A Day at the London Design Festival

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London was buzzing for the last two weeks of September. Everywhere you looked, on every street corner there seemed to be something about design. The city was filled with museum exhibits, public art and storefronts with interactive installations. I took in what I could in a week before heading to the south of France for a well-deserved vacation.

I chose to dedicate one full day to attend a conference on interactive design called iDesign . The schedule was well arranged with all talks in the 15-25 minute range. The lectures were grouped in three or four with a Q&A after which was sometimes the most interesting part. I found the day’s events to be well organized and informative. Generally conferences tend to cater to either the technical aspects of Interactive Design or the minutia of photoshop techniques but iDesign concentrated on high level subjects with interesting conversations about the illusive and often hyped buzzword, Convergence. By no doubt the most common subject throughout the day was User Generated Content (UGC), the web 2.0’s silver bullet and I’ll comment more on this later.

The day was chaired by Simon Waterfall the president of D&AD and creative distractor of Poke is a cocky Jude-Law-lookalike who, apart from a few condescending remarks about how expensive he is, had some funny moments and generally ran the show well.

The Morning Lectures
First up was Tom Campbell of Creative Industries, a department of the London Development Agency– a governing-body for the industry and one of the people behind OwnIt. Mr. Campbell explained why the digital design industry is so important. The creative industries (as it is called in the UK) have now become the second largest sector of London, earning 21 billion pounds per year. Eight percent of this country’s business revenues can be directly linked to the creative industries. Basically, the digital design industry has doubled in London over a year. Interestingly Campbell brought up that there are 30,000 designers in London and two thirds of the world’s design firms have their headquarters there.

The next speaker was David Kester the chief executive of the Design Council who’s dry yet positive talk confirmed any notions about whether the digital design is booming in London. While the creative industries are burgeoning, it’s interactive that leads the pack when it comes to solid financial growth and the London design scene, in particular, is humming. Interestingly, Kester mentioned that digital design studios in London seem to be renaming and rebranding themselves every 3 years or so. Which seems surprisingly frequent? Kester also suggested collaboration and creating strategic partners in the industry and recommended considering an Italian saying that says “A friend helps you move your house but a good friend helps you move a dead body”. Some proverbs are not lost in translation.

Next up was Psychologist Dr. Nick Baylis from Cambridge, who isn’t exactly computer-savy judging from his impromptu performance, lack of slides and poor website, proceeded to tell this very accomplished audience that computers are bad for you. He said that our working with computers is directly responsible for our depressions, our headaches, our poor shallow “Facebook” relationships and even our bad posture. It’s hard to believe really. But what was harder to believe was that he left us without any constructive suggestions to fixing these problems apart from more physical touching. Yes, he said we need to touch each-other more. unbelievable!

Fortunately he was paired with Bill Thompson, another Cambridge guy was seemingly-well-known journalist, who provided the right amount of bravado and intelligence to completely contradict and discredit Dr. Nick’s doom and gloom. He spoke about how technology wants to fundamentally enhance life and was quite critical about the current trends of the industry. Saying “Web 2.0 marks the dictatorship of the presentation layer, a triumph of appearance over architecture that any good computer scientist will instantly recognize and dismiss. Today in Web 2.0 has any long-term applicability to solving the problems of turning the network from a series of tubes connecting processors into a distributed computing environment. Sun Microsystems may have trademarked ‘the network is the computer’ twenty years ago, but we’re still a decade off delivering.” Check out his talk on youTube but the sound is recorded really poorly from the back of the auditorium.

The next round of speakers gave us the lay of the land for the web, gaming and mobile sectors. Benn Archilleas of Neo spoke about social networking sites and mashups. Archilleas sited RunLondon as a clever google maps mashup and Caroloke as a good user-generated content.

Then Toby Barnes of Pixel-Lab spoke about the blurring (or converging) of gaming with the web and education. Gerry Griffin of Skill-Pill Mobile Learning spoke about developing content for mobile phones and the challenge of education in the current climate, where people are moving from
being ‘considered’ users to ‘impulse’ users. He also mentioned something interested about how the iPhone’s management system disables users more than it enables them. The comment inspired me to do some research on the subject. See this article about Apple and the iPhone.

Lunchtime isn’t just for food
During lunch a presentation from former pop idol (Human League), collaborator with Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode and Yazoo (known as Yaz in North America) and now major music theorist Martyn Ware with contributions from Ross Phillips of SHowstudio, Jason Bruges , Newangle and Fabrica had some unique interactive architectural projects. All of the speakers spoke about interesting projects in responsive environments. Very inspiring.

Martyn Ware | Bill Thompson | Ross Phillips

Talks on Convergence
Helen Keegan of Beep Marketing gave a good overview of the mobile scene as it stands, with a keen insight that while location-based services appear to be the flavour of the month, context-based services offer considerably more promise. This had a major resonance with me as we’ve been working very hard on a Nokia project over the past year and they have started their climb for mobile content. Read “Nokia takes a Big Step into Mobile Content” if you want to know more.

Steve Flaherty gave a bit of an infommercial on his company, Starsight. Starsight is solar-powered streetlighting that contains an integrated wi-fi hub that is powered by the same battery. Aimed at the developing world, the design considerations included the ability to make the streetlights from local materials in any part of the world, and the ways in which they could be made secure – in places where any metal has significant worth – by feeding into the community through their educational contribution (internet access, light for tradespeople working at night) and thus becoming protected by the communities it is placed into. Prototypes are being developed in Istanbul (hardly third world!) and Gabon.

The next set of talks were about user-centred design and usability. First Clive Grinyer, the Director of Product Design at Orange France Telecom spoke of the debt of responsibility designers carry: while he’s an advocate of knowing the audience in order to inform a design, handing responsibility over to that audience in the form of voting or user-created donations seemed to him an abrogation of that duty. He sited the product design of a ghetto-blaster that was designed by user-polling which ended up selling much less than the previous model. This reminded me of the episode of the Simpsons when Homer tried to design that nasty car.

Elliot Jay Stocks approached accessibility from a very practical standpoint. His main thrust was to dispel any misconceptions about accessibility and Search Engine Optimization limiting the layout or beauty of a website. He explained the power of proper CSS implementation and strict web standards. He didn’t really mention how to get around Microsoft’s stubborn resistance to the existing web standards and how we can avoid doubling development times just to be compliant with Internet Explorer. A good talk regardless.

Next up was Channel 4 commissioner Adam Gee presented the bigartproject. A site that allows it’s users to upload and comment on pictures of public art using their mobile phones. The project will eventually become a short television series next year. There didn’t seem to be any plan as to how the content on the site would be used for the tv show apart from the most commented public art pieces might be showcased. It was sites like this that really made me reconsider the idea of user-generated content. It just seems like a cheap ploy to get content and the imagery is poor and the comments are generally not worth reading.

Last Session
The final session had four leading interactive designers present the work of another designer who had inspired them. Nat Hunter presented the work of Yugo Nakamura, one of my personal favourites for years. Tom Roope discussed the work of Hans Bernhard, a digital design interventionist whose work subverts any notions of design being about aesthetics and asks us to think. His work was very intriguing and begs further investigation. Eva Rucki from Troika talked about the importance of intimacy with interfaces and working to make technology less impersonal to engage people. Finally, Malcolm Garrett showed us the interface designed by Cogapp for the MoMA gallery.

Over and over again the topic of user-generated content (UGC) kept coming up. There was a lot of talk about whether this is the definition of Web 2.0 or not, but honestly I’m not down with the Web 2.0 label and its hype. After designing & producing a fair number of websites (ChiefsAndChampions, BangON and UBC’s School of Architecture) with user-generated content at their core, I’ve come to realize that getting users to contribute good content to a site is difficult and just building a framework to hold content and hoping for a community to build by itself is a lot to ask.

Taken to its logical extension the idea of user-generated content and citizen media has many problems that can not be overlooked. Generally speaking the so-called democratization of the web threatens objective information and devalues the expert in the field. Fortunately, the gatekeepers of mainstream media are being replaced. But unfortunately they are being replaced by the chaos of anonymous internet charlatans with their own political and economic agendas.

I’d like to challenge the ideal of Web 2.0 social networking and reveal that behind the radical “power to the people” rhetoric are the lies of a new generation of media opportunists. There is no evidence that the power is in the hands of the people. The ‘People’ are asked to give away their contents and the only ‘people’ benefitting from UGC are the millionaires at eBay, YouTube, MySpace and PhotoBucket.

UGC is a scam for the most part. It’s a way for the owners of Web 2.0 sites to get content for free, drive massive audiences and then sell advertising around it. With the exception of sites like Flickr which actually offer an excellent platform for sharing photography most Web 2.0 sites have little to offer the world with their lowest common denominator content, shiny buttons and overused floor reflections. If the content has any value its creators would have sold it. Anyone who gives away their content for free is either talentless or naive.

Will the Web 2.0 hype end?
The hype 2.0 may end but it will likely only give way to web 3.0 bullshit. But if you’re anything like me, you believe that the web can still be saved and we can take responsibility for the consequences of the digital age. After all, the internet is just a mirror. When we look into it, we see ourselves staring back. If we want to save it we need to be self-critical and honest about what we’re doing online. That means stop posting anonymously. It means challenging our narcissistic impulses to turn the web into a fragmented sea of useless self-publishing morons. It means opposing lowest common denominator content like gambling, porn and cowardly flame wars.

Looking to the Future
What will it be? we have a choice, the future can be a lot like YouTube – one long commercial with breaks of supposedly independent content like lonelyGirl15 or the next clever marketing ploy that is masked as user-generated content. Or we can look like it little like Guardian.co.uk – healthy mix of high-quality independent content and a vibrant community generating intelligent focussed comments successfully supported by a viable business model. Let’s think before we build websites.

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