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Design Leaders Conference News

Swagger, Strategy and Swarming at the Design Leaders Conference 2019

7 November 2019
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Brain tumours, left brains and right brains. Applying strategy to design, design to business and creativity to everything. Design leaders gathered in the Lighthouse Cinema, Smithfield on 7th November for the Design Leaders Conference 2019. For its third year, the event provided a varied programme of speakers and panel discussions. There were enough differences of opinion to provide some creative friction, and enough agreement to keep things civil. With speakers from Canada, South Africa, Denmark, the UK and USA, there were global perspectives on what’s happening in design today and what might happen in the future.

Happier people are harder to kill

Conn Bertish’s presentation put everyday problems into perspective with his stories of big wave surfing, serious illness and loneliness. The former creative director at agencies including Ogilvy, Saatchi & Saatchi and JWT Cape Town, Bertish spoke about how creativity helped him to cope with the diagnosis and treatment of his brain tumour. Bringing his sense of humour to the topic of psychoneuroimmunology, he delivered a talk on creativity and resilience that inspired and moved participants, and shared the best advice he got from his father “never fight the ocean, use its power to get you where you want to go.”  

Managing Creatives in a Left Brain Culture 

Emily Cohen provided plenty of practical advice on how to improve communication between left brain (analytical) thinkers and right brain (creative) thinkers. With operational managers typically left brain and creatives typically right brain, understanding the other’s perspective is vital to run a successful creative business.  “Creatives are too modest, they need to sing their praises through metrics,” she observed before suggesting some simple ways in which creatives can capture metrics that left-brained people love. 

Design is the yeast in the business mix

Deborah Dawton’s analogy of design as the magic ingredient in business captured the imagination of the audience, when she introduced the panel discussion on the Future of the Agency with a short presentation on the impact of design to the economy. In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by Nick Kelly, Dawton was joined by Stephen Quinn, Atomic, and Kathryn Wilson, Diageo. The perceived tension between strategy and creativity was a recurring theme. Wilson commented that “design without strategic thinking can be rudderless, some of the best designers are naturally strategic.” Quinn agreed, “the best creatives in the world love strategy” and called for the design industry to stop being modest. “We bring a magic to the table. What we do is rare, we need to have more confidence and swagger.”

Is design “good”?

Craig Walmsley combined Prince, philosophy and practical ways of considering the real-world impact of design. Using the example of how social media channels are designed to give users “more of the same,” he highlighted the devastating effects this can have. “More of the same kills people” he said pointing to examples of anti-vaccination misinformation and self-harm websites. Walmsley urged designers to think about the consequences and impact of their work. He gave the audience seven points to help them be more ethical when designing including to “look beyond the customer” and “challenge thinking together.” Read more on the Impact Canvas here.

Business books are repetitive and boring

Fresh from his sold-out Brand Flip Workshop the previous day, Marty Neumeier spoke about the tension between business and design. “Business people don’t appreciate design and designers don’t appreciate the goals of business.” Explaining why his latest book, Scramble, is written as a business thriller he argued that “business books are repetitive and boring and fail to match the experience of trying a new idea.” Taking the audience through the 5Qs and 5Ps of his Agile Strategy, he showed how it can cut planning time from months to weeks. Using tools like “swarming” to come up with strategic solutions attacks the problem from all sides at once. “In times of radical change we can no longer play the notes as written, we have to create a new scale.” Neumeier predicts that many future roles at C-suite level will be filled by people with design backgrounds. 

Driving betterment through design

Complementing Neumeier’s presentation, Christina Juul Bladt of Kontrapunkt Design Agency, Denmark showed the possibilities when design agencies get support from C-Level executives. Getting buy-in from the C-suite means that agencies need to learn a lot about investor relations, operations and products and services as well as strategy and design. However, the extra effort is rewarded when designers go from “being a hired gun to a trusted partner.” As a trusted partner “you can give push back” and be a changemaker, but in order to do this successfully you need “potential ambassadors” in the client company. Bladt’s presentation also echoed Walmsley’s earlier input on ethics. Drawing on what she called “the Greta Thunberg effect” she observed that “brands today need to be aware of everyone, not just customers or consumers.” 

Stop client bashing and be more confident

For the second panel discussion, Nick Kelly was joined on stage by Miriam Hendrick, Rothco, Jane McDaid, Thinkhouse and Damian Hanley, In the Company of Huskies. Kelly invited each of the panelists to describe what it is that creativity can do for business. Miriam Hendrick said that it was about problem-solving. “We change the trajectory of their business. There’s a lot of proof of how creative business adds to business confidence,” adding “we need to be able to help clients prove themselves.” McDaid said that creativity gives businesses an external point of view “across multiple categories and businesses, helping them to see what other people are thinking. According to Hanley “no products can be sold without good communication. Creativity is about communication.” Creatives “need to understand the client’s business more than they do,” and the best way to do this, according to Hanley is by “talking to people who make the products.” Hendrick agreed “get in front of clients and spend time walking the floors.” Competing with the tech industry for talent is still an issue for the design sector which needs to recruit from a wider breadth of non-traditional talent. The topic of confidence returned to the stage once again with Hanley saying that “the industry needs to regain confidence.” 

The Assassination of JDK by the Coward Michael Jager

“Anyone who thinks they can do this on their own is out of their mind” according to Michael Jager who led the audience through the visual and musical influences of the first six decades of his life and design work. So a 1960s photograph of a burning Buddhist monk led to a 1990s advertisement for Burton snowboards with a burning Lay-Z boy armchair on a mountaintop. Jager showed how what we consume re-emerges in creative work and how a lot depends on being in the right place. The right place for Jager and his creative agency, JDK, happened to be Vermont, birthplace of Burton snowboards, the jog bra, and Phish. Following a “redeye revelation” Jager decided that there needed to be “a radical reinvention” and closed down his successful studio to reinvent it as The Solidarity of Unbridled Labor. Reminding the audience of the joy and possibilities of a creative life he said the “reason we’re in the room together is to come up with great ideas that wouldn’t happen otherwise” and urged the creatives in the audience to have the courage to “walk away” from clients who “don’t get it” and to “say no to things.” 


Based on feedback from attendees, we are working to secure workshops with Marty Neumeier and Conn Bertish in 2020 for a deeper dive into the topics that matter most to you.  

Find out how Design Skillnet can help you become more creative, human-centred, and impactful within your organisation.