numerous extra artworks in the galleries and introducing a whole new floor – the seventh – at the top of the MoMA building. And all this without the institution’s permission or knowledge (at least at first).

If you haven’t guessed already, this seemingly impossible ruse was achieved using augmented reality (AR), the overlay of digital elements on a live view of a real space, as seen through a smartphone or similar device. The two artists were Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek and the We AR in MoMA guerrilla show was conceived as part of the wider Conflux festival of participatory art and technology that was taking place in New York at the time.

Using the special Layar augmented reality browser installed on a smartphone, visitors were able to look at the galleries through their phone’s built in camera, while the GPS location system and internet connection allowed the virtual art to be projected over the top of the camera’s image of the museum space.

Veenhof and Skwarek used the event to raise questions about the impact of AR on public and private spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating some of the frontiers of new media art. According to Veenhof, MoMA has not made any response to the event, despite having large numbers of visitors conspicuously viewing the galleries through their phones.

Although We AR in MoMA was foisted upon a museum institution, augmented reality is something that museums and galleries are starting to experiment with themselves. Whether MoMA’s curators rate Veenhof and Skwarek’s work as a valid artistic intervention or not, it does offer some glimpses of how a gallery might use AR in order to give visitors additional interpretive content. AR guides bring a new dimension over traditional audio guides, whilst remaining personal to each visitor. They might include an artist standing ‘next’ to their work describing their working processes, for example. In fact, artist Jan Rothuizen has already collaborated with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s ARtours programme on an AR exhibition of his work.

Other cultural institutions are also starting to use AR to mesh digital content with the real world. A number of early experiments in this area have concentrated on city spaces, overlaying historical or proposed architectural imagery on a live city view. The Museum of London’s iPhone app, Streetmuseum, is an example of this, where the museum’s collection of archive photography of London is delivered to users’ phones according to their current location and orientation.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia offers a similar AR mobile app, drawing images from the museum’s Flickr collection and presenting them via the Layar platform. Virtual buildings also feature in the Netherlands Architecture Institute’s UAR (urban augmented reality) mobile app, designed by Dutch interaction consultancy IN10. This overlays pictures of what used to present, as well as images of what’s to come, in the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. There’s even a Layar ‘layer’ of the Berlin Wall and its imposing sentry towers, reinstating the barrier that once divided the now reunited halves of the city.

AR is clearly fun, sci-fi type stuff. Like many new technologies, it is alluring and captivating. But is it of real value to the museum sector or is it a mobile-based gimmick? Tristan Gooley, author of Natural Navigator, told a BBC Radio 4 programme that despite our best intentions technology too often ‘gets between us and the experience’. His comments came in a discussion about the forthcoming mobile app from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so in this case Gooley was referring to the experience of viewing the natural world unmediated by a screen. However, similar objections could be raised in relation to objects in a museum exhibition.

Does AR add something to a museum experience or does it becomes the experience itself? What do we gain from looking at a composite digital/real world through a mobile phone and what do we lose? In the case of archive photography there is a thrill to be had by looking down the barrel of history whilst standing in very same spot from which the original image was captured.

And perhaps AR can liberate objects too. The Stedelijk Museum’s head of collections Margriet Schavemaker noted at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference that objects in a museum collection are permanently removed from their original contexts and placed instead inside a ‘white cube’. But AR has the power to return them. In theory, the collection of the ‘augmented museum’ could be geographically and spatially boundless, with objects appearing at relevant locations in the real-world by using an AR overlay.

In this sense, maybe AR is the museum’s best technology tool yet. Objects came from the world and only subsequently were they indexed, filed, curated and exhibited by museums. Perhaps AR allows collected objects to be returned to the wild, but this time with a valuable augmentation of their own – the attachment of expert knowledge and interpretation by the museum professionals who study them and care for them.

In the meantime, keep your eye on new media artists for suggestions of what’s to come. At the 2011 Venice Biennial International Art Exhibition there are plans for a whole uninvited pavilion, thanks to Veenhof and Skwarek…

This article was written for MuseumNext, January 2011.

Glitch & Drone Associates

Although this site is a collection of published articles on design and communications subjects, I have also just co-founded a new venture which I think is worth a mention here. It’s called Glitch & Drone Associates and is a bespoke sound and music composition service aiming to support other communications media – such as graphics, objects, spaces and words – with things sonic.

My partner at G&D is digital designer Simon Meek. We are both very much part of the design industry, but we bring a lifelong interest in music, sound and recording to the design and branding process.

There’s more about our thoughts on the value for this kind of service on the site itself, along with a few audio goodies to wrap your ears around. Email us at hello@glitchanddrone.com if you’d like to know more.

An appy world

Predictions become more perilous the more precise they are. So when forecasting the fortunes of an industry like the digital design sector, generalisations are usually safer and more accurate. Bearing this in mind, in 2011 we can expect branding and marketing consultancies to continue to acquire digital specialists – especially those with technical skills, such as code developers. We can also expect to see successful digital groups keep moving up the client food chain, acting as boardlevel consultants on brand development, marketing and wide-ranging campaigns.

And yet these generalisations are rather tepid, as it’s what we are doing with the design work that’s really interesting. In the field of screen-based digital design, there’s really only one game in town, and that’s mobile. More specifically, the work of digital designers will be influenced by – as well as influence – how we use mobile devices.

One of the biggest trends in this area over the past few years has been the rise of the app. At the risk of propagating a certain well-known advertising slogan, there really is an app for everything. And although we have the release of the iPhone, iPod Touch and App Store to thank for this explosion, the world of apps has already become much more than just an Apple platform: it is a shift in the way that we now interact through the Internet, perhaps with implications for the nature of digital design and development in the future.

Chris Anderson, editor in chief at Wired US magazine, has proclaimed that ‘the Web is dead’, by which he means that our use of Web browsers to find and view traditional sites in an open and boundless World Wide Web is diminishing. Instead, we are using proprietary, closed applications to send and receive the information we need, albeit still via the Internet.

This appears to be a pedantic distinction between the ‘Web’ and the ‘Internet’. But if Anderson is right, the design and coding skills needed to build websites using standard languages such as HTML will be gradually overtaken by the programming skills needed to write bespoke apps for particular mobile operating systems, such as iPhone OS, Android or Windows Phone. And the major digital design work will come from businesses developing and refining their app software rather than their websites.

Or maybe not. Perhaps it is the very proliferation of different smartphone and tablet devices that will check the dedicated app’s dominance, helping to spread the range of digital design work that is commissioned. This is because an app built to run on the iPhone will not run on an Android phone and vice versa. As Android’s market share grows, and as Windows Phone enters the fray, clients may well see more sense in a single Web-based application – a Web app – that can be accessed on as many devices as possible.

A Web app is a Web page that is designed to look and operate like a dedicated app. They’re not new, but the latest versions are optimised for mobile screens, are task-oriented and usually feature simple, functional and intuitive interaction design, just like dedicated apps. And because a number of mobile-device Web browsers run on the same engine, including those on the iPhone and Android phones, investment in a single Web app design and development project can reach multiple platforms simultaneously.

A great example of a Web app is the mobile version of the BBC’s iPlayer, which delivers an app-like user experience (on supported devices) even though it is just a Web page. With the next generation of Web design tools such as CSS3 and HTML5 incoming, Web apps should become even more slick, streamlined and powerful. For digital designers, this Webbased approach is also less reliant on the code developers usually needed to programme the more complex languages used in native mobile apps.

So here is a prediction: over the coming year or so we’ll see more clever websites that look more and more like dedicated apps when viewed on mobile devices. In fact, The Guardian already moved in this direction last month with the redesign of its mobile site. For a company that has already invested in a successful iPhone app, this is an acknowledgement that the future may not belong solely to apps, or to the iPhone.

Our use of mobile devices will underpin pretty much all ‘traditional’ digital design next year and beyond. For digital designers this means catering for multiple mobile devices simultaneously – smartphones, ‘dumb’ phones, PDAs and now the larger tablets, such as the iPad and Samsung Galaxy. The more effortlessly a Web-based design works across these platforms the more successful it is likely to be for clients.

The Guardian’s blog rather sets the scene, saying: ‘The new M.guardian site is available on any handset. Our aim is to improve the service for those of you with smartphones, who make up the majority of our growing mobile audience.’ Notably, the image used to illustrate The Guardian mobile site redesign features two HTC handsets and a Blackberry, with neither an iPhone nor an app in sight.

This article was written for Design Week’s Vision 2011 supplement, December 2010.

Profile: Dunne & Raby

There is a tacit language held within every designed object we encounter. And as consumers of physical products we understand, perhaps subconsciously, that objects embody all sorts of references and qualities, such as safe, clean, reliable, futuristic, fashionable, hi-tech, manufactured, bespoke, corporate, ethnic, male or female. These references are delivered through design and really it’s the language of design that we understand.

It is this literacy that self-described ‘technology idealists’ Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are seeking to harness in order to pose questions about how our use of technology may affect our lives in the future.

Design is seldom used in this way, to ask hypothetical questions about wider social issues or the moral conundrums arising from changes in science and technology. But since forming Dunne & Raby in the mid 1990s, the pair have used their grounding in design to create physical objects that propose often quite difficult questions about the impact, use, control and distribution of new technologies.

‘We’re pursuing the idea that design can be a vehicle to pose questions,’ says Dunne. ‘For us, product design is a medium to explore ideas. We use the language of popular design and industrial processes, which people can relate to, to reflect back the types of questions they might normally expect to find in art.’

Both Dunne and Raby lecture at the Royal College of Art and since 2005 Dunne has led the Design Interactions course there. Many of the same lines of investigation are to be found on this course, where there is a blurring of the boundaries between design, art, science and academic investigation.

As a studio, Dunne & Raby also works with industry, usually with companies that see value in a freer, more questioning look at the future use of technology in society. But it is clear the pair feel most engaged when dealing with thoughtful, discursive ideas, free from commercial objectives. As well as this, Raby notes that much of their work undertaken for industry is restricted by non-disclosure agreements and so cannot be openly discussed, rather undermining its strength.

But in an exhibition of new work, created for the 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial, Dunne & Raby will present a series of ‘possible futures’ built around subjects as broad as synthetic biology, ethics and multiculturalism, neurotechnology and euthanasia. Four scenarios portray fictional futures where certain technological applications, all feasible, have caused society to change in some way. The exhibits ask: Is this good or bad? Do we want this? How and why might we end up here?

Writer Alex Burrett and photographer Jason Evans collaborated with Dunne & Raby to visualise these futures, introducing outline characters and mildly unsettling narratives. The scenarios are clearly fictional and not intended as predictions of, or designs for, the future. So in what way is the work a design project, as opposed to a science fiction vignette?

‘The objects we create are a fiction, and often we’re sliding towards science fiction, but they are designed to look realistic and mundane. If we move too far away from that it becomes more like sculpture or art,’ says Dunne. Raby elaborates: ‘Design can show the ordinariness and banality of objects, so the scenes are plausible enough to contain their own questions and contradictions.’

For Dunne, this work uses design to access our ‘consumer side’ – our understanding of the language of designed products – to engage our ‘citizen side’ to think about their impact. ‘In society, it’s not until we buy things that they become real. And in terms of changing and questioning things I think we may be more powerful as consumers than as citizens, so we are using design to bring these two together.’

It may not be design as we know it, but Dunne & Raby’s ‘critical design’ could offer a philosophy to a new generation of multidisciplinary designers wishing to work within a wider social dimension. Or perhaps it is an approach for the growing number of designers already jaded by the unfettered market forces that regularly drive their work.

The 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial runs from 20 November – 5 December – www.biennale2010.citedudesign.com

This article was written for Design Week, 28 October 2010.

Profile: The Council

Jeff Conrad, former head of design at Red Bee Media – and before that, head of design at BBC Broadcast – says he always expected to be self-employed. But after joining the BBC in the early 1990s, one year turned into two years, then BBC Broadcast turned into Red Bee Media and eventually Conrad had turned out a string of major broadcast rebrands, including channel portfolios for ITV and UKTV. A couple of decades later, the question emerged: where next?

’Things kept changing at the BBC and Red Bee, but I came to a crossroads really,’ he says. ’Early on I was effectively running an in-house creative department focused on title sequences at the BBC, but then it commercialised that department and we were allowed to go for commercial work. This included doing things like designing the first red button interactive banking system for HSBC. Then BBC Broadcast was sold and became Red Bee Media [in 2005] and by 2009 we had peaked with about £12.5m of business from global television and corporate brand clients. So I started to ask where you can go from there.’

The answer, of course, is into self-employment. But Conrad’s new vehicle, The Council, is in no way a solo show. He has teamed up with two Red Bee colleagues, creative director Kevin Hill and director of production Sophia Pendar-Hughes, all three taking equal ownership of the new business. In all, the consultancy is currently ten-strong – big enough, says Conrad, to handle most jobs, although key consultants and freelances will become occasional ’councillors’ where needed.

The pedigree at The Council is apparent from the trio’s shared back catalogue. Hill was the driving force behind the creation of UKTV lads’ channel Dave, a project that has won a string of awards and plaudits. More than that, its huge success with viewers and advertisers led to a mammoth 18-month project to rebrand all of the channels in the UKTV portfolio, a process for which Hill was creative director. Conrad and Hill also oversaw design for the global rebrand of the Discovery Channel network in 2005, the major identity overhaul of the ITV network in 2006 and a multi-platform relaunch of BBC Three in 2008. Pendar-Hughes was the senior producer on most of these large branding schemes, which Conrad describes as ’some of the biggest portfolio rebrands in TV history’.

Clearly, their background is firmly planted in the world of broadcasting. Current clients include Shine Group, the Home Shopping Service in France, Digital Plus and Canal Plus in Spain and MDR Fernsehen in Germany. But the world has changed rapidly over the past few years and The Council is not intended to be a purely broadcast consultancy, says Conrad. ’I think it’s very hard to define what a broadcast brand is now,’ he says. ’We are really about working with brands that use media to engage with their customers or audience, and that covers a very wide range indeed. It is multi-platform and integrated and all that jargon, but I don’t really care about those terms, because I think what’s important is originality and ideas and working hand-in-hand with the client and not just for them.’

One of the biggest changes in the five years since BBC Broadcast became Red Bee Media is the way technology has forced brands to embrace two-way communication with their audiences. In this sense, the days of ’broadcasting’ are all but over.

’Technology has had a huge impact and even five years ago the communication was one way, from a brand to an audience. Now it involves interaction. This creates huge opportunities for brands to talk to people in different ways and at different times. All brands have to be mindful of that now,’ explains Conrad.

And that’s the space into which The Council launches its offer. The landscape is different from the world of BBC Resources, BBC Broadcast and even the initial days of Red Bee Media. Communications channels are multiple, TV schedules are shot, but strong brands are imperative. As Conrad says, ’A good idea can be applied to any channel.’

This article was written for Design Week, 7 October 2010.

In the dark

At last year’s Tokyo Game Show the prototype for a rather unusual video game was unveiled by Tokyo Communication Arts school. While most game studios use expos to wow players with the latest in 3D graphics rendering, TCA’s Blind Braver was built almost entirely around sound. Designed for the blind, the Xbox game put players in the shoes of a partially sighted character, forcing them to navigate through an auditory rather than visual world.

Although a more complete version of Blind Braver has yet to materialise, another title currently in development in the UK will bring the basic idea to a new audience. Created for the iPhone by production company Somethin’ Else, Papa Sangre is an adventure game that takes place entirely in darkness – the phone’s screen remains impenetrably blank throughout play. Trapped in an eerie, beast-inhabited underworld, the player must travel through Papa Sangre’s various palaces using only sounds for orientation.

‘It was inspired by a theatre game called Sangre y Patatas, in which players are blindfolded and made to walk on different materials,’ says Ben Cave, Papa Sangre’s producer at Somethin’ Else. In the dark, each person is trying to avoid Sangre, the player who is the killer.

What makes Papa Sangre special is its complex 3D sound design. The game would not work without a delicately balanced sound field in which ’sound objects’ – surface textures, instruments, creatures and the like – are located precisely all around the player using ordinary stereo headphones.

Funded by Channel 4’s Innovation for the Public fund, 4iP, and developed by a multidisciplinary team, including sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, Papa Sangre uses binaural sound placement – special recordings that mimic the way the ears and brain perceive the location of sound in the real world. Binaural recording of 3D sound is not new, but unlike other binaural iPhone games such as Soultrapper by Real Time Audio Adventures, in Papa Sangre the spatialised sound effects are computed and triggered in response to the player’s movement through the environment. In other words, the binaural sound is dynamic, not pre-recorded and fixed.

Computational 3D audio on a phone is the latest breakthrough in a long history of 3D sound research and implementation, demonstrating what can now be achieved with the processor in a tiny handheld device.

‘We have been working with 3D soundscapes for ten years, so it doesn’t surprise me that people are building a binaural game for the iPhone,’ says Martyn Ware, director of Illustrious Company, a venture he co-founded with fellow musician and producer Vince Clarke. But unlike the audio world of Papa Sangre, which is created specifically for headphones, the majority of Illustrious projects have been designed for physical spaces.

‘The implications of 3D sound for exhibition and public spaces is very interesting. It’s about creating a totally immersive experience. The better the technology is at creating a sense of reality, the less apparent it is and the more affecting the experience becomes,’ says Ware.

The Dark, for example, was a touring installation produced in 2004 by Braunarts to tell the story of Britain’s role in the slave trade during the 18th century. Visitors were taken to a pitch black room containing a 3D audio environment designed by Illustrious. Left only with sound and imagination, the audience could explore ’ghost’ voices from, for example, the decks of a slave ship.

The development of a complex, three-dimensional sound world presents particular problems for sound designers and software developers, says Cave. Even with the algorithms and processing power to handle a dynamic binaural environment, some sounds are inherently easier for people to locate spatially than others. And in a system without visuals, some sounds require context, while others don’t.

But when these challenges are overcome, responsive 3D sound environments may provide a new component in interaction design. ’Could you use a 3D sound interface as a menu structure, or to browse collections of data, such as a music catalogue?’ asks Cave.

In fact, Mark Sandler, a Professor at the School of Electronic Engineering & Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London, is researching this very idea.

As an alternative to graphic user interfaces on portable audio players, Sandler is developing ’a purely audio means of interacting with a playlist’ of songs in a music catalogue. In this system, four songs are played simultaneously through headphones, but they are separated spatially to different points in the 3D sound environment. This allows the user to listen to all four distinctly and simultaneously, navigating to the one they want either through buttons (real or virtual) or by titling the device in the appropriate direction.

The accessibility implications for the blind or partially sighted are obvious. With more powerful processors available each year and with gesture control emerging as a digital interaction technique, the possibilities for exploring three-dimensional sound worlds are tantalising.

 This article was written for Design Week, 2 September 2010.