Seeking Inspiration


I went to the Seeking Inspiration conference at the St Bride Foundation last week, and it was excellent. I was glad to find that I left many of the talks feeling genuinely inspired and encouraged in my work - such a concentration of good ideas, interesting personal histories and genuinely fantastic examples of work is rare to find in everyday life, so I was exhausted after it all. But yes, the conference highlights, according to me.

George Hardie: Noticing things and getting things noticed.

This was a great start to the conference - Hardie promises to deliver a new ‘truth’ in each of the talks he does, letting us know something new (and secret) about his past works or methods. I won’t reveal them here, but his talk set the theme of the day, in that collections (hoarding, perhaps) are central to much of the inspiration of the designer. I certainly have a vast collection of found images, and it was the problems of keeping track of, and categorising them, that led to me creating this site. Collections are good, provided you know what you have and you can find it all easily.

Susanna Edwards: Curious.

I was fascinated by this one. Edwards is another avid collector, and had acquired a collection of antique microscope slides which she wanted to find out more about. Interestingly, this led to a project where the slides became only a secondary interest, and where the techniques and equipment of microscopy over the last three centuries were the main focus. Apparently this was largely due to funding constraints - Edwards spent many months on the project and got funding from The Arts Council (if I remember correctly). I was fascinated by the techniques of taking photographs through the variety of ancient microscopes, and by the people who are involved in microscopy and restoring and caring for microscopic samples. It’s a shame the talk couldn’t have been longer, as there was clearly a lot of material and not all of it could be given full justice. I was extremely disappointed that some of the attendees thought fit to laugh at some of the people who’ve devoted their lives to the niche, often neglected subjects and professions Edwards introduced. It is perhaps obvious to say (but I’ll say it anyway) that typography, letterpress and such arcane topics as type design are considered laughable by some members of the public, so to ape their reaction to yet more esoteric disciplines seems ignorant and at best hypocritical. Edwards dealt with the reaction graciously, but I got a hint that she was disappointed too.

Lizzie Ridout: An exercise in collecting beginnings.

Um. Well. This wasn’t a highlight. I’m not sure what this was about to be honest. I think Ridout would do well to drop the whole eccentric act and just speak normally. This was one of those talks that could have been fascinating, considering it was about the British Library’s vast collection of ephemera, but in the end came across as a bit twee and pointless.

Karel Martens (with Robin Kinross): An error occurred.

This is where the limitations of the St Bride sound system really made themselves felt, and hard. For the whole conference we were instructed to make sure that our mobile phones were switched off, in order not to interfere with the radio mikes. Unfortunately the radio mikes interfered with themselves quite well to the extent I nearly had my ears driven six feet into my skull by the noises they made. It made the talk incredibly hard to follow.

Jake Tilson: Cooking the book

It’s funny how some of the more interesting talks don’t lend themselves to discussion. Jake Tilson’s talk felt very short, but that was because he explained his ideas and inspiration so very well - you’re just left thinking, “Well, yes”. I have in my memory a collection of images of his books and his sketches. Probably best to buy some of his books really.

Antonije Baturan: Linear application of lateral thinking.

Normally, when the topic of linearity is introduced you’d expect something linear, such as a clear narrative. There’d be maybe a few branches here and there, but in the end it would provide useful support for a theme. Not so with this talk. There were so many tangents and diversions, and so few conclusions or even complete sentences that it was nigh on impossible to follow what Baturan was trying to say. I got the impression he was trying to say that different cultures have different words for ‘inspiration’ and that this gives some clue to whether those cultures place value on the initial idea, the process of implementing it, or the end result. Which cultures do what, and the relative value of each of the different approaches are, you’d be hard-pressed to discover them from this talk.

William Hall: Inspiration kills design.

The premise of this talk: that the drive to always come up with something new and suprising is contrary to producing good design, was in itself compelling and interesting. Hall started with this topic, and did a good job of criticising some of the ways a creatively-blocked designer might seek ideas, but then carried on to recommend many of the other, equivalent and quite usual ways designers seek inspiration. It was rather odd. Hall came across as the kind of design manager that might appeal to readers of The Economist but would be universally loathed by any designer who had to work with, or for, him. An illustrative point during an anecdote he gave of reviewing the work of one of his designers; first the stabbing pointed finger, then, “That’s the design we’re going to use! Now, come up with something better!” Inspirational for any design manager of how not to behave.

Erik Spiekermann: Typography: from brain to media.

Well, it’s Spiekermann, so, you know. Bloody marvellous, though I was waiting for the Fire Brigade logo at the end of the talk, because there are few stronger arguments for installing a fire alarm and having lots of fire extinguishers than Spiekermann’s tales of losing pretty much all his early work (and his letterpress!) in a fire after he first moved to London.

Tyler Moorehead: From A2B

I had a lot of hope for this talk, and battled a dodgy delay-ridden Underground to get there on time. The first part of the talk was rather pointless PR flackery (though amusing) but the second apparently unpolished part was utterly fascinating, and got the greatest number of questions and comments of any talk in the whole conference. Basically, A2B is switching the size of paper you generally use from A4 to B5. This would save 30% of the actual amount of paper - assuming you shrunk-to-fit everything you printed. Recycling paper apparently ends up costing more in terms of energy and resources than creating brand new paper, so while it may reduce the amount of virgin forest sacrificed to invoices and the like, it is always better to use less, far less. I can’t remember the exact number (I did ask Moorehead to mail me the presentation) but as a rule of thumb, for every tonne of any end product, five tonnes are wasted in the supply chain (retail) and twenty tonnes in the manufacturing. Applied to paper, this leads to many trillion tonnes of waste per year. I think we would do well to encourage people to use less paper, and to just damn well get used to reading stuff off screen - I mean for crying out loud, you’re not reading a damn novel - you don’t need to print it! One of the questions near the end was about printing web pages, and how a plugin should be developed to save wasted pages (you know the ones, the pages with nothing on them but a full stop or two pixels of a banner ad). I was offended by the complete abdication of personal responsibility this question represented. When I suggested that you don’t print the web page, there were objections that “not everyone has internet on their phone” and therefore needs to print the page sometimes. If I want to print something on a web page, I use print preview, or I copy the text to a word processor or a simple text editor and print that, or (I admit this isn’t available to everyone) I print to PDF and tell Acrobat to only print the page I’m interested in. If you actually care about not wasting resources, put some effort in.

Emily Luce: Clearcut to paper.

One of the best descriptions of this talk (from another attendee) was that it was “earnest”. And indeed it was. Luce lives on Vancouver Island, and highlighted a number of problems with the timber and paper industries there (and elsewhere). About 50% of Vancouver Island has been logged, and now the more inaccessible parts are being logged with the help of helicopters. Luce explained how much this all costs, giving an impression that logging and paper production is very much Big Business, and that there is often scant regard from mill owners for local economies, ecologies or communities. The example she gave of Cathedral Grove was instructive - in that this region of old-growth forest is protected, but just beyond the boundaries are large areas of clearcut and monoculture areas of genetically modified cultivars. Whatever your politics, it’s clear that this new growth is unfortunately not quite the restoration and ‘forest management’ we are told is helping preserve our environment. This, and Moorehead’s talk before it, really make you want to reduce your paper usage to the absolute minimum necessary.

Jeremy Tankard: Emotive inspiration

Again, another one that was so good there’s comparatively little to write about. I left this talk genuinely inspired to get cracking designing some new typefaces and that despite the thousands of faces out there, there’s massive scope to create something genuinely new, and yes, inspired. Fantastic. Buy his stuff. Go on. Buyyyy.

Rian Hughes: Vintage custom lettering

This was reminiscent of the first day of the conference, as Hughes showed his collecting instincts with a display of some excellent examples of vintage lettering. I was a bit miffed that he was going through the examples a bit quickly - I wanted to really absorb some of them - but he had nearly 300 samples to show. He’s producing books of his collections soon, so I’ll be ordering those as soon as they’re out.

Paul Antonio: From manuscript to Mosley

I can’t believe this was half an hour, it went so quickly. Antonio described his upbringing and discovery of calligraphy in Trinidad, explaining some of the limitations of learning a niche subject in a developing country. He finished by demonstrating the relationship between calligraphy and the musical rhythm of the period the style of writing is from, and this is where he showed what an astounding singing voice he has. Bloody marvellous.

So yes. I missed the last few talks, which is a shame, but the whole conference was exhausting, and I wanted to go and look at the books and the stone carving demonstration downstairs.

Would I recommend the conference? Most definitely. The only improvement I’d suggest is to the venue itself - the sound system needs some serious attention, if only to allow better Q&A sessions. Oh, and sort out the wifi! It’s one of those “login and minimise this webpage” systems that completely fails on mobile devices.