Part one of my report from dConstruct's one-day conference in Brighton. With a pleasantly varied range of talks and speakers, down by the seaside in Brighton, I was rather excited.

The Designful Company

Things started very well with Marty Neumeier, with his talk The Designful Company. It was pleasing to hear someone speak with some assuredness on the benefits design can bring to the continued success of a business, and how changing an existing situation to a preferred one is what design is about.

Considering his audience, he was preaching to the converted to some degree, but it was apparent he had had this conversation many times with marketing heads and CEOs. What was of benefit was the how persuasive an argument he made, and I imagine many attendees will be using snippets of his talk when in discussion with clients (I know I will). He complemented his theories with some excellent examples of great, not so great, and downright bizarre products which have been put to market over the years, showing how 'good and different' products tend to succeed, whereas 'not good and not different' products just add clutter to an already busy marketplace, benefitting no one.

He suggests that brands are now more important than patents for business – companies can work their way around patents, but once a strong brand is aligned with a certain service or product in a customer's mind, it takes something truly revolutionary to displace it. Compelling stuff! I also liked his assertion that a brand is what its customers say or think it is – particularly relevant with the increasing power and voice of customers through social media.

 
Boil, Simmer, Reduce

So we were off to a great start. Up next was Magnetic North's Brendan Dawes whose style of delivery couldn't have been more different to Marty's. Brendan took us through his preferred design process of 'Boil, simmer, reduce' – basically throwing lots of ideas and inspiration together, playing around with what's there, then removing extraneous elements. MN's work for the Manchester visitor centre was a good example of the company's approach, and I need to go have a look next time I head across the Pennines.

I've seen Brendan speak a couple of times before, and while I tend to disagree with half of what he says, his enthusiasm, genial delivery and moments of real insight always keep me listening. His improvisational stage manner does make me sometimes wish he'd keep some cue cards handy, but just when you think he's painted himself into a corner with a certain tangent or anecdote, he'll knock the audience for six with an off-the-cuff remark that really makes you think. He finished by urging the audience to make less crap, as there's enough of that in the world already – something which tallied nicely with the preceding talk.

 
Information is Beautiful

Fresh from his appearance on Newsnight, David McCandless took us through his insights into data visualisation. I was skeptical about this talk, as my last blog post would suggest, but I was pleasantly surprised. He was clearly more at home talking to a design-savvy audience, and possessed none of the rabbit-in-headlights demeanour which characterised his TV appearance. David went through some of his pieces, such as a graph showing most common break-up times for relationships, and the 'mountains out of molehills' piece on subjects which garnered tabloid hysteria (such as swine flu, the millennium bug, etc). Questions over the narcissism of infographics aside, what was very interesting is how laying different data sets over each other can provide otherwise hidden insights, such as areas of BNP membership versus areas with high ethnic minority populations, showing surprisingly little overlap between the two.

David then admirably took us through some of his failures, such as the four-way Venn diagram. He freely admits he's not a trained designer (he's a journalist), and for someone who commands a lot of attention from designers (at least in some circles), it's refreshing for him to admit he doesn't have all the answers.

 
The power & beauty of typography

I was looking forward to Samantha Warren's talk, being a bit of a typography nut myself, but I must admit I was hugely disappointed and frustrated. Whilst Samantha clearly has bags of enthusiasm, this didn't translate into a compelling talk. She looked at old printed material from a few hundred years ago which, despite limitations of typeface choice, still managed to be expressive and interesting through layout. This was good stuff, but some of the examples of modern typography just weren't that great. Posters for gigs? Some nice designs, but not exactly earth-shattering in the typography department, especially when she replaced the typeface on one poster with Arial, which (to be honest) didn't lose a great deal, simply because it was an illustration-led piece. Much better would have been to show Ikea's disastrous move from Futura to Verdana, where the differences are very stark. Where were the Blue Note jazz sleeves? The V&A logo? For a talk like this, you really need to find some world-class work to inspire the audience.

Samantha opined that choosing a nice font was like choosing a pair of shoes to go out in (ie, finding a balance between personality and practicality). This irked me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, choosing the right typeface is crucial, but only a small part of producing good typography (as the poor kerning on her slides demonstrated!). Secondly, the shoe metaphor just isn't convincing enough, and served to trivialise what is a vital, yet often misused part of design (especially online).

With the current arms race going on in web font technology, now is the perfect time for our leading typographers to examine the implications and opportunities afforded to designers, but I got no such insights from this talk.

 
Still, three good talks out of four isn't bad, so I walked out into the glorious Brighton sunshine at lunchtime a happy customer. However, the best was yet to come. Look out for part two!

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