Monthly Archives: September 2007

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Posted by PH on September 24, 2007
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Designs on eLearning

Posted by PH on September 23, 2007
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As mentioned in my previous post, I recently attended the Designs on eLearning conference, organized by the University of the Arts, London.

Over the two days I heard a dull introductory speech by Charles Saumarez Smith, an excellent keynote address by Gráinne Conole, and attended a series of parallel sessions where 17 presentations were made on various subjects including: blogging, podcasting, the use of 3D environments in design teaching, visual literacy, teaching rhetoric online, Second Life, and various always fascinating takes on e-learning practice. I met some very nice people and exchanged a lot of useful information with colleagues. One balmy summer evening we were all treated to a superb dinner at the Tate Modern, and whilst chatting amiably on a terrace high up on the river side of the building watched the sun go down over the city. Marvellous.

I came away from the conference with two over-riding impressions. Firstly, that teaching staff universally loathe the Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) they use. I didn’t meet a single person who had one good word to say about either Blackboard or WebCT. Frankly, I’m not surprised: as pieces of software they’re slow, clunky, lumpy, and plain butt ugly. The only VLE anyone seems even vaguely enthusiastic about is Moodle, which I can’t comment on because I’ve never used it.

Secondly, a theme that emerged from the presentations was that students were using a wide range of services and devices as technological support for their learning: iPods, mobile phones, blogs, wikis, search engines, and other “peer approved” social networking sites. Communication was seen as being mixed mode, and, importantly, not necessarily routing through institutional channels. (For example, how many students use their university email account? That would be roughly, er, none.)

Now clearly these two observations are related! They suggest to me that the current generation of VLEs are not fit for purpose. They’re totally outmoded; huge, lumbering, expensive dinosaurs. The softwares available on the open market—usually free—are vastly superior in terms of both their technical implementation and the underlying design principles: they’re open, adaptive, ever-evolving, personal, social, creative, involving, and yes even fun.

They are truly software.

***

That’s it. An excellent conference that provided much food for thought (if not necessarily any answers).

[Note: Looking at the Blackboard and Web CT websites it seems they’ve now merged into one company. Shudder….]

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Fashion Retail Academy

Posted by PH on September 18, 2007
e-Learning, Photography, Visual Culture / No Comments

Last week I attended the Designs On eLearning conference at the Fashion Retail Academy in Gresse Street, London W1. I hadn’t been aware of the Academy before and it’s hardly surprising: it’s brand new. According to The Guardian it was set up with money partly from the government and partly from industry, and provides education at FE level (Levels 2 and 3 on the national scale).

Anyway, it’s gorgeous. What a fabulous place to work and learn in. It’s cool and modern without being cold and detached. It’s stylish but utilitarian. It’s been designed. Here’s some pix I took whilst there:

Where I currently work the environment is quite poor: shabby, grey, drab, and with learning spaces laid out like factory floors. It’s completely out of date, both physically and conceptually. How are staff and students alike supposed to be inspired, enthusiastic, and empowered in such an environment? These days when I teach I want a multi-purpose space: perhaps I’ll start a session with a demo using the computer and projector before breaking off for small group work. Later you might find me scribbling madly on a whiteboard in answer to some questions that have come up. We might use cameras or video, and someone might bring in a laptop or a mobile phone with work on and we’ll need to see it and to share it. At the moment this means I often swap rooms in the middle of a session, or else I’ll have to arrive early and set up equipment borrowed from elsewhere. Sometimes—far too often—I can’t do what I would really like to do at all…

The modern learning space needs to be flexible, social, and egalitarian, with technology embedded into and integrated with the space. It needs to be wireless. It needs to be bold and stimulating, because in the 21st Century we really, really, really need to throw off the ball and chain of the 12th Century teaching methods we still use, and that we remain forced into using by the straightjacket of our archaic working environments. JISC published an excellent report last year called Designing Spaces For Effective Learning and in it they say:

A learning space should be able to motivate learners and promote learning as an activity, support collaborative as well as formal practice, provide a personalised and inclusive environment, and be flexible in the face of changing needs.

Well, at least The Fashion Retail Academy look like they’ve got most of the way there. There is hope for us all…

Inspiring!

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Colin Burns

Posted by PH on September 15, 2007
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My fourth and final post on the D&AD Xchange 07 conference brings us to ex-IDEO Global Head of Interaction Design and ex-Managing Director of IDEO London, Colin Burns. Colin now runs his own company, Martach Designs, that specialises in what he calls Transformation Design: according to his bio this “is a methodology that harnesses user-led creativity to create new strategic business and social value.”

Colin’s presentation was called Beyond User-Centred Design, and began with a gentle introduction that outlined some basic definitions of what we mean by ‘a designer’ and what we mean by ‘a successful product’ of design. Having set these basic premises up, he then outlined his conception of what it means to be a designer in the 21st Century:

  1. A designer is not now an author, but a facilitator of other people’s ideas.
  2. A designer changes behaviour, not forms.
  3. A designer does not produce a finished object, but is the catalyst to an emergent system.
  4. A designer works in mixed communities, not just within a closed professional community.
  5. A designer works in the field, not the studio.
  6. A designer is not the arbiter of taste, but a facilitator of mixed ideas.

Colin illustrated his Transformation Design thesis with a case study of the Activmobs project he did for the Design Council and Kent County Council. Briefly, this involved designers working with healthcare professionals and groups of patients to create fitness regimes that would be integrated into people’s lives and allow mutual support mechanisms. For Colin, this type of project highlighted a single fundamental issue: whether it was really possible for designers working in isolation to understand complex real-world problems or dynamic systems.

This is an excellent question to ask, and you’d have to answer that, as Colin suggests, no they probably can’t. However, when Colin suggested in the Q&A session that, because of this, the ideas of a non-expert should carry equal weight to that of the expert, a passionate debate kicked off. Firstly, it was suggested by someone in the audience that in the Activmobs example used by Colin it was ridiculous to suggest that the advice of a lay-person should carry equal weight to that of a healthcare professional. Secondly, Chris Bennewith said that the vast proliferation of “crappy” movies on YouTube shows what happens when you put sophisticated tools in the hands of people without the formal skills to use them. To which Colin said things like “But are they really crappy? Who says they’re crappy? Aren’t they vibrant and life-affirming?” And “I keep asking myself as a designer what right I have to judge what’s good and bad or right and wrong.”

And then the session ended!

I think this is a really important question and it can’t be left unanswered, so here’s my take on it: the reason an expert—and it doesn’t matter here whether we’re talking about designers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, or whatever—has a right to judge on issues within their own specialism is that they’re familiar with the cultural discourse associated with it. That is, they should be aware of the history, context, and theory of the discipline. They should be highly experienced practitioners equipped with a broad range of techniques and the insight that can only be gained from the day-to-day involvement with it. They can speak the language of that discipline.

Which does not mean I don’t agree with all the six points laid out by Colin, above. Yes, of course all experts need to work with mixed communities, get out in the field, and—as I discussed in the Flo Heiss post—leave their work ‘unfinished’. They need to participate with the end-users in the dynamic systems they operate in. But this does not mean that they must therefore relinquish the right to arbitrate, to make decisions, to exercise authority. That way leads to madness…

The example of YouTube is illuminating. Here we have literally millions of short films submitted by people from all over the world, 99% of which are culturally insignificant. It doesn’t matter whether they’re crappy or not: the problem is that they don’t engage with culture at any level: they’re just throwaway, ephemeral, meaningless except to those involved. (It’s only as an aggregate, a phenomenon, that they have any cultural meaning). To be involved with culture means engaging with discourses that persist over time and that evolve through dialogue and negotiation, and you can’t do that without some knowledge, some expertise, some willingness to get involved with a community of practice.

***

I hope this post has given a true reflection of Colin’s presentation and the discussion that followed from it, bearing in mind I was hastily scrawling down notes and at the same time trying to follow what was going on. I thought this was the most thought-provoking and important of all the sessions I saw at Xchange 07 (i.e. for me the question becomes what right do I have to teach this subject?).

Thankyou Colin Burns.

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Quote of the Month

Posted by PH on September 11, 2007
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This month’s quote is another by-product of the D&AD Xchange 07 conference as discussed in the last two posts. One of the threads running through the conference was that of sustainable design, and this emerged as the central them of presenter Ken Garland, venerable design maven, photographer, toy designer, educator, and writer.

Called Subtraction, his presentation was theatrical, very amusing, anecdotal, and highly improvisatory—even though he was clearly well prepared—and highlighted a strategy we often recommend to students: bring in loads of props! This included a wind-up radio, sweets, piles of junk mail and catalogues he’d picked up off his doormat, and the inevitable dustbin. He had an alarm clock that he used as a comic stooge. However, the intellectual centre of the presentation was a mood board, or at least what appeared to be a mood board: as he went to refer to it he just ripped away the array of images and revealed this quote:

Why should we so gratuitously assume, as we constantly do, that the mere existence of a mechanism for manifolding or of mass production carries with it an obligation to use it to the fullest capacity? […] To achieve control we shall even, I suspect, have to reconsider and perhaps abandon the whole idea of periodic publication [for] we cannot continue to inertly accept the burdensome technique of overproduction without inventing a social discipline for handling it; and that until we do this our situation will steadily worsen.

Lewis Mumford
 

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Flo Heiss

Posted by PH on September 08, 2007
Resonant Interval / 1 Comment

Following on from the previous post, one of the most interesting presentations at the D&AD Xchange 07 was that of Flo Heiss, Creative Partner at “interactive marketing agency” Dare.

The presentation was entitled How To Make Digital Your Bestest Friend and was structured around 7 ‘principles of good design’. Whilst targeted mainly at those marketing online, these principles could quite easily be applied to almost any kind of web design:

  1. Be Useful.
  2. Be Engaging.
  3. Be Entertaining.
  4. Make It Unfinished.
  5. Be Honest.
  6. Give Up Control.
  7. Do It For Real.

I’m not going to go through Heiss’s examples of each principle one by one, or attempt to spell them out, because – and this is one for my students – what you need to do is to challenge them. It’s no use accepting these principles at face value and measuring their validity against the specific examples Heiss presented and which I might re-present here. What you need to do is to use them, test them against web resources you are familiar with. How strong are they? Do they break under certain circumstances? How widely applicable are they? Etc.. For myself, I’d prefer to talk here about a couple of these principles in a far more general way:

4. Make It Unfinished. I personally believe this is one of the most important concepts for any designer, writer, film maker, or artist of whatever sort to grasp. There has to be some space for the subject to enter into. You don’t have to say everything, you don’t have to explain everything, you don’t have to show everything. The incompleteness is what draws people in and allows them to resolve it for themselves: the unfinished work involves and engages the audience. The unfinished work respects the audience by not imposing a viewpoint, by allowing dialogue… The unfinished work creates a resonant interval.

This also applies to teaching. One of the worst sins you can commit is to present a subject to a student as though we know everything about it, as though it’s a closed book. It never is, because at the end of the day all meaning is ultimately socially situated: facts mean nothing in isolation, and only make sense within a particular set of inherited cultural norms, values, or beliefs. Therefore there is always a dialogue between the facts ‘out there’ and the sense made of them ‘in here’. Nothing is ever absolute, nothing ever really ‘finished’, and to present them is if they are is, at best, misguided.

7: Do It For Real. This is the example Flo Heiss used, one of Dare’s adverts for Vodaphone:

All good fun! I suppose what Heiss means by this is that there comes a time when working online—or with computers, it’s the same thing these days—is not enough and you just have to go and start pushing physical objects around. Of course it’s true, for no matter how sophisticated our computer technologies are they still fall a long, long way short of our multi-dimensional, tactile, dynamic, sensuous, and unexpected real world. Staring into a screen and clicking occasionally doesn’t really compete.

I’m blathering. So, yes: Flo Heiss! Excellent thought-provoking presentation. Nice.

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D&AD Xchange 07

Posted by PH on September 07, 2007
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Earlier this week my colleague John Hill and I attended this year’s D&AD Xchange 07 conference at the London College of Fashion. It was very well organized, very interesting, and we met a lot of nice people. Here’s my notes from the event:

Carlos Segura is a designer with his roots firmly embedded in old-school typography. He has an enviable track record of graphic design, a portfolio of which can be found at Segura Inc. This also includes links to his typography site T.26 and designer blank media site 5″ (amongst others). For me the highlight of his presentation was his work for stock photo company Corbis, especially the Crop series: rather than just present examples from their library in standard thumbnail format, he created large-scale diptychs printed on various high-quality papers where each pair of images tells a little story:

The juxtaposition of images was humorous, provocative, and sometimes outright shocking. I love this sort of thing, where meaning resides somehow in the space between the images, or as McLuhan would say, in the resonant interval. Best quote:

By doing what others do, you become invisible…

I also found Segura’s presentation interesting because of his use of background music. Normally I would advise students not to use music in this way at all, and I did find it intrusive (despite it all being chilled-out electronica). But in places it was successful: he started off the presentation with a couple of amusing anecdotal stories and these worked with the music, quickly establishing a very strong mood. Never say never.

Ulrich Proeschel of TBWA presented a case study of their marketing of Adidas during the 2006 World Cup Finals. He explained how the whole thing was based around a single idea, +10, and how this was extended out in a deliberate attempt to involve everyone in Germany (especially as the team was playing so badly before the tournament). The highlights of their campaign were a massive Oliver Kahn bridge over the autobahn leading away from Cologne airport:

And, rather than a billboard campaign, just a single huge image on the ceiling of a railway terminus based on the Sistine Chapel:

Needless to say, there was much discussion amongst the delegates about the worldview that sees branding and advertising as culture, a point which was driven home by Ulrich’s classic quote:

The World Cup was really a battle between Adidas and Nike, not 32 football teams.

Paul Priestman gave a presentation which showed off Priestman Goode’s fascinating work on large projects such as the interiors of luxury aircraft, cruise liners, and airport terminals.

Wayne Hemingway came across as a likable, intelligent, humorous, and very down-to-earth guy. However, he’s very much a one-off, and it was very difficult to take anything away that would be more generally useful: you had to be there. Best quote:

It’s all about being a human being that thinks!

Of particular interest was his discussion of our physical environment and the effect it has on behaviour, and his observation that most modern housing developments are simply the “slums of the future.” Hemingway’s design studio is here, and it includes links to his various other enterprises including the delightfully-named retro design resource, Land Of Lost Content.

Andy Hobsbawm and Ben Felton from Agency.com gave a presentation on their work for Ikea. As with Ulrich Proesel above it offered a fascinating insight into the advertising industry, but in this case it was all online stuff. Andy Hobsbawm kicked off with a run through Ikea’s ‘8 core ideas’ about their company identity, and he came across very well, talking intelligently and fluently about a range of new media issues. Best quote (which he acknowledged was from someone at Xerox Parc):

Technology is only technology for people who were born before it was invented.

Ben Felton then showed off some of their work, which to be honest I found a little dull, and a colleague found the “Brussels Sprout slider” on one of their Flash micro-sites quite hilarious. They also came in for a fair bit of stick from the delegates during the Q&A session for their unquestioning attitude to new media dogma. True believers.

There we have it. There were some other very good speakers, and I’ll be doing a couple of follow-up pieces on them individually. Ciao!

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