Gerry: Brendan Dawes, a very warm welcome to the This is HCD Podcast.
Brendan: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to join you.
Gerry: Delighted to have you. We’re at Pixel Pioneers in Belfast today. A conference that has been going for two years. It was a fantastic day. Let’s kick off. Tell me a little bit about what you do and probably how you describe what you do?
Brendan: I always have a problem describing what I do because I think really, I’m a designer but no one comes to me to design things, people come to me for art-based work. I am an artist, but that word is so loaded, and because I have this constant imposter syndrome as some people would call it. I have trouble dealing with that word. It is nearer to what I do because no one comes to me and says, could you design a logo, or something like that, or a brochure. I’m learning to embrace it, I think. I think the core is interaction design in its widest possible sense.
Gerry: Yes, we were chatting a little bit about that earlier, you mentioned even your mother doesn’t know what you do.
Brendan: Yes, my mum is great. She did come. I had a solo exhibition. All my work was up in several rooms, she loved it. She told her hairdresser I invented Google Maps.
Gerry: Really? Well, that’s something.
Brendan: I said, yes, it’s close enough.
Gerry: That’s close enough, mam, thanks very much for that. You’re saying you’ve got a little bit of a hang-up about artist, what do you think is causing that hang-up?
Brendan: I think when you say you’re an artist, it means you make art. Art is, there’s a brevity to art, I think. We were chatting earlier, weren’t we, about the difference of art and design and for me, art is very much about leaving you with questions. I’m definitely more into that. I’m not someone who provides answers, which I think design is largely about. Also, I’ve not come up in that world. I went to secondary school and then got a job. I didn’t go to any kind of Royal College of Art or didn’t hang out with other artists.
Maybe that’s where the anxiety comes from, I think. I have friends who are artists and they’re quite serious. I’m not. I’m serious about my work, but as an individual, I can’t be that serious person where, I don’t wear a scarf indoors. That seems to be the main thing for an artist, to wear a scarf indoors. I just can’t embrace that, to be that serious person. It’s for other people to judge whether it is art or not.
Gerry: A lot of the work you showed in your talk today was experiential design. The stuff that you showed about the LEDs, tell us a little bit about that. It was in London, wasn’t it?
Brendan: Yes, Price Waterhouse came to me and they were developing this data lab in London HQ, a huge building. They were having this data lab where the clients would pay to spend a day in this data lab and PWC explored their data with them and that kind of thing. It was all filled with the latest technology, big touch screen, and all of this kind of stuff, VR/AR. They had a wall that was empty. There were some TVs on it. They came to me and said, “Could you design a ten-metre-long wallpaper with some data graphics on?”
I went down to see them. This was direct from my website. It’s always flattering when people get in touch. I went down to see them. I got the brief. I came away and I thought, we could do – the problem with doing that kind of work is, as soon as you do it, it’s out of date. It’s dead. It is literally just wallpaper. I said, look, I can do that, but why don’t we do something else on top originally.
I said, maybe we could imagine the wall is filled with cubes that all got LEDs in and it’s all controlled by real-time data from London, but they’re covered in fabric because what I notice when I visited your place, everything was hard screen. The data was trapped behind glass.
Gerry: Yes, it was pristine.
Brendan: It was pristine. There was no texture. I said, let me create something that has texture, that was totally not that. I did a proposal and did a few renders. They really bought into it. So much so that in the end they said, we don’t need the graphic anymore. Let’s just have the cubes. Then, of course, it’s, okay, how do I do this? I played with LEDs a little bit, but this was like 220 cubes that were custom fabricated. Each one of them had four LEDs in, making circuitry for that, and it was obviously when you scale up, there’s a whole raft of complication. Also, it has to work every day. It has to have a control system where they can switch visualisations and different feeds.
Then I collaborated with Kate Eagan who is head of textiles in practice at Manchester Metropolitan University, because I had this idea of fabric and I was like, I don’t know how to cover things in fabric, how do we do this? Luckily, I had a friend who did. It was a great collaboration with Kate. I think we did it over about three months. Sometimes my projects were like a month, but that was about three months. There was a lot of learnings, but we pulled it off in the end.
Gerry: Yes, in many ways, it’s like you are a craftsperson with the digital medium.
Brendan: Well, I’m trying.
Gerry: I definitely felt that when you were talking about 3D modelling and 3D printing. The cubes, you were saying they took 12 hours for each cube and stuff. We’re going to put a link to this in the show notes because we’re probably not doing it justice. It’s extremely visual. What was it, the feeds were coming through?
Brendan: Yes, there were three or four different feeds. One was Twitter, so anyone Tweeting about London created this cascade of Tweets. Then there were people who we’d see that Tweets were coloured in a corporate colour. The one they really love is, I did this side-wave algorithm that was tied to how well the tube lines were running. If the tube line was running well, it would be really wavy. Then if the tube line was basically not running, it was just flatlined. You could see by looking at this, that the central line is not running or the northern line. Whatever. They really loved that one.
Then there was the weather. I tapped into the weather for that building, as near as it can be. It creates clouds. The clouds are coloured by the temperature, but they’re also the speed of the clouds is governed by the windspeed of that location. Then I had some random patterns, as well. The idea is, I’m thinking about the context of it, you’ve got a client coming into the room, you can have this thing on and it’s a conversation piece. Straight away the client might go, “I didn’t even know data could look like that or do this.” Straight away, you’re trying to get them into a different head space.
Everyone’s seen touchscreens or whatever. Those by themselves are impressive. It’s room-sized. My piece, I called it carefully everywhere descending, which is inspired by an E.E Cummings poem. In that poem, he describes snow as carefully everywhere descending. I thought, data is kind of like that, it falls around us, but we can pick it up and do things with it.
Gerry: Absolutely. The easy option would have been to put in 20 Sony plasma TV screens on the wall. What I really liked about that was the risk that was associated with it. Not the risk in terms of a bad thing, but just in terms of it’s become easy just to take that to a different level and bring that tactility back into design. It’s something that, as designers, we need to do a lot more of. We need to push the boundaries and when I saw that, actually, that’s beautiful because the fabric that overlay the LED has created this muted effect. I suppose you could probably speak a little bit more about the context. You spoke about handle within the room. Tell us a little bit about how you came to that decision?
Brendan: It was just mainly because when they showed me the plans because this room is still being built at the time. As I mentioned, it was very hard surfaces. Technology, digital technology especially is always seen as a very hard thing, from an aesthetic point of view. I’m like, it doesn’t have to be like that. if you create something tactile, people might interact with it more, or they look at it in a different way. My whole purpose was to get people into this room and go, look, data can look like this, it doesn’t have to be behind glass.
That was all borne out of what they had already designed the context of the room, it was inspiring me to go, well, I’m going to flip it and do this. Even though at the time, I had no idea how to make 220 cubes. I had no idea how to make the circuits. Everything about that job, as well, nothing is off the shelf. Those cubes are made especially for me. The circuits were made. The wiring. I built the software that drives it. The only thing that’s normal is it’s a Mac Mini that drives it.
One of the big learnings for me was, when you’re rigging something like that, you need to get experts in. One this one, I didn’t. I thought, well, I’m putting some cubes on a wall, how hard can it be? I tested out putting cubes, we had a plastered wall that we tried, and it all worked? I have all of these fixings made for plastered walls. I get down there. This was, like, we were doing it after-hours, so everyone had gone home. Started, right, I’ll put the first cube on the wall. The drill went straight through the wall and just left a massive hole.
It’s now I think about half seven at night. We’ve got to crack on. We can’t go, I’ll come back next week. This room was being used at the time. It had already opened. It was a functional space. That’s why we were doing it at night. We then, I was like, oh my god, I was like, Screw Fix, is there a Screw Fix open? There was a Screw Fix open at half ten at night, until half ten. We jumped in a cab because we had trained it down there. Jumped in a cab. We just said, right, I made the decision, let’s go.
This cab driver, anyhow, I don’t look like a builder, Kate doesn’t look like a builder. The taxi driver was just like, can I just ask, why are you going to Screw Fix at this time of night? You don’t look like construction workers. I said, no, we’re not, that’s part of the problem. We managed to get these fixings and I bought another drill. Went back. Ended up, we just needed to screw directly into the wall. I had a laser level and everything. I wasn’t that bad. Everything was laser-levelled. Then that was it, it works. I had to do 440 holes.
Gerry: It was a lot of work.
Brendan: It was in July; the air-conditioning goes off at night to save money. We were drenched in sweat. These are the things that you don’t think of when you’re designing your thing in your studio. You don’t think, I’m going to be stood on top of a giant fridge, because it was where all the drinks were, drilling holes. Recently, I did a big LED thing at [inaudible 00:12:07] show, got a rigging company in because these things were made of steel that are designed. You can’t mess about with that. That was a world of difference. It was amazing.
Gerry: It was included in the proposal?
Brendan: Yes, included. The team was amazing. We always end up learning with these things, don’t you?
Gerry: You had another fantastic piece, the happiness box, was it?
Brendan: Machine, yes.
Gerry: The happiness machine.
Brendan: That went on to the be Air B&B thing, yes.
Gerry: Tell us about that, where did that come from?
Brendan: Well, it was borne out of the internet and how people were being horrible. Well, they still are being horrible to each other, generally, but it can be an amazing place, of course, but the happiness machine was borne out of, the other people on the other end of that handle, they’re human beings that you’re slagging off. Maybe I could make something that really hammers home that they are people.
Gerry: How would you describe it?
Brendan: It’s a machine that’s connected to the internet. When you press a button, it’s a very simple machine, has a button on it, you press the button and a receipt-sized piece of paper comes out. It’s found someone mentioning happiness. It will find blogs or Tweets or whatever. That’s it. You can print another one. It’s completely random. Completely anonymous. Now, people really love it. I put it on the internet and people really loved it. It got blogged a lot.
I think one of the core things is, not just the message, but it’s the fact the form-factor. If that was an A4 sheet of paper, I’ve just made a fax machine, and no one would connect to that. The fact that it’s tiny and the form-factor, you hold it in the palm of your hand, it makes a difference. That ergonomics.
Gerry: Yes, it’s real.
Brendan: It’s cuter, though, it’s smaller. It’s more intimate. Where an A4 sheet of paper is not intimate. There was that. Yes, then it was out there for a few years and then Airbnb get in touch and they took it to America, and we ended up doing a much bigger system, so people could share stories on 12 machines for the Sundance Film Festival.
Gerry: Why do you think it feels a little bit better? You touched on the music player, we had the analogue and the digital worlds coming together. Why do you think that feels so special, what has been lost in the last 15/20 years in the digital revolution?
Brendan: I think part of the reason is, when you’re browsing digital stuff, it doesn’t feel… I don’t know if it feels significant. When you’re looking through an album collection, something happens when you touch something, and you see a big image or you’re making a more considered choice maybe. Also, we’re analogue beings. I describe putting the needle on the record and that point between the music and the static is important.
Gerry: It’s that magic.
Brendan: That magic, yes, like, wow. We lose that with the immediacy of digital. With that said, I really don’t want to paint a rose-tinted spectacle view of the past. My favourite quote about the past is, James Murphy LCD sound system in losing my edge, he says: Fake nostalgia for the unremembered 80s. It’s like people romanticize the past. Mixed tapes were great, weren’t they? They were nice, but they also chewed your music up. There’s a lot to love about digital. I probably listen to more digital music than my vinyl to be honest.
With my music player. Also, it’s the fact that I’m not having to bring up an interface to then browse what I want to put on. I just grab this thing and there’s a niceness. The interface almost disappears. I think it gets it out of the way, but I’m still being able to do what I want to do. I do use it every single day. I just need to put more albums on it because I keep playing the same albums really, yes.
Gerry: For anyone listening, it was a speaking system and you had connected up some Kodak… Kodak, what were they called?
Brendan: Yes, 35mm slides, and they have NFC stickers on the back, which are dirt cheap and they nicely fit, so you can’t really see them. They become mini-albums, effectively. You just drop it in, and it detects. I’ve got a database that says, right this NFC sticker is this album on Spotify, then you can use this system called Mopado, which is an opensource thing that sits on a Raspberry Pie and it tells that to play the album and that Raspberry Pie is connected to the stereo. That’s it.
Gerry: It was absolutely beautiful. I know. I was sitting beside Gerry McGovern and the two of us were looking at each other going, “I want that.”
Brendan: Everyone says that. I’ve actually sold physical things before, hardware. I’ve done a Kickstarter. It was super successful. We got funded in 48 hours and it was a button for your iPhone. It was the first one that ever did that. There’s a whole other podcast just the story of that. I had a business making that. Eventually, I had to shut it because you realise that even though the product is successful, and it was being written about in Silicon Valley and it was amazing. If you do not have money for marketing, your product is dead in the water. Look at how much money Apple spend on marketing.
Gerry: You’re not competing with that.
Brendan: They’ve got the biggest brand awareness of anyone, yet, their ads are everywhere. You realise how important it is. All my money went on the product. I had no money left, so I think I made it run for six months. Then, you’ve also got the other things that go into hardware. It’s like the support system. Electronics break. You’ve got to have a support mechanism, you’ve got to have a return system. The levels of complexity, which is why I made it opensource. If you want to make it, here it is.
Gerry: If you were to include all of that service model into the original price, you could end up paying a couple of thousand.
Brendan: This is it. It’s not cheap to make, relatively. Like you say, to do it properly, the onboarding of where they store their albums, how do they add albums, all this stuff.
Gerry: Integration of Spotify, Google Play.
Brendan: As you know, can it go with Sony, or…? As you know, that’s what service design is, you think about all this stuff.
Gerry: It goes beyond.
Brendan: It gets very complicated very quickly.
Brendan: I’m pleased to say people have built it. I had a lovely email. He said, what a magical experience.
Gerry: It’s a beautiful design.
Brendan: Yes, cheers. The industrial designer really loved doing that. Originally, because if you look, the angle of the chamfer is the same angle of how you put the album in.
Gerry: Yes, I did see that.
Brendan: Yes, so all of that, I’m learning all of this stuff as I do it.
Gerry: That’s what’s beautiful, we all are.
Brendan: Yes, exactly.
Gerry: In the industry, there are a lot of people who just fake it and they don’t tell anyone. I can tell you now, everyone is faking something.
Brendan: I had a version before that, and it was squarer. I thought, no, actually, it needs to be at the same angle. Yes, I think that’s why I make those things, I learn from them, so when a client comes to me, I can say, well, I know how to make these boxes or whatever now.
Gerry: Absolutely. I could speak to you for hours and hours. We haven’t even spoken about the data and the way you work is fantastic. It was really refreshing. I’m not just saying that because you’re here.
Brendan: Thank you.
Gerry: To hear a different way of working as opposed to sticking to the same frameworks of, ideation and so forth.
Brendan: Yes, it’s the only way I know, though. I’ve had an agency and I’ve worked in teams and stuff like that. I’ve been a creative director. Yes, we’ve just seen a great talk about process, really deep. I was watching it and thinking, that is not me. I can’t do that. I think you have to be happy in your skin. Another E.E. Cummings quote that I read yesterday was, he talked about nobody but yourself. He talks about, when you use words that other people use, you’ve failed as a poet. He was saying that, if after several years you’ve only written one line, you have succeeded. He was saying that it’s so hard to be yourself and not copy other people.
Gerry: Yes, and that come through in all of your…
Brendan: Well, thanks, that’s good.
Gerry: Absolutely, I’m not just saying that. It was really refreshing today, and we’ll put a lot of links in the show notes to direct people to these because they’re very visual and they’re experiential to be viewed. Now, I mentioned before, as we wrap up every podcast, we have three questions. What’s the one professional skill that Brendan Dawes wishes he was better at?
Brendan: I think graphic design because I sometimes wish that I’d gone to university and really learned the craft of graphic design. Yes, from a really deep level. I feel that I lack that depth. Sometimes, my naivety can lead to different ways of doing things. Then I think, I wish I had the foundation of X, or whatever. I don’t know.
Gerry: Yes, there are pros and cons to it. I remember years ago, I used to play music. I remember saying to somebody, I wish I was able to write music, or I wish I was able to do all of these different things. They were like, well, the moment you learn how to write the music, you lose what you’re good at. We were talking about specialism in journalism earlier. I’m sure there are a lot of graphic designers that wish they were more able to think like you.
Brendan: Probably, yes. It’s the grass is greener thing, isn’t it?
Gerry: Yes, absolutely. The second question is, what is the one thing that you wish you were able to banish from the industry and why?
Brendan: I would love people, well, obviously, being snarky. Do you know what? I think cynicism is not too bad a thing.
Brendan: I am quite a cynical person. I think ripping people off. To me inspiration is where you see something and you go, wow, that is amazing. Then you let it get fuzzy in your head. The memory of that thing is dirty and fuzzy and noisy. Then you attach your things to that memory. Then you attach your things to that memory. That’s inspiration to me. Without that, it’s copying, or you’re just replicating things. Looking at other people’s work all the time, within my industry, if that industry is digital, people are obsessed with referencing other people’s work when they’re briefing you.
That is similar. They reference digital things. Why aren’t you referencing nature or a piece of architecture, even though this is going to be a digital thing. I want people to, you know what? I think it’s quite simple. Increase the bandwidth of what inspires them.
Gerry: Yes, nice answer to the question. Final question, Brendan is, what advice would you give to emerging design talent for the future?
Brendan: Don’t worry about what other people think of you.
Brendan: I think put those fears aside, do not think you know everything. The older I get, the more I realise the less I know. Always be open and be curious. Yes, I think it’s that thing of, do you know what? Just put your work out there. You do not know where it will lead. Document everything. The happiness machine is a great example of that. I didn’t know I’d end up for several days at the Sundance Film Festival working for Airbnb, to make this stupid thing I’ve made. If I could have just kept that and go, it’s not finished, so I just won’t tell anyone. I put it out there and people looked passed the flaws and they go, I love what it’s doing.
Gerry: Yes, the sentiment was really rich.
Brendan: Yes, I would just encourage everyone to just put their work out there.
Gerry: Yes, excellent. Brendan Dawes, thank you so much for your time.
Brendan: Thank you. Thank you very much.
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