31 October 2018

Videogames: (Sketch) / Design / Play / Disrupt

I took a trip to London recently to do some gallery lurking, and was fortunate enough to get a ticket into the V&A's latest digital inspired offering, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt. As a designer within the industry this show is exploring, when I saw the curtain lifted on how games are made (a brainstorm wall, a spreadsheet of narrative forks, how sprints work, etc.) it began to feel like I'd come in on a Saturday to do some paid overtime – with me doing the paying.

But then something happened. I saw a kid, a girl. About ten years old, taking notes and sketching. And then a boy, he looked about 12, discussing with his dad all the inner machinations on display. Looking around, amongst a varied ragtag bunch of punters, I realised a large contingent were kids with parents. When the next generation of makers are getting inspired before your very eyes, you quickly start seeing things differently. The day-to-day in front you instead morphs into dreams. That spreadsheet, a dry but necessitous tool of organisation, becomes a truly beautiful, rational weapon of brilliant logic slaying the demons of disorganisation. My love for a spreadsheets and Gantt charts became crystallised as I saw afresh their pedagogical powers. And as I moved along this work-away-from-work, observing the hours, days, weeks, months and years of design, development and production unfold as art, I found the big one. The holy grail. A single artefact carefully secured, sheltered by dimmed light and protected by glass. A sketchbook. And it got me thinking.

I began thinking about thinking. I thought about the thoughts written down and how they got turned into something real. I wondered if that designer ever wondered what would become of their sketchbook. Did they see it as a workaday means to an end? A breadcrumb trail of thought? Or some other thing; proof of their part in something much bigger? Could they ever have imagined that a small part of their creative process would become worthy enough to be considered curate-able in the same room that showed the life work of David Bowie, currently next to an exhibition on Frida Kahlo in a museum space shared with epochs of diverse human antiquities, art and endeavours ranging from Tipu's Tiger, to Constable, to a 3D printed gun? My guess is not. I imagine they thought it would just sit on top of another sketchbook, in a long line of sketchbooks, gathering damp or dust or whatever it is you find at the bottom of a box in an attic. Until now.

Now it’s firing the imaginations of kids and showing that what we do, what makers do, is no different to what they do. Dreaming, sketching, making. And very often just doodling. (But doodling’s fine, kids. It frees the brain.)

I clearly remember as a kid myself, sketching on my 'William' custom headed notepaper my brother James got made for my birthday when he worked at Prontaprint. I looked up to him being a Graphic Designer and one day hoped I could do the same and somehow combine with that my massive love of The Beano, and turn my cottage industry of imitation comics and home t-shirt printing into something like a job. Funnily enough, something like that did happen. I did become a graphic designer. I did end up working with The Beano, helping make a couple of games. And the constant throughout this journey? Keeping sketchbooks.

It’s impossible not to. It’s one place where a constant thread of thought can be scrawled, traced and relinked in a tangible space. Quickly and easily navigated by thumb and forefinger, amended simply with a pen. Looking back through my current sketchbook, I can see an analogue time machine of projects and thought process, and even a few bits of those aforementioned Beano games scratched out. In the spirit of Design/Play/Disrupt, here are some of those sketches from two recent releases I worked on at Jollywise for Beano Studios: Return to Lender and Sausages and Chips.

We all know Da Vinci kept sketchbooks. Artists throughout time have done the same. As have designers. In one magical display, the V&A has helped solidify the importance of the medium for whatever field you work in, and turned the almost impossible games-as-art debate into a beautifully winnable argument. If you get a chance, take a look. And take a sketchbook.


Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt

On now at V&A until Sunday, 24 February 2019


This post was first published on the Jollywise blog

20 July 2018

Innovation, simplicity and creative thinking Eno nutshell

The old aphorism 'Necessity is the mother of invention' came to mind recently when I was listening to Episode 38 of the Adam Buxton podcast, in which he interviews Brian Eno (for the second time; the first time being episode 37, continuity fans).

Whenever Brian Eno says something, gold falls out. Kind of like a sagacious and thoughtful alchematic raconteur. If he had a strapline, it would be 'More than a musician'. You may have gathered, I really really really like Brian Eno. During one of Adam's signature ramblechats, they talk about making verse-chorus-middle eight pop/rock songs and, with it, some lovely insight into creativity spills out of our demigod. I mean Brian.

Discussing an early period of his songwriting, in one concise statement he manages to reveal more about a certain part of the creative process than few wordy articles ever have:

‘Very early on when I started writing songs, thinking, if I make a decision never to use the personal pronoun 'I', never to use 'you' in the singular, or 'love'. I thought if I make a decision never to use any of those three words in a song, I would already be in a very tiny area which nobody has explored very much. So that's kind of the trick I think, is to say okay, there's one target – the love song – and everyone is shooting at it. What about if I invent another target?’ (Click here, skip to 15:00.)

Back to that classic old aphorism ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’. Difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions, and essentially what Eno wanted to do was set himself parameters that would force a unique outcome. Innovation by reduction. Parameters are a great creative starting point on any project - that's why interrogating the brief is such an important part of the design process: distilling the requirements of a project into a nutshell so time needn't be wasted in casting the creative net too wide. One nice little example of this is to ask the client what they’re not looking for, often weeding out some very specific details that otherwise may not get articulated until a much later stage where time has been burnt venturing down yet unknown dead ends. For example, “We hate purple. So as long as the interface isn’t purple, we’ll be happy”. Good to know.

What at first appear to be boundaries can quickly stimulate lateral thought. Eno's take on forcing a situation whereby constraint is actually a positive fuel – rather than a creatively stifling pot of old glue – is nice to hear from a sensible demigod. I mean, person. Whatever creative field you're in, it's just how you choose to do your version of it; to harness your own set of rules, whether it's a didactic approach like his or a more philosophical one – such as using the ethos of simplicity as a whole.

Simplicity as a design tool for making more by using less is something I believe all us designers strive to do, but in practice is very difficult to execute. Projects often require proof of existence by the volume of ideas, the complexities therein and the output created by them, and it's a struggle to counter the 'more stuff = better value' logic. However, to coin a mixed metaphor, there's always more than one way to get your cakes in a row, slice, then eat them.

I recalled another interview, with director Jonathan Glazer, talking about the process of working on total cinematic amazathon and best film-with-a-Hollywood-A-lister-driving-a-white-Transit-van-around-Glasgow, ever: Under the Skin.

‘The perfect machine is the one with the fewest parts. You don't start with the fewest parts, you're trying to distil to the fewest parts. Simplicity is something you end with, you don't start with it; you get to it. If you're lucky you get to it.' (Click here, skip to 12:48.)

Nicely put. His MO is to accept that things are complex. You start with a camel but strive to end up with a racehorse.

Today's takeaway, dear reader: yep, sometimes more is indeed more. But in whichever creative industry you work, simplicity wants to win, and the people at the top of their game will always find a way to let it.


This post was first published on the Jollywise blog