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Five things we learned at the Design Manchester conference


On Friday 13th October, our brand strategist, Alice, and lead designer, Tina, descended upon The Principal Hotel for the 5th annual Design Manchester conference. We, along with 600(ish) others were poised and ready for a full day of inspiration and education and with such a kaleidoscopic line-up of creativity, we were not disappointed. Here’s five things we learned.


Make time for yourself, and creativity will follow

The first speaker of the day was Naresh Ramchandani, partner at Pentagram, a studio that has many fans in the Noir office. Naively, we expected to hear Naresh talk about the intricacies of life at Pentagram and showcase some work. Instead Naresh guided us through a personal journey he had recently taken when he decided, as a virtual novice, to write an album. Although the musical creative process mirrored the more familiar agency creative process, Naresh’s honesty and openness struck more of a chord with both of us. Opening yourself to something completely new and taking on a challenge outside of the office can not only result in an immense amount of personal pride and sense of achievement but in turn will probably have a really positive impact on client work.

It’s nothing new that putting yourself in different situations and environments feeds your creative engine but the nature by which, illustrator (and chair maker), Emily Forgot talked us through in her presentation, her inspiration sources were both charming and insightful. As a regular collector of the visually; arresting, offending and intriguing, through her travels across both Europe and the worldwide web, Emily talked us through her personal projects and the impact on her client work. Although a month off is probably quite extreme for most of us, Emily took this time to create and curate her own exhibition, ‘Neverland’. What was particularly striking about Emily’s decision to do this was that she took this time to create pieces that were true to herself, they belonged to her and no-one else. From this, Emily was then able to do much more of this kind of work for clients. So although it wasn’t the intention she proved that valuing her own creative time above others, was one of the most important briefs she could’ve taken on.


The internet *might* just be evil

Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, both Tash Wilcocks (from Hyper Island) and the BBC’s Jane Murison both lovers and purveyors of the internet – also spoke of it’s darker side. Both as effervescent and energetic as each other, they served up a stark reminder that as valuable as the internet, and our devices in which it lives, are – we also need to remember to look up and look around. Tash herself uses ‘Mundane a day’ where she takes the time to illustrate by hand every single day is how she takes herself away from her phone, it does of course then get uploaded to Instagram…but we’re not judging. Jane also took us through the minefield of ethics online, speaking from both the perspective of the BBC as well as from her heart.

When Sean Perkins from design studio, North, took the stage he tackled the evils of the internet head on. Trolls. North’s recent rebrand of the Science Museum group had attracted less than constructive criticism online and Sean decided to frame his talk around answering these, “questions”. The result was a rollercoaster ride through the branding process undertaken by North. It was a genuine treat to see behind the scenes and be allowed (virtually) into the North studio, being able to observe their process in-depth allowed us to reflect on our own processes and this was probably the most talked about subject with the wider team on Monday.


Service design is a team sport

Admittedly service design is not a sphere that we are well-versed in, so there was much to learn from Lawrence Kitson of the Co-op. Lawrence brought the audience through the intense process of improving the Co-op’s Funeralcare – there’s no doubt that service design is one of the most important facets of design so for us, it was fascinating to see how the cogs turn together. What was most striking about everything Lawrence spoke about was the need for collaboration. Not only as an internal team, but in the wider sphere of service design – ensuring that services and cities function together for the good of everyone.


The best way to predict the future is to design it

As strategists and designers we’re constantly trying to ‘stay ahead of the curve’ and predict what’s over the horizon. One of the speakers remarked that in today’s world, it felt like five minutes was as far as it was possible to predict. For narrative designer Alex McDowell, this is not the case. In a mind-blowing and often mind-boggling presentation, Alex eloquently took us from the most primitive principles of storytelling to the outer realms of future realities that he has created. In addition to the excitement of seeing how Alex and his colleagues created worlds for films like Minority Report and Superman, it was thrilling to understand Alex’s process and how us lowly mortals might be able to apply this in our daily work. Being able to unfold a single letter emblazoned on a superhero’s chest out to an alphabet, a language and then to a total environment was a stunning example of how asking one simple question that hasn’t been asked before can be the spark to ignite the entire fire of a project.


Ellen van Loon is the heroine we need, not the one we deserve

The day concluded with a bang, with OMA’s Ellen van Loon. As architects on the £110M New Arts Building, Factory, in Manchester it seemed many of the audience expected van Loon to talk about this, she didn’t. We clearly don’t know Ellen – she does things in her own “naughty” way. Racing through a plethora of recent OMA projects, Ellen’s talk was engaging, funny and inspired. Ellen’s style seems to be, don’t follow a style, her designs are sophisticated and beautiful, functional and thought-provoking whilst at the same time being widely diverse. We were both massively impressed with her approach to each project, not only in terms of design, but how she appears to lead her team and how she manages relationships with extremely demanding clients. As the final speaker, Ellen was the perfect high to end on.

If you’re interested in getting involved with Design Manchester’s upcoming events, find out what’s on here. To read more of our thoughts on branding, design, strategy, insights & technology, subscribe to our blog.