A Beautiful Mind

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At O Street we like to make things look beautiful, but we don’t let beauty get in the way of the message, use or effectiveness of the ‘thing’ we are designing. More and more this involves us making complex things (a sales presentation, a brands core values, an ebook graph explaining trends in music purchases etc…) appear simple.

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This translation from ‘complex’ to ‘simple’ is often solved with our visualisation and design skills, but it also requires our minds to be more agile, for us to be a bit smarter. For that reason, last year I took up a position as a visiting associate with the nice folks at Glasgow School of Art’s new Institute of Design Innovation (InDI). I felt that meeting and working with academics who focused more on the research side of design would rub off on me. I also felt that the aesthetic sensibilities I had learnt practicing design would help the academics sharpen the way they presented their work… making it more beautiful.

SSN project

A few months ago, these new skills were put to the test when I was approached to work on a project with InDI and Catherine Mulligan from the Sustainable Society Network (SSN+). Catherine had been working on a complex theory that outlined how emerging digital technologies were producing brand new economic models, a whole new dimension in fact. All the research and thinking was mapped out, written in long hand. However, communicating this in a concise fashion to her peer group was proving tricky, let alone sharing the findings with wider business communities that could really benefit from it.

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Chatting through her research on the day of our first meeting, I must confess it took me a while to fully understand it, in fact it was not until lying in bed that night that it really sank in (a designer’s brain never seem to stop working over an idea). It was clear that the tradtional visual means to communicate economic ideas had reached it’s limit, it didn’t even begin to illustrate the new business scenarios they were talking about.

The drawings missed the key focus of the emerging theory: There was a whole new dimension of intangible digital capabilities that had never before been represented in conventional economic theory. That being the case, any drawing would need to illustrate this extra dimension.

First thing the next morning I sketched out some of the theories adding this extra dimension, literally with 3D shapes. It was amazing I suddenly not only did I understood it but, with a brief introduction (the drawings were very rough!), others I shared it with did too.

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The drawings, although good for my thought process, were still very rough, and impractical to use it as a technique to quickly translate Catherine’s findings to others. I did a bit of thinking, I was getting better at this by now, and remembered those isometric grids that product designers use to quickly sketch in three dimensions. A few sketches later and there it was, not only did it make sense, it was also a lot quicker to sketch and explore.

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By this stage I was getting very excited, sharing the technique with InDI and Catherine, they got very excited too. However, we began to realise was that being able to illustrate was only half the task at hand. What we could really do with was a way to play with and explore her concepts in a more interactive manner. In stepped the extremely talented Fergus Fullerton-Pegg from InDI and his physical representations of my drawings.

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These modular shapes, nick named ‘poker chips’, allowed us to quickly prototype and play with Cathy’s examples. Members of the business community in the Highlands of Scotland, including Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), joined us for a series of exploration workshops. We created 3D models that highlighted the value of computational capacities in their businesses. The illustrations were becoming more than just a way of translating existing theories; they were facilitating the creation of new theories. They were becoming a tool to improve the way people thought about the development of their businesses.

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Digital Disruptor website

The physical version of the illustration was a great outcome of the work, but the very physical nature of the technique was also a barrier to sharing the knowledge beyond the confines of a geographic location.

We had always realised that with the focus being on the ‘impact of digital’, we would at some point look at the ability of using digital to share our findings. We have done that with the creation of digitaldisruptors.com . A website that when switched on was instantly accessible all over the globe.

The website has two key functionalities: an depository of open source icon sets users can download and use; and a gallery forum where people can share and discuss their own ‘digitally disrupted’ business models.

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At O Street we had already worked on an Open Source icon set (http://www.ostreet.co.uk/quarterlies/open-glasgow/ ) and realised the benefits of sharing crafted icons for free with a wider community. On the website icons can be downloaded for print designers [EPS vectors], web designers [SVGs] and even academics [PowerPoint templates]. Enabling a wide spectrum of people to immediately play with the digital building blocks is the digital equivalent of us playing with the ‘poker chip’ version.

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The gallery forum also then allows users to share the illustrations they develop with the icon sets. Experience in the workshops thought us that sharing business scenarios, even when they are unrelated, are the ideal way to inspire people to think about how their business could be improved by employing lessons learned from these emerging digital techniques.

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Conclusion

O Street’s work with InDI and in particular this project with SSN+ has undoubtedly added depth to our skills as designers. We have learned the value of research, thought, exploration and discussion in the design work we go on to produce.

The practice of design has expanded and morphed into many different silos: Product designers, conceptual designers, UX designers, web designers, graphic designers, app designers, and service designers… (the list goes on). But I can’t help thinking that there is something that unites all the best designers across these specialisms. My hunch is that it is this ability to combine solid research and intelligence with beautiful design. Many designers make a good living just doing the intelligence and thinking side; and many designers just make things that look lovely. Projects like this SSN+ icon project are a way for our studio O Street to strive to champion both the aesthetic and the intelligence of design.

All we need now is an easily accessible way to visualise our business and ways we can improve it with new and exciting business thinking… I think I know a website that can help me with that!

By David Freer, O Street