Dan Roam, author of “Back of the Napkin”, a great book on using doodles to communicate ideas, talks briefly about the origins of visual thinking.
When people complain that Twitter is a waste of time, and ruining our brains by shortening our attention span I remember the reaction when I first demonstrated the concept behind the worldwide web to the bosses at the company where I worked, back in the 90s. They said it was a fad, that it would never catch on. Stop wasting your time on it, they said.
Fortunately for them I didn’t listen, so when they finally came in screaming “we need a web site, we need a web site!” I was able to say, “here’s one I prepared earlier”…
Those were the days.
At other times I speculate that when the printing press was invented, the same thing happened. “It’ll never catch on,” people would have said.
It turns out, that’s exactly what they said. Well, not exactly. But effectively. Take a look at this bit of blurb on the back of Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending by Elizabeth L. Eisenstein
From its very early days the printing press was viewed by some as black magic. For the most part, however, it was welcomed as a “divine art” by Western churchmen and statesmen. Sixteenth-century Lutherans hailed it for emancipating Germans from papal rule, and seventeenth-century English radicals viewed it as a weapon against bishops and kings. While an early colonial governor of Virginia thanked God for the absence of printing in his colony, a century later, revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic paid tribute to Gutenberg for setting in motion an irreversible movement that undermined the rule of priests and kings. Yet scholars continued to praise printing as a peaceful art. They celebrated the advancement of learning while expressing concern about information overload.
Now read through that passage again and notice a couple of things. “Revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic paid tribute to Gutenberg for setting in motion an irreversible movement that undermined the rule of priests and kings”. Strike you as familiar?
And what about “they celebrated the advancement of learning while expressing concern about information overload”?
At a time when revolutions in the middle east are being played out using social media like Twitter, the similarities with the way the printing press upset the balance of power are startling. And the responses of those in power – not just the “kings” but the “priest” (who today could be said to be the gatekeepers to knowledge, the journalists, writers and academics) are also similar: it’s the end of learning, the end of deep thought and calm reflection; infomation overload really means too much information, and you can never have too much of that if it sets you free.
Admittedly a lot of that information is rubbish: I try my best not to read the comments on news sites and YouTube for fear of my brain throttling me in self-defence. But for all the rubbish, there is good stuff out there, and more of it, and more opportunities to publish without having to gain the approval of an editor. Okay, Twitter has its faults but they’re actually the faults of the masses, not of the medium. The same with printed text. For now, it’s enough to know that just as there will always be people who think any new technology will be the end of civilisation as we know it, so there always have been.
The irony is that each new generation of doomsayers has been educated by the very same technology their predecessors said would be their doom. When 3D holograms are being charged with threatening our very existence, the people making the accusation will probably be using Twitter to do it.
A new book has just been released which might appeal to those interested in sustainable design, and sustainable fashion and textiles in particular.
According to the book’s blurb:
The production, use and eventual disposal of most clothing is environmentally damaging, and many fashion and textile designers are becoming keen to employ more sustainable strategies in their work. This book provides a practical guide to the ways in which designers are creating fashion with less waste and greater durability.
Based on the results of extensive research into lifecycle approaches to sustainable fashion, the book is divided into four sections:
- Source explores the motivations for the selection of materials for fashion garments and suggests that garments can be made from materials that also assist in the management of textile waste.
- Make discusses the differing approaches to the design and manufacture of sustainable fashion garments that can also provide the opportunity for waste control and minimization.
- Use explores schemes that encourage the consumer to engage in slow fashion consumption.
- Last examines alternative solutions to the predictable fate of most garments – landfill.
Illustrated throughout with case studies of best practice from international designers and fashion labels and written in a practical, accessible style, this is a must-have guide for fashion and textile designers and students in their areas.
Buy it from Amazon.co.uk – we’ve also asked the DJCAD library to get a copy.
I’ve had a copy of Factory Girls sitting on my “to read” pile for a few months now. I kept putting it off because although I was interested in the topic, I expected it to be a rather depressing exposé of factory conditions in China, so waited until I was in the mood. Quite what mood I thought that would be I can’t tell you.
I wish I hadn’t put it off: this is a wonderful book. It isn’t about slave labour, awful conditions, or poor wages, but about the people who work in the factories: the “factory girls” of the title, in fact.
Factory Girls explores the culture of migrant workers in China, people who leave rural homes to find their fortune in the rapidly growing cities where people labour away six days a week to make everything from screws to cars. Internal migration has a long history in China but in the past decade or so it has changed considerably. It has also changed the culture of the family.
The book follows a few girls and tells their stories as they leave behind family and friends and forge new lives. For some it’s a way of sending money home that can supplement (or even overshadow) the meagre earnings of the family farm. For others it’s part of the family contract: the older children leave school early, go out to work, and send money home so the youngest can go to school for a bit longer. By the end of the line, one of them may even go to college.
For these girls there are lots of traps. One ends up running away from a massage parlour when she worries about what she will be expected to do, and ends up living rough for a while. She later builds up a social network but it is all contained on her phone; when that is stolen, everything is lost (including the contact details of the job she had been promised) and she has to start again.
As the stories are told, we learn a lot about how business is done in China, the depth of corruption from the “innocent” (10% “commission” to purchasers of a company’s goods) to the less innocent (a shopping mall whose new walls are already crumbling). We also find out about working conditions in the factories, but this isn’t an exposé – what you read might depress you but it isn’t meant to be some sort of undercover reporting, but a telling of people’s lives. These girls put up with shared dormitories in the factory, with long hours, and the occasional day off, because they see it as leading somewhere, and in many ways better than living at home and raising pigs.
In that sense it’s a real eye-opener as it makes you see the situation not from a western perspective but through their eyes. Some of the stories are sad, but there are times when you can’t help laughing at the girls’ resilience in the face of bullying or hardship, or the absurdity of the way business is done. And while it’s easy to laugh at the way China does things, it’s worth remembering that a similar book could be written about the UK where dodgy workmanship and backhand deals are hardly unknown.
The book points out how many decisions are made by people: boyfriends are judged not on looks or income but on height, because that is a good indicator of potential. Getting married is important and the rush is on: any woman over 30 who is unmarried is out of the game. And there are significant points of cultural shift taking place in the book: the breakdown of the traditional rural family, the reversal of roles (it’s the children who now give red envelopes of cash to their elders at new year, not the other way around), the development of a middle class that can’t bear to see how their parents still live (one section where a girl returns home and introduces her family to the concept of a rubbish bag is amusing).
There are a couple of chapters where the author (an American Chinese) tells the story of her own family’s struggle in post-war China and their escape via Taiwan to the USA. These are interesting but distract somewhat from the main thrust of the book.
If you’re interested in how business is done in China then there are probably better, more focussed, books on doing deals, negotiation, etiquette and so on. But if you want to know how doing business in China affects (for good or bad) the lives of people there, this is a fascinating book. It gives you an insight in to the culture of business – at a personal level, rather than a technical level.
The stories are moving, frustrating, funny, personal and particular: it doesn’t pretend that they are representative of everyone, only of those specific people. There are things in there I recognise from my own brief visit, and lots that tallies with other accounts I’ve heard. But it is only part of the picture. Yet what sets this book apart from others such as “Poorly Made In China” (another interesting book on business dealings between East and West) is that it is written by someone who is Chinese herself and who lives there, rather than a westerner adopting a patronising “this has to stop” tone.
Reading this book is like reading a book about how the industrial revolution transformed Britain, except with mobile phones, internet dating and more. What’s happening in China happened here, and is in some cases still happening. In that respect the book is like a mirror: if you laugh at it, or worry about it, you have to think “how does it work here?”
The factories of Dundee were not a million miles from the factories in this book. The stories won’t be that much different either.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough: it’s funny, sad, frustrating and illuminating. It’s also very well written and thoroughly engaging. If you’re interested in how things that are designed in the west get made in China, this is well worth reading. But if you’re just interested in learning a little bit about other people’s lives, you need to read this book.
Buy it from Amazon for £4.54 (December 2010 price). Also available in Kindle format for reading on Kindle, iPhone, iPad etc.
Semester 1 is out of the way, and Christmas beckons. What better time to ask Father Christmas to bring the joy of a little bit of Yuletide reading?
There are two set books for semester 2 and one “highly recommended” book.
Check out Semester 2 Set Books for full details!
In Design Studies we’ve been using visualisation techniques like Mind Mapping and brainstorming to help individuals and groups work on mapping complex information and generating ideas. The other day I got hold of a new book called Visual Meetings by David Sibbet. It’s aimed at non-experts but is a good introduction to the many different ways that visualisation techniques can be used to bring people together to discuss problems, strategies, solutions etc.
I recommend taking a look at it, especially if you’re considering working in a field where you need to liaise with clients or get groups of people thinking collaboratively: graphics, interiors, product and interactive design spring to mind. But I don’t think the ideas are constrained to those disciplines alone – I can see them being useful as group learning tools and they also have applications outside design.
Take a look at David Sibbet’s web site for more information on his work.
The Guardian features an interview with Steven Johnson, author of the book Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson identifies something many designers know already, that ideas don’t tend to leap out of the blue in a moment of inspiration but are the result of a certain process where one thing leads to another.
although the eureka moment is such a cliche, big new ideas almost never get born like that. “It’s weird,” says Johnson, [...] “but innovation is one of those cases where the defining image, all the rhetoric and all the assumptions about how it happens, turn out to be completely backward. It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world. And yet there seems to be this bizarre desire to tell the story that way.”
There are lots of reasons for the mythology surrounding creativity. One is that because being creative is seen as so hard, it must be the result of some “special power” (how often do you hear people claiming not to be creative, or say “I wish I could come up with ideas like that”?).
But it’s also true that designers perpetuate the myth as a sort of protection strategy. How better to justify your abilities (and the money you charge for them) than by making out that what you do is a god-given, magical, talent? It turns out every profession and trade does this to some extent. If you’ve ever had a plumber look at your boiler, or a mechanic look at your car, there’s every chance you’ve been subjected to the intake of breath through the teeth, the use of jargon (like magical incantations) and the overly modest claim to have worked a miracle.
Of course, if you’ve been brought up to believe that you are talented, and one of a kind, you’re not likely to enjoy reading a book that says that creativity is pretty much a normal state of being, it just depends on circumstances.
The principles of co-design, and of design thinking, are based on the notion that everyone can be creative, and that the designer’s role is to facilitate that, not control it. For some designers, that’s a shift in power that’s difficult to stomach, but for others it’s tremendously satisfying. It’s like being the midwife, with photos of hundreds of babies on her wall, rather than the mother, with just the one.
In our Design Studies modules we place a lot of emphasis on team work, either as a formal thing (many of the assignments are group based, or require group activities) or as an informal way of learning (through discussion, mutual assistance etc). Generating ideas is so much easier when there are several people working together, bouncing thoughts off each other, being the midwife rather than the mother. Ten minutes spent brainstorming, and the energy it creates, do far more for creativity than sitting staring out of the window or at an empty sketchbook waiting for inspiration to strike.
Making a living out of design, or solving problems, can’t rely on rare god-given lightning flashes of inspiration. You’d be out of business.
Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with staring out of the window now and then…
What’s your take on this? How do you view creativity? How do the people you know see your “powers”? Is creativity a special talent, or can anyone do it? And how can it be taught and nurtured?
Sadly the event turned in to something of an argument between McCandless (argument: presenting information in a beautiful way can help people absorb it better) and Neville Brody (argument: it makes you miss the core message).
I’m not sure why Brody took that line. It’s a shame that design can’t be discussed on a serious news programme without people playing to stereotypes of what graphic designers are like.
I also wonder why Brody was picked rather than, say, a statistician or a journalist – they’d be better critics of infographics at their best and worst.
Anyway, some people clearly loved it. Design Week’s blog gives the bout to Brody while at the same time seeming to back McCandless’s position:
With an endless flood of data and stats coursing through the Internet and other media, infographics are becoming invaluable.
As Alex Morrison, managing director of Cogapp, said in Design Week last month, ‘We’re entering a new world where events, locations and contextual information are open and shared, and it’s going to be huge. Visualisation is the sexy graphics output of that, but the challenge will be in designing information architecture which makes sense of it and allows people to do something useful with it.’
A full list can be found in the Course Materials section.
It’s that time of year again when students are thinking about starting their new courses. The excitement, the keen sense of anticipation (surely that’s the same thing?)… now’s the time to get a head start on some of the reading you need to do!
Those of you joining us here at Dundee for level 2 on one of our design courses (graphics, jewellery, textiles, product, interactive media, interior design) will be taking the Design Studies module for which there are some set texts. The Amazon links below are for information only but offer some good deals. You may find some of these books on offer in Borders, Waterstones etc.
Please buy both the following two books:
Gladwell, Malcolm (2001). The Tipping Point. London: Abacus Books
Buzan, Tony (1993). The Mind Map Book. London: BBC Worldwide
You must also buy one of the following study guides (each covers the same ground but in different ways – check copies in a library or book shop to see which you prefer)
Cottrell, Stella (1999). The Study Skills Handbook. Basingstoke: Palgrave
McMillan, Kathleen and Weyers, Jonathan. (2007). The Smarter Student: skills and strategies for success at university. Harlow: Pearson Educational.
Chambers, Ellis and Northedge, Andrew (1997). The Arts Good Study Guide. Milton Keynes: The Open University
Please read the whole of The Tipping Point and the first three chapters of The Mind Map Book by the start of semester. We’ll be using The Tipping Point to spark ideas about design and research, and mind mapping as one of the techniques. It’s really important that you’re able to talk about the books when you arrive or you’ll spend the whole semester catching up with everyone else.
You should also try out some Mind Maps so you’re ready to start using them in class.
When you read, make notes of anything that catches your attention, or that you want to follow up or query later. By the end of the semester you should have read The Tipping Point at least twice.
The study skills books are always ones that most students think they don’t need. Trust us – you do. Get one, read it through before you arrive and keep it handy to refer to. They will help you with using the library for research, for taking notes and for writing reports and essays.
If you have any questions about these books, or the Design Studies module, drop Jonathan a line, or add a comment on this page.