Design, tech and what’s next
What is the shape of design in the future, and how does technology affect creative practice?
Our studio O Street is about a decade old and came of age during the tech boom. We’ve gone from analogue art-school punks to working with some of the most successful tech companies and leading strategists in the world. So how did we do it — and do we plan to keep it going?
In the Beginning
I didn’t use technology much at art school. None of us really did — it was sleeves-up, charcoal under fingernails, paint-fume highs and scalpel wounds until our final year. Then one of my classmates discovered that if you could prove you were dyslexic you got a grant to buy a laptop to help you write your dissertation. Surprise, surprise: most of us left art school with free laptops.
For years, people have been speculating at the link between dyslexia and creative thinkers. Being dyslexic myself, I’ve always found that conventional approaches to reasoning don’t quite make sense, and I’m forced to explore different ways to ‘crack the nut’. Creative people tackle challenges in more lateral and unexpected ways.
Despite the basic binary foundation of computers and modern technology, giant leaps of its evolution seem to be driven by problems are tackled in new and disruptive ways. And to get one thing clear, whether dyslexic or not, I believe creative people are key to the development of technology as opposed to being at the mercy of it.
A Young Industry
Compared to other industries like manufacturing, banking, law, finance and even architecture, the design business model is very young — taking its first steps. These first steps seem to be based on these older models of business. The successful companies have been those who can scale up to a very large size and take all the cool work, while smaller companies fight it out for their leftovers.
Things are changing, though.
About 15 years ago I worked at one such giant agency in London we noticed that the bigger clients were starting to see the value in working with smaller creative agencies. It was during the BA & Virgin Atlantic battle for supremacy. And Virgin Atlantic were winning…
More interestingly, they were winning while having a policy of hiring small, boutique advertising and design studios. Partly, because they noticed that a lot of their creative was being leaked to BA when developed at the bigger agencies. But I’d like to think they also recognised that smaller core teams of quality creatives could develop ideas just as well as the bigger agencies — and for a lot less money when you discounted middle men and overheads. At the same time, Channel Four had just hired a friend of mine’s agency Rudd Brothers to redesign their identity. Rudd Brothers were a two-man studio, (a woman and a man actually, and not even brothers). They were also just designers — no account handlers, project managers or receptionists.
Since then, a host of smaller agencies have sprung up, catering for the big glamour jobs that used to belong solely to the big agencies.
That was the inspiration behind myself and my business partner Neil Wallace starting O Street about 10 years ago. We have based ourselves on that model, not only a small studio, made up entirely of designers, but also one with its main headquarters in Glasgow rather than London. We’ve had our fair share of challenges and rubbish clients, but have also worked on some amazing, globally significant projects.
The business community is starting to realise that the designers don’t need to be hidden away in the basement of an office block in Soho, looked after by men in suits. Designers and design approaches have a unique value; one that can be tapped into with a lot less politics and hassle.
Not only that, but designers are increasingly going on to be major players: “36% of the top VC-backed start-ups have designer co-founders”, says John Maeda, the former head of Rhode Island School of Design. Another nugget from John’s talks — which we heartily recommend — is the observation that “21% of the so-called global Unicorn start-ups have co-founders who have embraced design or come from a design, arts or human centred background”.
What this suggests is that there is an increase in designers sitting on the boards of some of the world’s fastest growing companies. This top table in the corporate world has traditionally been reserved for the people that didn’t get ‘free laptops’ in Art School — people that didn’t go to Art School at all, to be honest. People who feel more at home with the spreadsheets, and the minutes, the calculated growth strategies and tried and tested methods. But something is changing.
The increasing monetary investment in these smaller scale companies/studio is suggesting that trust in designers in on the rise is suggesting that trust in designers is on the rise. I truly believe that as the world starts to realise the value in design, the people that can harness that creative potential will be in great demand in the wider business community.
Don’t take it from me though—listen to Brian Chesky, a designer and co-founder of Airbnb:
“[Silicon Valley] didn’t think a designer could build and run a company. They were straight up about it. We weren’t two PhD students from Stanford. Being designers they thought we were people that worked for people that ran companies”.
The establishment didn’t think a designer could build and run a company. They were dead wrong.
Despite these glimmers of hope, we’re not quite there yet. The level of trust place in the value we offer is still benchmarked against the old world rules of the spreadsheet. O Street lost a big global branding project recently because the client thought our budget was about £100k too cheap. It was not that we couldn’t do it, or that staff commitment and quality was lacking, but that their board would not trust a supplier that cost so little.
I suspect that there were no designers on their board.
That hasn’t stopped us trying to prove them wrong, and technology has allowed us to do so much more than we could have done before.
Learning on the Fly
As I mentioned, we at O Street weren’t digital natives, but we are humans. And we learned to navigate the digital landscape in the same way humans learn everything: play. We developed a few apps for clients, including this nifty app to flick traffic cones on a statue of the Duke of Wellington.
If you travel to Glasgow and pass by this old statue, you’ll see a traffic cone on its head. Sticking it up there is an old student pastime (one that landed me in crutches for three months) so tried-and-true that police have given up removing it. We thought we’d make a digital version and designed how the app looked, while a freelance developer wrote the code and helped us put it on the App store. It was really quite a simple process and we did not need any prior knowledge of coding or complex tech jargon.
Then we realised that we could develop and publish apps quite easily, and we came up with Vapp, a simple sound activated camera trigger app that allowed you to take a photo on your smartphone with a whistle, clap or even someone shouting “Cheese”. Two weeks in with no advertising we had over 20,000 downloads and loads of international press. It was amazing success in many regards, but we learned some hard lessons.
Initially we built Vapp as a “freemium” model app: free to use, with the intention of building a large user base which can be mined for profit later on with advertising or premium options (think Instagram or Snapchat). Unfortunately, it didn’t stick. Although we felt we’d made a great app and scores of people downloaded it, we had made a grand total of £0.00.
It was the buzz-wordy tech world concept of ‘fail fast’ in action, but I do think we were on the right track and were hampered by geography — a very similar company popped up in America a year after us and secured a $2.5 investment from Silicon Valley.
Following our foray into the world of Apps, I started trying to better understand the business models behind innovative technologies. I was invited to be a consultant at the Institute of Design Innovation, where I was able to stand back and explore the opportunities of this new industry without the pressures of needing immediate commercial success.
The experience allowed me to explore the potential of this emerging digital future — economically and socially — for real people. After a few discussions with businesses in rural Scotland, we realised that one of the real barriers to digital innovation was a lack of understanding of its true value to businesses, investors and consumers.
Even economists at the innovative Imperial College London found it difficult to explain this new world and the stories we’d heard. As such a young phenomenon, Digital Economics lacked the language to explain its potential. So we worked with ICL to develop that language, a visual language, with Digital Disruptors, an open source icon set that could be used by anyone to easily explain these complex new business models.
Art and creativity is not just about improving businesses — it’s also about improving people’s cultural lives. This was our focus with another project we worked on in 2014 to run alongside the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Panel (a Glasgow-based curatorial practice)
curated a selection of souvenirs made by producers, fabricators and developers across Scotland, and we worked on one called ‘Great Circle’.
Originally created by art collective/band Found and record label Chemikal Underground, it was an app that displayed illustrations from around Glasgow and played a looping original score. Layers of the track and illustration disintegrated or built up depending on whether you walked towards or away from Glasgow. Our involvement as fabricators allowed users to freeze the app at any point and either send a postcard of the illustration at that moment, or a fine art print to whomever you wanted. It was a wonderful success and just the kind of tech project we want to be a part of.
So that’s our story so far, but how do we prepare for the future? Well, first off, we ask. Here’s a few nuggets of insight from some of our clients and colleagues, who are each leading the way in the future of tech:
“On-Demand (Uber, Netflix, Spotify) will transfer to everything.” Keith Jopling, Spotify
“Shift away from permanent jobs, to continual freelance.” Peter Newman, Applied Works
“What do we do with Data? Data isn’t going to find us the next David Bowie.” Nick Calafato/Chris Price, Last.fm
“Making economies of scope, not scale.” Joe Lockwood, GSA/InDI
“Surviving & harnessing the ever-increasing connectivity from Digital Cultures.” Gerard Briscoe, GSA/InDI
“The ability to self-produce & publish.” Don McIntyre, GSA/InDI
“Complex industries being broken down into simpler & more focussed processes (e.g. Fintech solutions making banking much simpler).” Baber Ahmed, KAE
“Everyone’s been banging on about “digital transformation” for at least a couple of years now. We may finally be starting to see companies taking this seriously.” Stuart Aitken, Digitas LBI
“Fast evolving nature of collaboration: emerging tools and its expanding reach and impact.” Ben Davies, Google
“The future is all about ‘Co — Convergence, Connectivity, Communities and Collaboration.” Jeremy DiPaolo, Design & Tech Consultant
With friends like these, we’re able to hit the waters feeling confident. To finish up, I’ll leave you with three points that we have in mind at O Street moving forward:
1 — Re-invented Company Shapes
As a few of the previous quotes hinted at, business shapes are changing. This includes how we link value to size; in no other generation would a company of 13 people have been bought for $100billion, as Instagram was by Facebook. In some light, this is a very dangerous thing, but the potential for collaboration and experimentation is huge. The ability for smaller companies to try new things, have global impact and innovate is so much better than the big behemoth agencies models of the past.
2 — Importance of Designers
As industries realise that creatives can do more than just make things look pretty, people like designers are going to be given a lot more power. This is already happening with designers founding successful tech companies and beginning to populate the boardroom. Meanwhile, Service Design agencies like Snook and Nile becoming key players in the development of industries like banking and public service in Scotland.
3 — Over the Edge
We’re all becoming tired of hearing about Millennials, people who became adults in the ‘noughties. Companies like Spotify have identified these tech savvy plaid-wearers as their core audience. But who are the next generation? Say hello to Generation Edge — thanks to Mark Mulligan for coining that — people who are at the very edge of a new world.
Gen Edge are growing up with digital technology made by a digital generation (unlike Millennials, who have one foot in the analogue past). These people are also at the edge of giant shifts in civilisation: power moving from the governments to corporations; the destruction of the natural resources of the earth; water poverty.
What are these people on the edge going to value?
I like to think they’ll look back at the pre-digital generation with a sense of wonder. They’ll identify crafts and practices that we shouldn’t sacrifice for digital. In turn, safeguarding the very things that make us human: real books; vinyl records; something carved by hands instead of lasers. Maybe they’ll even enter the professional world with a bit of charcoal under their fingernails.
For this reason, I feel we will be begin to see a more developed and combined creative practice among designers and artists, which will enable them to prosper in the design industry for generations to come.
This piece is adapted from O Street’s talk at Aesthetica 2016.
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