What led you to become a designer? Have you always been interested in making things?
I’m forty-three, so I’ve been doing this for quite a long time. I’ve always been interested in making things–sometimes physical things, sometimes virtual things.
What led me to become a designer?
When I was at secondary school in Edinburgh, I had a very inspirational teacher called Mark Cheverton. He had a major influence on my life at that time, giving me direction and focus. His mentorship had a huge influence on me, and that’s what got me into art and design.
When I was eighteen, I applied to Glasgow School of Art, a very prestigious art school in Scotland. I remember Mark asking me if I planned to apply anywhere else, because it’s very hard to get into Glasgow. I replied, “No, if I don’t get into Glasgow, I don’t want to go anywhere.” I applied to Glasgow and I got in, thank heavens. The rest is history.
You said Mark was your mentor. What did you learn from him?
Sometimes you get teachers who are inspirational, and other times you get teachers who, however qualified, lack that charismatic spark. Mark was firmly located at the inspirational end of the spectrum: he enthused me, and he fired my creative spark.
I attended a fairly academic secondary school in Edinburgh where most of the students would normally go to Oxford or Cambridge. (If you’re in the States, I imagine that would be like going to Harvard.) Most of the students in the school went on to traditional universities to study the Classics, History, or English Literature. There wasn’t a big Art and Design focus in the school. As a subject area, it was viewed as a route that academic underachievers took.
I believed then, as I still do now, that Art and Design could prove every bit as fruitful–*and profitable*–as any other academic route. In my last few years of school, one of my best friends was Peter Davies, who became very well-established in the Young British Art scene. His work was bought by Charles Saatchi and is exhibited at Tate Modern, amongst other galleries. He went down the art route, happily and profitably; I went down the design route, happily and profitably.
Mark drove us both, as he did all his students, to succeed. He inspired us, and equipped us with the self-belief to move forward and grow.
He was more than a teacher to me, he was a father figure. I definitely learned something from him about considering the bigger picture of teaching, and this is something I try to apply in my work as a lecturer now. Sometimes certain students are so passionate about their work you can’t help but want them to succeed. You react positively to their self-belief. You go the extra mile for them, and you’ll do what you can to ensure their careers are a success.
As a teacher, you get quite a variety of students who work with you. Some care, some don’t. You try to mentor them all as much as you can. The more a student wants to do well, the more you’re able to help them. Mark was just a very inspirational figure who helped me to see and achieve my own potential.
“Neville Brody’s work completely changed my life. Looking at his sheer inventiveness, I knew right away, ‘I want to be a graphic designer.’”
So, you were accepted into Glasgow School of Art. What happened then?
The first year at Glasgow School of Art is a foundation year, which all students take regardless of future discipline. The foundation year was very closely modeled on a Bauhaus approach, introducing a rigorous and rounded programme of study. We were doing everything from product design to graphic design. There was a huge emphasis on drawing, and making things with your hands. That first year was very broad in terms of the spectrum of practice covered, which has had an influence on me ever since.
The way the Glasgow School of Art system worked was you chose one of two paths to experience in your first year, eventually selecting one path to follow. One of my paths was Environmental Art, which was focused on fine art in a public realm; my other path was Graphic Design. I was torn between the two.
Coincidentally, at the time I had to make my choice, I saw an exhibition by Neville Brody at The Fruit Market Gallery, a fine art gallery in Edinburgh. It was the first show I’d ever seen of a graphic designer’s work, and it completely changed my way of thinking.
I vividly recall the exhibition. Seeing what Brody was doing in the early eighties with Letraset, a pen, and a scalpel was hugely inspiring. We can do what Brody was doing then very easily now with computers–cut things up, stick things together. At that time, however, before the Macintosh, it was very difficult. You had to struggle with material, wrestle it into shape, you had to have hand skills and an understanding of craft. Neville Brody’s work completely changed my life. Looking at his sheer inventiveness, I knew right away, “I want to be a graphic designer.”
For me, Brody’s work had a wider reach than fine art. He was working on The Face and Arena, which were big magazines in the UK. I looked at his work and thought, “Brody’s creating work that he’s really passionate about, and so many people are seeing these magazines. That’s much more widespread exposure than fine art, which tends to be confined to a gallery.” That idea of reach had a major impact on me, and still does.
“I’ve got two children…We’re encouraging them to follow in our creative pathway, but–most importantly–to do what they love.”
Did people in your life encourage you?
None of my family had an art or design background. My mum was a teacher and my dad was a policeman, both worked in Hong Kong. (My grandfather was a policeman too, working in Scotland; something must have run in the genes.) My parents supported me throughout my study at Glasgow of Art, but I think they worried about what I was going to do, and how I was going to make any money. They thought the creative industries were risky, as many parents still do to this day.
I’ve got two children. I think one might become a musician, and the other will definitely become a jeweler. My wife is a silversmith, so we’re both coming from the creative sector. We’re encouraging them to follow in our creative pathway, but–most importantly–to do what they love.
I think there’s a growing understanding that the creative industries can be a viable career pathway. That’s certainly a message I try to promote.
“Every piece you write you get a little better, until you’ve written thousands of entries, and suddenly you’re not such a bad writer.”
What do you value the most about design?
I’m starting to see the value and potential of design in a much, much broader way. I run an MFA Multidisciplinary Design course at the Belfast School of Art. The course encompasses a wide range of disciplines, and encourages collaboration. I see the future of design traversing disciplines. Design needs to break free from the ‘silo culture’ of specialist focus that took hold in the late 20th century. It needs to traverse disciplines, and make connections.
Some of the most exciting work happening now is being driven by teams that bind together varying disciplines to explore the spaces in between. Companies like BERG and IDEO are creating environments where a cross-pollination of ideas can occur, and the results of this are proving exciting.
Design isn’t just about ‘making things pretty’. It can have a huge impact on the world, and we have a responsibility as designers to maximise that impact.
I’m currently working with my masters students to take design thinking, and apply it to a wider range of problems: education, transport, the health sector. We take big societal issues and work out, “Can we use design thinking and use design approaches to solve big cultural issues and societal issues?” There’s a lot of interesting work happening around this idea, and I’m fascinated by its potential for change.
What is the most difficult part of design?
The biggest challenge–for me–with design is that it’s inherently subjective. If you ask two people to design the same thing, they will design two very different things. That’s human nature. As designers, we bring our experience to bear on the problems we confront and, inevitably, the experiences we bring differ.
Everything you do as a designer tends to come from a gut instinct. Obviously, there are rules about design that you can learn, but what interests me the most is that decisions we make come from the heart, or come from the gut. Maybe you get better at making decisions as you get older, but what we do is ultimately our opinion of a solution to a problem.
Do you feel like it’s important to learn the rules of design, or design from your gut only?
I think it’s important to learn the rules first, then–once you’ve mastered them–you can break them. At Glasgow, I remember a lecture and seminar series delivered by one of my lecturers, Penny Hudd, teaching us about grid systems. I was a nineteen-year-old maverick and I remember thinking, “I don’t need to use grid systems, I work based on intuition.” I remember throwing things down on the page in a manner reminiscent of David Carson, reading Ray Gun and thinking, “Who needs a grid?” (Apologies, Penny.)
Perhaps it was the chutzpah of youth, perhaps it was a lack of maturity (I see both in the students I teach now), but I look back and wish I’d listened. When you’re young you feel like you can conquer the world, and that you don’t need someone older telling you the rules that you should follow, because you don’t want to follow any rules when you’re young. As you get older, you realize there are certain rules and principles that underpin practice, and if you know what they are, you can break them in a more intelligent manner.
So I think it is important to learn the rules, but maybe that’s because I’m now a teacher, and I want to ensure my students understand the rules and principles that underpin our practice. Sometimes they don't want to listen, but I'm like, “This is the way it should be!“ (laughing).
If you understand why a rule exists, or how something has evolved in a particular way, then you can play with that knowledge and break things, as long as you can explain to me why you’re breaking it.
“My parents supported me throughout my study at Glasgow of Art, but I think they worried about what I was going to do, and how I was going to make any money. They thought the creative industries were risky, as many parents still do to this day.“
What advice do you have for new designers?
My key piece of advice is to read, voraciously. I also recommend pushing beyond the confines of design. On the masters course that I run, we’re reading psychology and theory of education, because quite a lot of people are interested in e-learning and similar topics. I encourage new designers to broaden out a little, and read more around their topic. There are many fantastic design books you can read, but there’s a great deal of wonderful material written around design that has an impact on design, like psychology, or how the brain functions. If we understand those things, we can become better designers.
I encourage young designers to read a lot, and to write a lot. Writing is a critical skill; it helps to shape your thinking, and mold your mind.
How did you become a writer?
I was an absolutely atrocious writer at school. I got a D or an E in my A-level English (I can’t recall which). When I began working as a designer, I started to realize how much I had to deal with words–shaping words, writing words, trying to craft copy. I wished I had spent more time at school concentrating on all of it–grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, syntax. All those things passed me by in school because I was only interested in art and design. I bought a whole bunch of books on writing: Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style,’ Lynn Truss’s ‘Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,’ and I just re-educated myself.
A key moment for me was about four years ago, when I started a journal for The Standardistas with my partner-in-crime Nicklas Persson. It was the first time I had ever had a blog, and I started to write in earnest. I look back on the first blog post I wrote and think, “That’s so embarrassing!” Every piece you write you get a little better, until you’ve written thousands of entries, and suddenly you’re not such a bad writer. I think you can ease yourself into writing. It just takes a bit of practice.
Malcolm Gladwell references this need for practice in his book “Outliers”, citing noted neurologist Daniel Levitin, who states: “10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals and what have you, this number comes up again and again.”
I wouldn’t say I’ve put ten thousand hours into my writing, but I’ve put in a considerable number. The more you practice anything, the better you become at that thing.
How does writing inform your design practice?
It completely informs my design practice, because writing changes your brain. I’ve been talking to the masters students on my course a lot about this, and reading and writing has become a core backbone of what we now do, in an effort to grow the students’ minds.
I recall having a meeting with an older, wiser colleague of mine, discussing ways in which we might further develop my masters course. About half way through our meeting, he turned to me and said, “Chris, you’re a designer.”
I replied, “Yes, of course, I know. I’m a graphic designer, I’m a web designer… *I’m a designer.*”
He looked me in the eye and said, “You don’t understand what I’m saying. As an educator, you’re a designer.”
I replied, “I know. I design curricula, and I design teaching programs.”
He said, “No, no, no, you don’t understand what I’m saying. You design young minds. You take people, and you shape them. You’re designing them.”
I was absolutely blown away by that concept. That’s actually what we do as educators. We take raw material, and we start to shape it by giving it impulses, materials to read, and ideas to explore. That happened about a year ago, and was really interesting to me.
On the masters course that I run, a lot of students come from undergraduate courses where the focus is primarily on making things and doing things. They ask, “What do you want me to make? What do you want me to create?” For the first twelve-week semester of the course, I say to them, “Let’s not make anything. Let’s identify some books that you should read, and maybe do some writing, just to broaden your horizons a little.” At first, those students find it very difficult because they want to make something.
After the first semester, I ask the students to reflect on how they’re developing. They all say the same thing: “It’s amazing. I feel like I’m a much better designer because I’ve been reading and writing much, much more. I haven’t done any ‘design’, but I feel like I’m coming up with solutions that are more strategic, and better thought through because my brain’s a little bit more filled with knowledge.”
How does writing inform your design practice? I see it every year when twelve students that I teach on my masters course are better designers after one semester of just reading and writing. They are better designers as a consequence of that.
“When you’re young you feel like you can conquer the world, and that you don’t need someone older telling you the rules that you should follow, because you don’t want to follow any rules when you’re young. As you get older, you realize there are certain rules and principles that underpin practice, and if you know what they are, you can break them in a more intelligent manner.”
How does design inform writing?
That’s a tougher question to answer. I suppose it’s like a loop. You read, you write about what you’re reading, you become a better designer. That makes you look at design, perhaps uncover things you need to look at, and you read about those things. This all becomes a cycle, which becomes quite interesting.
To me, is writing important for designers? Absolutely. We have a session on the masters course which is called, “A Good Writer is a Good Thinker.” Someone who can express their thoughts through the medium of words is a better thinker, and that has an impact on their design practice as well. Writing is critical to me.
You talked about how teaching is designing minds. Is that responsibility intimidating at all?
I suppose I found it intimidating when I started. I’ve been teaching for about ten years now. My wife, who is a silversmith, has been teaching for twenty years. She went straight into her teaching career, she spends half of her time teaching and half of her time creating work. I got into teaching later, after growing through the ranks of the design industry.
At the beginning, I did find it very intimidating. I felt I had a responsibility to the students and I didn’t want to let them down. I still feel I have a responsibility to the students, however, as you get older, you start to realize you’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge, and that that knowledge is useful, and you can pass it on to other people. The older you get, the less intimidating it becomes.
There are good teachers, and there are bad teachers. I know that from working in universities, and talking to students. There are some teaching staff who have gone into teaching because it’s an easier way to make money, and they’re still teaching based off material they developed twenty years ago. In certain sectors or certain professions that’s probably okay, if the fundamentals and principles haven’t changed over time.
If you’re teaching the web or design, however, it’s completely different. Design is going through such massive changes with emerging technologies, networked products and rapid prototyping–the computers we have at our disposal are changing the way we design things. If you’re teaching design, you’ve got an even greater responsibility to be on top of what is happening in the world every single year, every single month, every single week, so that you can relay that information to your students. Keeping on top of that is intimidating. It can be an absolute nightmare. But if you’re passionate about teaching design, you’ve got to be on top of it.
Tell me about the work you do as half of Standardistas.
I’m very fortunate to work with Nicklas Persson, and together we run The Standardistas. He’s a good friend of mine, and we teach undergraduate interactive design together at the University of Ulster. (The masters course is a separate postgraduate course, which I run.) Nicklas and I are very focused on web standards, and are passionate about teaching interactive design in a manner that is up-to-date.
We were fortunate to be invited to write a book, “HTML and CSS Web Standards Solutions – A Web Standardistas’ Approach” , a few years ago for friends of ED. We’re currently working on a second edition and we’re negotiating with the publisher on this. We’ve also been working with Five Simple Steps on a series of short books; our first book for them, “The Craft of Words”, has just been released.
We’re fortunate that we get to talk a lot at conferences internationally, which is fantastic. It gives us a chance to travel, and meet new people, and widen our horizons.
I enjoy being part of that team. Nicklas is a very fun gentleman to work with.
“I encourage young designers to read a lot, and to write a lot. Writing is a really critical skill. It helps to shape your thinking, and mold your mind.”
You said you’ve been friends for quite a long time.
Yes, it was odd how I met him. He’s a bit younger than me, and he was being taught at the art college where I now teach. Well over a decade ago, a colleague of mine said, “We’ve got this student that we need to give a final degree classification to, and we don’t know what he’s doing because he’s working on something called ‘the web’.” Nicklas was on a fine art course with a lot of painters, sculptors, and printmakers, and he was doing self-taught work on the web.
The staff didn’t know if the work he was doing was any good, or what kind of classification it was worth, so they pitched him a particularly low classification at first. I came in, took a look at his stuff, and said, “You’ve got this student totally wrong. He’s probably the top of your class because he’s doing more advanced work than our students are doing.” I got to know him that way, because I had been involved in marking his work.
I made a point of going to his degree show–the end-of-year show at the end of his university degree–and introduced myself to him then. I pitched to him that maybe we should work together. He had a job offer at the BBC, however, so unfortunately the opportunity to work together didn’t materialise–although the BBC opportunity was a very good experience for him. Seven or eight years later, we ended up working together. I think it’s fate. He’s a Swedish gentleman, I’m a gentleman from Hong Kong, and we both ended up in Northern Ireland. We’re both outsiders here, so that’s something.
What have you learned from working with Nicklas over the last few years?
I’ve learned a lot working with Nicklas (and I hope he might have learned a few things from me). I’ve learned a lot about how one works in a team. In our industry of interaction design, practitioners tend to fall somewhere on what we - colloquially in Belfast - call the nerd-designer continuum. It’s very rare to find someone who covers all the bases on that continuum.
To function effectively in our industry, you need to learn how to work with other people who are on the continuum. If you’re a designer, you need to find somebody who’s on the nerd end of the spectrum, and vice versa. You not only need to understand what it is that they do, so you can communicate with them effectively, but you also need to have empathy about what they do.
That’s what I’ve really learned, working with Nicklas – about working in teams and about how relationships in design can go a very long way. If you establish a good relationship, it can become the cornerstone of a fantastic working partnership, which can continue for many, many years.
Where do you see design in ten years?
I recently saw a tweet about Josh Brewer, principle designer at Twitter, being listed on Fast Company’s “50 People Shaping the Future of Design” list. Josh is a friend of mine. We struck up a friendship at Build in 2012. Josh spoke, and Nicklas and myself spoke. Josh was on Fast Company’s list as someone who’s on both ends of the nerd-designer continuum. He is a great designer–he understands design, human emotion, and how people relate to things, but he also knows how to build things. The article talked about how designers with these qualities might very well be the leaders of the future.
I think that’s a very rare occurrence. I see a lot of people go through my course every year, and I don’t see that many people like Josh: so-called “unicorns” who cover all the bases. Although it’s rare, it is a highly sought-after type of person.
Over the next ten years, I believe what we’ll see is that design will not only be applied to making products appealing, so that consumers spend money on them, but that design will be used for much, much bigger social and cultural problems. In Belfast, I’ve been collaborating with various colleagues on applying design thinking to bigger social issues like healthcare, transportation, poverty, and community.
I recently got my students together, and gave them a topic to design around with no brief. I said, “We’re going to do education today.” I gave them some design thinking tools, and I said, “Let’s just make something.” They wanted to know what the brief was, and I said, “There is no brief. The brief is the word ‘education’.” What was amazing about that was at the end of the day, these twelve students on the masters course had come up with about eight really interesting concepts that might change education by thinking about education in a more designed way. All of their ideas had huge potential. I think that design is a hugely powerful tool that can be used to solve big, big problems.
One of the most inspiring things for me over the last three years has been going to Brooklyn Beta. What is interesting for me is that Brooklyn Beta has always been about making something that you love. Over the last couple of years, it’s increasingly been about how designers, developers, or people involved in the creative industry can solve big world problems: education, politics, healthcare, housing homeless people–all these kinds of things. These are all big problems designers can solve, or can at least offer new ways of thinking about those problems. That’s where I think design is heading in the next ten years.
“If you’re teaching design, you’ve got an even greater responsibility to be on top of what is happening in the world every single year, every single month, every single week, so that you can relay that information to your students. Keeping on top of that is intimidating. It can be an absolute nightmare.”
Where do you see publishing in ten years, or even the next few years?
I ran a record label, Fällt Publishing, for about fifteen years, from the mid-nineties until about 2010. Through the label, I started to explore digital means of distribution long before many people were doing that. Looking at new ways of distributing music, and MP3s as a distribution platform, and music that you could download, and a combination of printed things that you hold in your hands fascinated me.
I see a lot of that happening now in the print publishing world. There was a time when you had to go to a publisher like Penguin if you wanted to write a book. You would work with an editor, and they would give you deadlines, and they would hammer your stuff into shape. Then, they would print your book in the thousands, and it would be sent around the world, and it would hold physical space. That’s completely changing, and most publishers are actually very behind the curve on that. They still hope that we’re going to be buying these book objects for many years to come.
Publishing is changing. Rather than spend six months of my life writing a gigantic book, which Nicklas and I did a few years ago, I’d rather spend two weeks writing a microbook on a particular topic that’s current. I’d rather be publishing lots of tiny things, and then collectively those tiny things would add up to be something much bigger. The way in which the web is changing publishing has huge implications for the way anyone who’s communicating content or ideas will want to share with the world.
We’ve moved toward electronic publishing: e-books and iBooks and all manner of new formats. Anybody can be a publisher, anybody can be a writer. That’s hugely empowering, and allows people to break into the publishing market in a way you couldn’t have before. This, whilst exciting, also raises questions of quality control, highlighting the sheer volume of material we have to consume as we move into a digital age. I see publishing in ten years being very exciting, and being very different to what it is now.
Going back to the music metaphor. For me, the turning point – when I shut my label down – was the day I stopped buying CDs. The day I started to ‘acquire’ my music online (in some cases legal and in some cases not so legal), was the day I questioned my motivations and started to focus on how publishing had to change and evolve.
As I moved towards the acquisition of ephemeral ‘objects’ (digital objects), it became increasingly clear to me that the physical products I had crafted were no longer working. Sales just plummeted, and everybody wanted to buy (or acquire) everything digitally. The shift - from atoms to bits – was massive. I used to spend every lunch break going to a local record shop, and spend all my hard-earned pennies buying CDs. I have a gigantic collection of music. Suddenly that all changed.
Music has gone through a fundamental shift, from a physical thing that you can hold in your hands, to something that is transmitted digitally. We’re going to go through that with other forms of publishing, and I think that’s going to offer really exciting opportunities. At the minute, I don’t think those opportunities are being exploited as much as they could be. I hope that (book) publishing will explore that a little bit more. I’m not sure that it will, if I’m honest, because the track record’s not very good. But we’ll see.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
It’s very hard to say. My career has moved through several phases: from designer, to publisher (primarily exploring music), to artist, to educator, to speaker, to writer, to - full circle - publisher (exploring a cross-section of published outputs).
I started my career as a designer, however, I found working with my clients very restraining and frustrating. I approached my employer at that time, Rodney Miller (a mentor to me), and told him, “I can’t stand this anymore, I want to start a record label.” He very kindly supported me, stating, “I’ll continue to pay your full salary… take one day a week to explore your record label.”
I ran my record label for about fifteen years, and I toured the world with that, being in the fortunate position to establish a career as an artist through the label. I was very fortunate enough to be supported by the British Council, as a result of my label, enabling me to travel the world to show my work as an artist.
My record label was very successful, however, I gave it up to pursue a path championing web standards. More recently I’ve been writing much, much more. My career has spanned about five different areas of expertise, and it’s very difficult to pick one thing.
There are, however, a couple of accomplishments I’ve appreciated over my career.
While working at Rodney Miller Associates as a Senior Designer, I designed Northern Ireland’s first ever set of pictorial definitive stamps. This was a real challenge given Northern Ireland’s political sensitivities, which meant we couldn’t use overtly political symbols. We had to find some other way to bring together this country (a country I don’t happen to be from).
Seeing my designs on envelopes when I went to the post office, or when somebody sent me a letter, was really exciting, because it’s probably the most public-facing job I’ve ever done. It was also the commission that proved to my parents that–maybe, just maybe–I might make a living doing design. They bought pretty much everything that was available with those stamps on them (laughing).
The other accomplishment that I’m most proud of, is my students. A lot of my graduates go on to do great work, making their mark on a world stage. They are a making a huge impact in the world, whether that’s by becoming teachers, or running digital startups, or working in the service industry. I’m hugely proud of what they’ve achieved, and I hope I’ve had a small part to play in their success.
“Sometimes certain students are so passionate about their work you can’t help but want them to succeed. You react positively to their self-belief.”
What lasting impressions do you want to leave with your work?
I like – above all – to engage people. I often send designs for prospective products out to friends, and ask them, “What do you think of this? This is something that I’m working on at the minute.” The feedback I get from them is always hugely inspirational. That fires my passion.
I hope to leave a lasting impact with my work, but - by its very nature, ephemeral – I sometimes wonder how much of a longer term impact it might leave.
I recently launched a type-focused publication titled Glyph for BERG’s Little Printer. The Little Printer is such a lovely device, I needed an excuse to buy one ‘for testing purposes’ and the only way I could persuade my wife that we needed a Little Printer was to design something for it. So, a few months ago, I headed into my studio one night and started to work on a typography publication for it.
The result is ‘Glyph’, “the world’s most compact typography journal,” which sends Little Printer a glyph a week with a description and a little typographic education.
I prototyped the whole publication overnight, and sent it at 5.00 am to a group of friends asking them what they thought of it. Their reaction, “This is really exciting, this is definitely the sort of material that should be on Little Printer,” excited me, which drove me on to complete the project.
The day I announced it, I received a tweet: “So awesome to see you’re designing a publication for Little Printer.” Of course, that made me smile. Later, however, I realised the tweet was from Denise Wilton, one of the creative directors of Berg, who works on Little Printer, I was amazed.
For me, that was just like, “What?” Here’s somebody who’s making this thing, who’s exciting that I’m making something for that thing.
What lasting impressions do I want to leave with my work? I want to be excited, and I want other people to be excited. Maybe then we could make some awesome things together. That would be just fine.