DesignThinkers Toronto 2018 Recap

Hey everyone! It’s Elly, MediaStyle’s design strategist and resident TV dweeb. I had the pleasure of attending DesignThinkers last week — a conference for designers to compare strategies and inspiration. The experience was enlightening, visually beautiful and of course, full to the brim with absolute nerds.

Designers take inspiration anywhere they can get it — a common theme in talks was a love of pop culture, which is my jam. I obsess over title sequences on sites like Art of the Title and love to complain about stupid details and themes in TV and film. Since we’re in the era of the Netflix binge n’ brag, I figured I’d tie the two together. Here’s a look at my favourite talks and the media they referenced.

“The truth is out there.” – Fox Mulder

Michael Bierut is one of the most prolific designers of our time, mostly because he isn’t just a designer: his talent lies in “whittling”. After a few chats with a client, he immerses himself in their history and motives, carving away the public opinion and easy answers to find new opportunities hidden beneath.  

He designed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign brand, which he still worries over. Was it too contemporary for the South? (Hillary is a perfectionist, he argues. Whether the South likes it or not, it’s the way it should be.) Still, did the design affect the public’s opinion of her? How do you design to appeal to an entire country? It’s a tricky task, which led to a disappointing end.

Bierut also worked on a rebrand for Syracuse University, which is a testament to his skill. His team at Pentagram found exactly what the brand needed: a plucky serif font steeped in history and ready to be revamped for new eyes.

Syracuse University Brand
Rebrand for Syracuse University by Michael Beirut and the Pentagram team.

His way of thinking struck a chord with me. How can you call Michael anything but a hunter for the truest parts of a brand? It’s out there, waiting to be found. Just like allllll those aliens.

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” – Doc Brown

Forest Young specializes in future design: a paradoxical field where he designs for businesses that have created things unlike anything done before. Imagine a brand has created a new internet, or a product that is the first of its kind. How do you search for design inspiration when there’s nothing like it on Earth? You forecast, Young says — you see the future this wild thing could attain, and you design for that.

Forest designed Uber’s new identity, which is more than just a look: it carries subtle detail and focuses visuals on human lifestyles, tailored by city. The wordmark animates like cars moving on roads. The typography references the New York Subway — arguably one of the most easily identifiable transportation-oriented fonts in the world.

Another interesting project was an identity for Zigbee Alliance; a language that allows smart appliances to communicate with one another. He takes confusing code and pares it down by summing it up in one symbol: :|| (it’s pronounced Dotdot, by the way).

Uber’s new brand identity by Forest Young of Wolf Olins.

As the quote suggests, Young is quite literally a trailblazer.

“We have decided not to die.” – Daniel Askill

Leta Sobierajski and Wade Jeffree are the weirdest power couple ever. They choose to join forces on creations — not necessarily design; sometimes dabbling in editorial, advertising, logos and books. It seems as though this partnership would be exhausting, but the married duo schedules time together and apart in order to avoid social burnout. Their mantra “We have decided not to die” is inspired by the short film of the same name by Daniel Askill. It sounds grim but means the opposite: they choose to be alive in every sense, without dwelling on things they don’t love. (Is this the metal version of YOLO? Probably.)

It’s apparent in their work. Their entire portfolio is gorgeous, disturbing, and meshed with sickeningly sweet jpop; just the way they like it. One of my favourite projects is the pair’s editorial work for D.S. & Durga, a perfumery that features aggressive but pretty visuals. Every scent is themed separately from the rest.

Leta Sobierajski and Wade Jeffree’s designs for D.S & Durga

I find their hands-on process so fascinating to see! Leta’s website takes you through process work for clients like Google and Aldo. Their art does a balancing act of empowering without distracting.

I attended this conference with my partner, who is also a designer. As we listened to Leta and Wade, I was reminded of how our partnership is more than just a romantic relationship. We’ve always proposed Saturday drawing afternoons or grabbing some paint to make some giant, ridiculous wall art together.  This talk was a gentle reminder that we need to take time for (hee heeeeee, soooo hippy-dippy) creative togetherness.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – Albus Dumbledore
(This one is mine. Of course I’m going to go dorky with it.)

So many other designers I saw blew me away — Michelle Dougherty created the Stranger Things title sequence, Bruno Maag designed Lush’s trademark handwritten font and Firebelly totally amped Planned Parenthood’s brand guide. Sure, some of these designers are successful because they’re naturally talented, but all of them are brilliant simply by making smart choices and working their ass off. I feel inspired by the advice I gleaned and can’t wait to implement it all with my favourite brands here in Ottawa! See you next time, DesignThinkers.

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