Against the tide. Element Talks conference afterthoughts
Date : Saturday 30 April, 2016
Photo by Patrycja Mic
Last weekend, I took part in a conference called Element Talks, dedicated to practical aspects of working as a designer. The event, this year in its 3rd edition (though the first one to be held in Warsaw, the previous two were in Poznań), attracted hundreds of people, including students, professionals, as well as commercial and non-profit companies who came to hear talks, take part in workshops, portfolio consultations, to network and also purchase some lovely books and accessories from brands such as Pan Tu Nie Stał, Papierowy Dizajn, SHOF, or Bookoff.
As a two-day event of continuous talks and workshops, with barely any breaks except for a lunch break, it was an incredibly intense experience. Needless to say, even those short breaks were spent either exercising one’s patience in the bathroom queue, or networking and chatting with people, so there was virtually no time to be with one’s own thoughts. On Sunday night, as I was stepping out of the vast warehouse on Mińska Street, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed with the amount of information my brain was processing. But it was all good. I left the event feeling motivated and inspired, my mind and eyes nourished with captivating stories and gorgeous images. And, even though the theme of this year’s event was “cooperation”, a different message resonated much more strongly with me. That message was: there are absolutely no rules to run a successful design business.
Young designers (myself included), are often hungry for books, articles and talks that can guide us in the meanders of working in the design industry as a freelancer or an independent entrepreneur. Hundreds of books on the topic have been published, with established design gurus giving advice on how to “make it” and how to brand yourself (which Hans Wolbers of Lava once referred to as “incredible amount of bullshit”).
The truth is, with an increasing competition, a growing number of schools and courses, and access to more and more sophisticated software, there is no guarantee that being an Adobe expert with solid experience, a flashy website, and social media presence will land us clients and jobs. Watching more experienced professionals and studios, and aiming to match their level of quality, working methods and their way of presenting themselves, is not necessarily the way to go. What it does is breeding clones with near-identical style and lack of character. Many design studios websites look so alike, that they merge into one in my head.
Interestingly, the book I’m currently reading — Jason Fried’s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s Rework — fits in perfectly with some of the thoughts I had after Element Talks. The successful people are not necessarily those who cater for clients, work 60/80/100 hour weeks, aim to expand and grow their business, write mission statements, long-term business plans, contracts, and sit in team meetings. They are often those who, to paraphrase the authors, ignore the real world and scratch their own itch. So below are a few conclusions I’ve come to thanks to the conference and the book.
Photo by Patrycja Mic
You don’t need a hierarchy
Pentagram, one of the biggest and longest-running design agencies in the world, has followed the same model for the past 45 years: the company’s profit is shared evenly between its partners (currently 21). There is no CEO, no pyramid structure, and those partners actually get to do what they love: design. Yes, as Luke Hayman said, some of those partners could probably earn more if they left the company and worked elsewhere. But they wouldn’t be part of a truly amazing team of exquisite talents, working on some of the most prestigious, challenging and exciting projects.
You don’t need an office
The team at Nozbe, a productivity app for computer and mobile devices, developed by Michael Śliwiński, consists of 20 permanent employees and about the same number of associate workers. All working from home. Śliwiński, who is constantly asked where the company’s office is, has a hard time explaining that there isn’t one. To most people, the concept of running a company without having a physical office is unimaginable. But cutting down overheads such as office space not only means more money for the company (and more independence as a result) but more time, which is no longer wasted on commuting.
You don’t need the branding pigeon hole
Luke Hayman said that the team at Pentagram refuses to be specialists. Studio Dumbar, whose Creative Director Liza Enebeis and Project Manager Wouter Dirks gave an excellent talk at ET, believes in a free-spirit approach: they oppose micro-managing the design process with “an endless stream of self-justifying concepts, precepts and admonitions” and “trust talented and committed designers to come up with truly fresh and surprising visual ideas”, to quote Rick Poynor from his article on Dutch graphic design. They are keen to hire young and inexperienced people and are open to their own visual thinking, as opposed to forcing branding guidelines on their team.
You don’t need to be a master in everything
Anton Repponen and Irene Pereyra from Anton & Irene, two designers who quit their work at advertising agencies in order to, as they say, “get to be choosy about what work we take on — client or self-initiated”, told a funny tale of making a web video for a German client. The video was suggested by the duo as an alternative way to express a rather clichéd motto that “creativity is for everyone”, which would replace a slideshow with captions. Having no experience in film-making, camera work or film-editing, Anton and Irene shot an amateurish video merely to show their idea. If approved by the client, the final video was to be shot by professional film-makers. But when the client saw their video, not only had he (to everyone’s astonishment) burst into tears, but also insisted that they do a series of those “guerilla-style” videos, exactly in the same way. He felt that the video was fresh, original, and expressed his ideas a lot better than a professional and polished film would.
Finally: you don’t need uniforms & gear
It is somewhat funny to see how many people feel obliged to get into the designer’s uniform: hipster glasses, tote bag and a MacBook pro with cool stickers and the latest Creative Cloud Suite inside. But, as Fried and Hansson say, “Tone is in your hands. Many amateur golfers think they need expensive clubs. But it’s the swing that matters, not the club. Give Tiger Woods a set of cheap clubs and he’ll still destroy”. Having until recently worked in Adobe CS3, I couldn’t help but smile when I heard people obsessing over new shortcuts and tricks in CC which apparently beat CS6 to the punch. My own computer doesn’t have a brand — it is a custom-built workstation, a big black box with a kickass processor and enough memory to handle the most demanding animation work. I can’t take it to a cafe to work whilst drinking a latte. But my home espresso maker is pretty good. 🙂
So make up your own rules. Go against the tide. Scratch your own itch. And, as Bruno Sellés from Vasava Studio said: if your dream project isn’t coming, just invent it. (Below is an example of an “after hours” project done for fun, which turned out to be a commercial success.)
Special thanks to Patrycja Mic who allowed me to include a couple of her beautiful photos from the conference.