A design forum through the eyes of a writer ~ agIdeas Design Forum Day 1

agIdeas has a reputation for bringing together a top-notch line up year-in, year out. In his opening address, Ken Cato beamed that this year’s speakers were among the best collection ever. Looking through the list, it was hard to agree. Not from an informed perspective. I simply had no idea who most of these people were. I sit here now, at the end of day 1, with a greater understanding of what all the fuss was about. For the purposes of science, I took no notes. This is all from memory. Hopefully it reveals who and what made the most impact. I will be, however, referring to the agIdeas program to inform me of the correct spelling of all speaker’s names.

A quick sketch from Page.

A quick sketch from Page.

First cab off the rank was Neville Page. He pitched himself as an Industrial Designer. Yeah, ok, sure, if coming up with the massive ‘labia monster’ (his words not mine) from Prometheus is now considered ‘Industrial’. He was confident, articulate and clearly massively talented. Neville managed to mix in some good advice while giving us a great insight into how he works. Basically, grab a plucked chicken, take a photo of it on Photobooth. Use a few tools and filters and voila – terrifying space monster. Genius.

Creating an Arabic font that works in harmony with its Latin counterpart.

Creating an Arabic font that works in harmony with its Latin counterpart.

Nadine Chahine was disarming, charming and brave. Probably too soon to make jokes about the Boston Bombing, but it kind of seemed ok in context (an Arab being thankful it wasn’t one of their own). Nadine’s love and work is typography. Specifically, creating complimentary Arabic and Latin fonts. She’s clearly technically excellent, driven and was one of few speakers today who didn’t hide behind the lectern.

A man who likes his work to speak for him.

A man who likes his work to speak for him.

Andrew Ashton came out with something on his jacket. It looked like bird poo. It was a painted on Australian flag. I reckon if anyone wanted a ‘do-over’ today it’d be Andrew. As one of Australia’s better known designers, his content was great. Possibly too great. But his presentation was disappointingly lacklustre. Read off a script, fumbly, awkward. Clearly he’s done this before as his presentation suggested he’s talked at a few forums. Willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he just had an off day.

It's all about the dance.

It’s all about the dance.

Rafael Bonachela was born to dance. So he danced. Then he danced some more. Then he started choreographing other dancers. Then he danced into our lives for 20 minutes and made us all really happy that he started dancing all those years ago.

Cool like a fridge.

Cool like a fridge.

Aaron Hayward from Debaser reminded me of Tony Hawk. An effortlessly cool guy who is awesome at what he does but carries not a single pretention about it. He flicked us through his impressive back catalogue of album artwork, gave us an insight into his influences and work methods and then kind of floated off to go and be effortlessly cool somewhere else. #mancrush.

John Crawford knows that he's welcome in Melbourne.

John Crawford knows that he’s welcome in Melbourne.

John Crawford is a different kind of cat. He’s a Kiwi. He’s a photographer. He loves light. And he loves boobs. Ok, maybe he’s not that different. But we’ve been getting to know his work ever since the promotional material for agIdeas 2013 first appeared. He’s the guy who takes photos of words on gravestones. He also takes photos of aerial nudes, landscape nudes and a few other kinds of subject matter that may or may not involve nudity. Quirky. Interesting.

The fountains of Wet.

The fountains of Wet.

By the time Claire Khan hit the stage, my brain was feeling very full. So I’m not sure how much involvement she had in all the work she showed. But if she had even a tiny bit to do with any of it, I can see why she was here. Claire works for Wet. They do amazing things with water features. Not your garden variety type of fountains. The kind that sit out the front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. In fact, Claire poignantly posited that the Bellagio fountain is the only real bit of original creativity on the strip. You’d think anyone with that on their CV would be full of beans. Or maybe she was just way too dry for a crowd with lunch on their mind.

After lunch Christian Van Vuuren came onto the stage and apologised for being there. He took us through his journey from being an advertising executive to a Fully Sick Rapper and Bondi Hipster. It was a great, uplifting story of how creativity and positivity can help the healing process. Then he gave us a lecture about doing work for passion instead of a paycheque (cough cough The Iconic commercial cough sellout). Still, bloody great chat.

Still, the tapestries were beautiful.

Still, the tapestries were beautiful.

You’ve got to feel for Antonia Syme. Some genius in scheduling put Australia’s highest authority on tapestries on after the Bondi Hipster guy. Still, she ploughed on. And the more she stuck to her guns, the more she drew me in. By the end, I was mentally measuring up my walls for a woollen hanging. Antonia was a study in presentation skills. Firm, to the point, authoritative. I learned a lot. Yet, at the end of the day, she was talking about tapestries after the Bondi Hipster guy had talked about surviving TB with a Macbook Pro. Hiding to nothing.

And he wears proper shoes.

And he wears proper shoes.

Paul Collison did the lighting for the Beijing Olympics and the Melbourne Commonwealth games – among a billion other things. Unfortunately for him, the two things that are sticking with me after his talk are his time as the sound guy on Here’s Humphrey, and his recent ski trip to Austria (and the $100 bucks he won off his mate for putting the photos into his presso). Actually, there’s another thing. He gave a couple of sterling pieces of advice, including this gem: ‘Being a creative person isn’t a license to be a flake. Turn up on time. Wear shoes.’ Listen up kids.

A beautiful Holden interior.

A beautiful Holden interior.

Kirsty Lindsay makes Holden cars look beautiful. Wearing a bright pink pashmina thingy, she said ‘if people don’t notice what I do, then I know I’ve done my job’. Well, if you keep wearing that thing, people will notice everything you do at all times. But seriously, she had a point. Her job is to make the interiors and detailing of the car sympathetic to the overall concept of the car. So if it’s right, it’s seamless. If it’s wrong, it’ll stand out like a bight pink pashmina on a red background.

It's no Dirty Old Town, but my five year old loves it.

It’s no Dirty Old Town, but my five year old loves it.

Shane MacGowan is a drug-addled, toothless singer from the UK. Shane McGowan is a brilliant illustrator from Australia. Being a Chris Taylor, I know what it’s like to have people more famous than you with your name, so I think I connected with Shane on a deeper level than most. The main things I got out of Shane’s talk was that you need to know what you love, love what you love, don’t be afraid to walk away from what you love and make sure you adapt what you love when the things you should love change. Lovely.

Someone should tell Chopper.

Someone should tell Chopper.

Oron Catts. Ok. So. Um. Wow. If Oron was wearing a lab coat, like most scientists do, had an assistant with stitches in his face and a limp, and the stage lit up with lightning to illustrate his points – no one, and I mean no one, in the room would have batted an eyelid. Oron has been trying to make synthetic meat for a while. Oh, and soon we’ll be growing watches in a petri dish. Apparently. This was exactly what the crowd needed towards the end of the day. Fascinating, mind boggling, out of your comfort zoning, über intelligence.

A Birnbach poster.

A Birnbach poster.

Heribert Birnbach knew his crowd. He started with a dragon reference. So every Game of Thrones loving attendee’s ears immediately pricked up lest he begin talking about Winterfell and the Dothraki. As a non-native English speaker, I was genuinely impressed with his command of the language. Successfully navigating his way through a couple of giggle-worthy puns. He showed us a great selection of his design work from over the years. It was all cool.

Great day 1. I better go to bed so I get up in time for breakfast.

Ripping off the brand-aid ~or~ saying goodbye to an old friend.

Shabbadu_logo NEWsmall

I buried an old friend today. Or, if you want me to turn down the melodrama a notch, I signed off a new logo for Shabbadu. While it was an absolutely necessary thing to do,  it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.  And here’s why.

1. I liked what we had. 

Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I didn’t actually hate what we had before. Mainly, because I created it. Sure, I have no design training or skill, but that didn’t stop me when I was all excited about my new business seven years ago. And it took me ages! Well, ok, it took about 20 minutes. Still, I thought it was unique and special, and it did the job.

2. It’s a big investment.

Rebranding costs a lot of money. And it’s not just designers fees, you change one thing you’ve got to change everything. And you’d better change it all at once too or else. Bah! Too hard. Can’t I just get away with my old tracky dacks, I mean logo, for another few years?

3. I’m not the best judge of art direction/design.

I think the saying is ‘pearls before swine’. Despite my years of experience in advertising, I’ve always been a ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ kind of copywriter. Which is fine when you’ve got a talented, understanding art director by your side, but it’s a different kettle of fish when a) you’ve got to brief the thing in, and b) when you’ve got make a decision at the end of it all.

Basically, I found myself thrust into the role our clients find themselves in more often than not. Suddenly, I had to be making calls on stuff I really didn’t feel qualified to make calls on. At least not with any authority or accuracy. And, I wasn’t entirely convinced we needed to be changing anything in the first place. But I was lucky. I had a team around me that I trusted, and my designer provided enough evidence of industry and support to make me feel comfortable with their suggestions.

Emotions aside, the time was right for a new logo for Shabbadu. The business I began seven years ago is worlds away from the one we are today. One of the key differences is I’m saying we, instead of me. Suddenly, it’s not just about what I like. Breathe, Chris. Breathe.

We’ve all been guilty of being hard on clients for umming, ahhing, and rejecting perfectly good work for seemingly no reason. This experience will hopefully colour these situations for me in the future. I’ll be more understanding and appreciate that while we might just think of it as another chance to move the brand forward into a new and exciting future, for our clients it might represent the nadir of an existential crisis where they begin to question all manner of things about their life, past and present.

Still, onwards and upwards.

logo white and red on grey

Extremes and Modifiers ~ or ~ The writer of this post is a moron, according to some.

Politics is hard to follow. In Australia, it’s hard to follow without repeatedly slapping yourself on the forehead. It’s been noted that it’s regressed into a tribal sporting contest, where fans of each side follow their ‘team’ with blind fervor. But when the personalities and policies fail, and we’ve all tuned out to what the politicians say, there can at the very least be education and entertainment in following ‘how’ they say it.

This doesn’t refer Paul Keating tearing strips of the nearest boxhead, desiccated coconut and painted, perfumed gigolo, but more so the empty rhetoric, pre-prepared party lines and obfuscation we’ve become accustomed to.

The 24-hour news cycle and the need for short, sharp political point scoring at every opportunity has given rise to another linguistic art form: the extreme and modifier.

While the extreme and modifier sounds tough and rugged like a ‘thrust and parry’, it’s more like poking your tongue out at a caged bear. You might feel tough while you’re doing it, but ultimately, it’s pointless.

Let’s look at an easy one to begin with. This is a mild example from Bob Carr, speaking about the James Ashby/Peter Slipper affair. Now, you may recall that in the early days of this scandal, the government was doing its best to discredit James Ashby and tentatively stand behind the man they installed as speaker.

“This Ashby seems more rehearsed than a kabuki actor.”

Key word here is ‘seems’. If he had said ‘This Ashby is more rehearsed than a kabuki actor’ he’d clearly have been sued. After all, he seems to be quite the litigious type.

And to prove that neither side of politics is immune to the old E&M, here’s a no brainer from Tony Abbott. He memorably blessed us with this pearler:

“Work Choices, it’s dead, it’s buried, it’s cremated, now and forever…” (iron clad extreme) “…but obviously, I can’t give an absolute guarantee about every single aspect of workplace relations legislation.” (rolled gold modifier)

Julia Gillard is a master of pretty much all forms of political rhetoric. So it should come as no surprise that she’s a deft hand at the extreme and modifier. But this example is pure genius:

“A complete imbecile, an idiot, a stooge, a sexist pig, a liar, and his sister said he’s a crook and rotten to the core…”

This was her description of former AWU union official Ralph Blewitt. Pretty stern stuff. Plenty of slander going on there. Of course, until she added the all important “…according to people who know him.”

All great examples, yet some are subtler than others. But in the race to make a point when your sound bite needs to fit into a tweet, they’re becoming more and more prevalent in everyday poli-speak.

Keep an ear out for a few old favourites like these; “We could be forgiven for thinking…”, “Is behaving like a….”, and “Another example of the kind of reckless behavior this lot are famous for.”

With a good few months to go before the election, tune in whenever you hear a politician speak and see if you can catch them rolling one out. Question Time is rife with them if you can stomach it.

In the meantime, try slipping a few into everyday conversations. Instead of saying you’re tired, you’re ‘partially exhausted’. You’re not a bit light of funds, you’re ‘borderline insolvent’.

It’s fun for the whole working family, according to some.

Like, like, like, donate ~ or ~ The clever way that GetUp uses Facebook

If you want to be cynical, charities work on a simple model. They point out a problem, and then use a mix of guilt and sympathy to get us to donate. “Look at this problem. Isn’t it terrible? If you give us money we’ll do something to fix it.” Basically, it’s a kind of outsourcing.


Now you don’t need to feel hopeless or useless in the face of human suffering. You’re doing something useful: you’re paying someone to fix it.

At some point political activists realised that this was a model that could work for them. They don’t ask us to man the barricades anymore. Instead they get us to pay them to man the barricades on our behalf. The buzz phrase is “outsourcing our activism”. Now we see it all the time.


The whales are in danger from the Japanese? Give money to Sea Shepherd. The wilderness is under threat from big mining? Give money to The Wilderness Society.

This model has an inbuilt dilemma, though. To keep us engaged as an audience, they need to make us continually feel like we’re doing something useful. BUT they can only ask us for money so many times in a year before they piss us off. So they need to give us something else to do that we’ll find meaningful.

The problem is, it’s expensive to keep finding “meaningful somethings” for us to do. Plus, it’s even more expensive to spend the time to package them in a way that makes them easy to act on.

This is where GetUp’s work on Facebook is so clever.

Yes, they’re still doing their standard “we’ve got an ad and we need money to publish/broadcast it” campaigns, like this one that raises funds to print a newspaper ad in February:


But these campaigns are only run infrequently so they don’t use up their community’s “donation” energy.

Most of their campaigns are from a second tier. And this tier, while providing us with “meaningful somethings” to do, has cost them little more than a couple of emails to produce. How have they done that? They’ve been very clever and outsourced both their production and the activism. Like with this post here.


The basic model has been kept the same. “Look at this problem. Isn’t it terrible? If you give us money we’ll do something to fix it.” They’ve just replaced “give us money” with “click on this link” and outsourced “do something to fix it” to another organisation.

The post hasn’t cost them anything to create because it’s been organised by the MEAA. GetUp isn’t responsible for delivering on the promise: that’s the MEAA’s job too. Plus, because the call to action is “Join” GetUp aren’t using up their community’s “donation” energy even though they are providing their followers with a “meaningful something”.

If the model works so well for GetUp, it begs the question: how can the rest of us use it?

Oh no, someone’s asked me to write a blog post ~ or ~ How to write a blog post if you’re not a writer.

Sooner or later it happens to everyone. We’re all being asked to write blog posts for someone. Why? Because search engines prefer sites with new content over sites with old content.

Those of us who work with words for a living are happy to punch out a five hundred-word rant on any topic you care to mention. But most people would prefer to stand in a crowded train carriage at peak hour with a stage-two hangover.


Of course, you could just hire a reasonably priced copywriter (cough) to write your blog for you. But it’s only a blog piece. Why don’t you just grasp the nettle and write the thing yourself? It’s really not that hard.

Here is an easy step-by-step guide to help you write a short piece you’ll be happy to link to on Facebook or Twitter. You might even send it to your Mum when she asks you how work’s going.

 Pick your subject and your topic (not the same thing).

What’s the thing you’re pretty good at that most people don’t really understand? That’s your subject area. Now pick your topic. Your topic is the thing you’ve got a strong opinion on in your subject area, the thing you like to talk about when this subject comes up in conversation.

It’s even better if your experience in the subject area means you can provide your readers with some real insight that they can’t get elsewhere.

“The great thing about audio production [subject] at the moment is the improvement in technology. You can capture a studio-quality recording while standing in an alleyway [topic].  The real challenge now is stopping the audio from sounding clinical or lifeless [insight].”


Make it interesting.

It’s the Internet. No one wants to read anything long or boring. Write about your topic like you’d talk about it at a dinner party. Simple, short and if you’re going to use jargon make sure you explain what it means.

Add in some images.

The Internet is a visual medium. Illustrate the points you’re making with pictures.

Don’t post it straight after you’ve written it.

Once you’ve finished, let it sit for an hour. Maybe even overnight. Then re-read it. Make sure it makes sense. Get someone else to have a look at it and ask them if they understand what you’re trying to say.

Then do a re-write. Why? Because every first draft needs work.

Remove all the first person personal pronouns – the I’s and me’s, the we’s and us’s. Then see if you can say what you’re trying to say with less words.

One last point…

You don’t have to do all these things at once.

This is the reason writers carry notebooks. Coming up with a topic you’re happy with, thinking of sentences that neatly capture a particular thought, crystalising an insight – these things usually happen after you’ve thought about your subject, jotted down some notes and then started doing something else.

Then, once you’ve finished and it’s posted, send a link to your Mum. She’d like to know what you’re up to.

How to make Google ‘like’ your website ~ or ~ Why good copywriters are a vital part of SEO.

Google cares about three things in a website:

Is this website relevant?

Is this website popular?


Is this website current and up-to-date?

SEO is really about convincing Google that your website is all three. If you do it successfully, you’ll end up on the front page of a Google search.

There are a few basic rules.

1. Convince Google your website is relevant.

Here’s an important insight into how the Internet works: the words that people type into search engines are not the same as the words people write on their websites.

You can use this disconnect to convince Google your website is relevant. It’s a three-step process.

  1. Find out which words and phrases people commonly type into search engines when they’re searching in your specialty area: the “keywords”.
  2. Go through these keywords and phrases and select the ones that describe what you do best that aren’t being used by other websites.
  3. Use these keywords on your website.

Then when people search for those words and phrases, because no one else is using them, it helps your website come closer to the top of the search results.

This leaves you with two challenges: find the right keywords and then weave them subtly into the copy of your website.

How do you find the right keywords?

The “commonly searched for” part is easy. Lots of places on the Internet will tell you that for free like Google’s Trends. The challenge is finding the words that no one else is using. There are freebie tools such as Adwords Keyword tool to help you with this, but they’re not designed specifically for website keywords.

So you’ll get no more than a “close approximation” of what words will work for you. They’re better than nothing but nowhere near as accurate as paying an SEO specialist to use their sophisticated software to provide you with the good stuff. 

How do you weave the keywords subtly into the copy of your website?

Hire a good copywriter.

2. Convince Google your website is popular.

Now your site has all the right keywords on it. So do twenty others. Or fifty. Or a thousand. How does Google decide which of these sites goes on the front page? They choose the site that’s most popular.

How do they determine if your site is the popular one? They look at how many other sites have linked to yours. The jargon term for this is “link juice” as in “wow, dude, your site’s really popular. It must have a lot of link juice.” If your site’s got the most link juice it becomes the site with the best search result.

I know. Link juice: it’s gross. This is what happens when you let engineers have access to the dictionary without proper supervision.

How do you get link juice?

There’s a good way and a bad way. The bad way to get link juice is you pay some guy in India or China who owns a link juice farm (I’m not making this up) who will provide you with as much link juice as you’re prepared to pay for. Google do not like this. This is not how they think the Internet should work. Someone is getting rich from search and it’s not them. If they catch you (and they will) you suddenly won’t be appearing on their search results anymore.

The good way to get link juice is to create a strong, informative website with interesting content that everybody likes to quote on their blog or post on Facebook and twitter. Google likes this.

How do you create a strong, informative website with interesting content that everyone likes to quote and create links to? Hire a good copywriter.

3. Convince Google your website is current.

Congratulations. You’ve got a site with all the right keywords and a lot of link juice. And so do thirty other sites. How does Google choose between you? Currency. They look to see who has got the most up-to-date content on their site.

This is why we’re all writing blogs now and Sally is hosting this one on her directory. Hi, Sally 😉

Of course, any new bit of content on your site adds to your currency, but this is where rules one and two come in again. Is this new content relevant and popular? Is the content full of keywords and phrases that are frequently searched for but are not frequently used on other sites? Is the content of sufficient quality that people will link to it from their highly regarded websites (think government or higher education), their blogs or post it on their Facebook or Twitter accounts?

How do you continue to produce new content that’s relevant and popular?

Hire a good copywriter who understands SEO.

Muchos gracias to Chris Talbot from The Reactor Digital for being a SEO Yoda and fact checking. 

If you want to join the conversation, you’ll need a voice.

I like to think of the Internet as being like a person. It’s an analogy that plays out, believe me. But I don’t want to talk about how it was conceived behind closed doors or how when it was born everyone wanted to see it and look like they cared. I want to look at what it’s become.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Internet has grown up. It’s gone through its awkward teenage phase and moved out. It’s smarter than us and it’s having conversations that we can’t follow in languages we don’t understand.

Yet there are still a lot of companies (let’s, for the sake of the analogy, call them distant cousins who are only just coming up to speed) who are still treating it like they need to change its nappies.

Now, this isn’t true for the average business. But like all averages, the mid point exposes you to a bunch of people that are significantly better and an equal amount who, for whatever reason, don’t.

The biggest problem is, and it’s most likely one you’ve already mentally registered, is that the Internet isn’t a person at all. It’s people.  Billions of people. With different attitudes, likes, dislikes, tolerances and, yeah ok, I’ll go there, fetishes.

Yet businesses still try to talk to this mass of people like a child. “Do this. Do that” they’ll say. “Eat your greens. Don’t play with that.” The strangest part is, they get annoyed when their instructions fall on deaf ears.

These grown ups, some of whom have never known a life without the Internet, expect to be listened to. If they’ve got an issue with your business, they’ll tell you – often in the form of a snarky tweet or Facebook post, but they’ll passively-aggressively be hoping it hits the intended target right between the eyes.

In the days before the Internet, businesses could get away with advertising, for the most part, in a linear fashion. Each campaign followed on from the next, giving you a chance to build a story and paint a picture over time.

Today, businesses/organisations/brands that exist in the online world are advertising all the time. To survive, make sense of it and flourish, it has never been more important to know who you are and how you talk.

This requires a certain level of bravery and self-assuredness that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of businesses. These institutions are used to being in control. They’re used to having a corporate face they can put on when they address the public. It used to be all wonderfully stage managed  – “We’re talking now because we have paid to talk to you. You will now listen like good consumers.”

But now, the people on the other side of the glass are talking back. And more than that, they’re initiating conversations –some of which you wish they’d have kept in private.

But that’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s the transparent world we now live in. People are allowed to call bullshit on businesses that are being dismissive. It’s the new sword that companies should expect to live and die by. If you know who you are and how you talk, if you know your ‘voice’, then you’ll know how to respond to almost every situation the Internet throws at you.

And once you start speaking with that voice, you’ll find out who is attracted to you and who isn’t. It’s like people at a party: you’re not expected to get along with everyone, but if you’re going to put yourself out there, you need to be ready for rejection as much as you are acceptance. The more you try to be everyone’s friend, the less likely you’ll be to make a lasting impression on anyone.

* This article first appeared on The Brownbill Effect Blog on 19/02/2013