Articles

Lots of Reasons to be Creative

20th September, 2012

At the end of last year’s Flash on the Beach, John Davey announced a rebranding of the conference, bound to happen this year. The much beloved conference is now called Reasons to be Creative. Maybe to steer away from a technology falling out of flavour among industry professionals or, most likely, because the topics have broadened so much beyond Flash.

This conference not only includes talks about design, development, art, filmmaking, animation, etc but has also branched to two other cities, from Brighton to London and New York.

Down to the juice!

I haven’t done as much handwriting (you know, pen and paper kind of writing) as I did during this event for… maybe a couple of years. So I have to share a few mini write-ups of my favourite sessions. So here it goes…

Day one. Full on!


Kevin Warwick – The Cyborg Experiments
A speaker with the title of World’s First Cyborg was surely a great kick off to head the first day. With a witty humour, Professor Warwick introduced the audience to chip implants in humans and how these electronic devices can enhance us and decrease the effects of neural illnesses. From explaining in detail the process of the BrainGate implant that enabled him to control, via internet, a robotic hand (across the Atlantic ocean) to using rat (and later human) brain cells to develop thinking robots, he certainly made some jaws drop in the audience. After this session one can rest assured: cybernetic humans will be a part of our near future. It’s no longer just science fiction.

Memo Atken – Fuck Clients
Having seen and enjoyed his talk at OFFF Barcelona 2012, I was apprehensive to what he would bring to this talk. Although most of the talk was the same I saw earlier, the update at the end made it worth going through the slides again. Being Memo a visual artist with programming skills, he started by introducing his work process with a piano as metaphor to how a beautiful shell can hide a very complex mechanism. Then went on showcasing his works along the years, such as My Secret Hearth, Body Paint, the Simple Harmonic Motion #5 (featured in Ron Arad’s Curtain Call at the RoundHouse), Forms and the cherry on top: Meet Your Creator quadrotor show at Saatchy & Saatchy NDS. With his talk, Memo tried to emphasize how the quality of work takes precedence over attracting clients. I can only subscribe.

Mario Klingemann – Better Living Through Lasers
This talk was mostly about how experience in the digital world can be both benefit and handicap in the maker world.
This “computational artisan” (also known as Quasimodo) begun by dressing up a lab coat, stating how smart it makes one look, before introducing the audience to one particular maker tool: the laser cutter. He explained that, as the entry point to this world can be quite steep, with a laser cutter easily costing over $10.000, he joined FabLab München where he set up a workshop and, with some persistence, finally found an organisation that offered to donate a communal laser cutter for members of that group. Mario then displayed projects such as Typographic Gears, the Like counter box, an Arduino-ed version of The Most Useless Machine (with added “personality”), the ongoing Serendipity Machine, that “prints images” on a Lased XY table using drops falling from motorised syringes and other static art pieces like Shadowscape or the Making Love title.
In summary, for anyone interested in making real life (maybe electronic) things, there are some ground rules worth mentioning: this is not copy and paste world anymore, there are no undos and it usually takes longer than it feels like. After this, an old entry shifted back to the top of my to-do list: “buy an Arduino kit and start making things”.

Mark Boulton – Failing and doing it well
Since I had liked Mark’s talk earlier at Reasons to be Appy, I took my chances with this session, hopping not to get the same contents. Fortunately it was a refresh around the same idea.
This talk was mainly about seeking perfection through mistakes. He pointed how no one (usually) does harsh critiques after a baby falls down when taking first steps, but later in adulthood failing socially is no longer an option. And social networks make it even easier to criticise / insult: “Twitter is like a virtual drive-by” as he puts it.
After this little introductory rant, Mark went on to show some projects (and lots of tasty small backstage stories) like the Drupal.org redesign or the (ongoing) dream project of redesigning CERN‘s public-facing website and intranet. As a conclusion, he shared some of his rules of conduct that allow people to learn with mistakes and criticise better, getting also better at their jobs as a by product. How we should work with clients, not for clients. And always being honest. And humble. Because saying sorry when it goes wrong, doesn’t hurt: keeps you human. So “make mistakes, be better”.

Brosmind – This is our Momento!
The Mingarro brothers‘ session was yet another I had seen earlier this year at OFFF Barcelona. Since this was the Inspiration session du jour and the talk had the same title, I was expecting nothing new. So I swapped my first booze coupon and headed to a front row seat at the Dome. What we (audience) then witnessed was a mix of story telling with gorgeous illustrations in an entertaining environment from start to finish. In this session, they told their life story from a creative childhood of drawing comics and making home movies to how they became successful illustrators after getting degrees in distinct areas of pharmacy and industrial design. This team of brothers is definitely an inspiring one, not only for what they’ve been achieving in awards recognising the quality of their works, but also for how much fun they have by doing what they love the most, and getting commissioned as a result. Even though this was only the second time I’ve seen then on stage, I got the same feeling of a Joshua Davis‘ session where one does not expect new or innovative content, but a good entertainment session with a dash of stand-up comedy. To-ta-lly worth it!

Day two. Lock and load!


Christian Heilmann – That Web Thing
Although John Davey introduced Christian with the same joke as back in Reasons to be Appy: “his name’s Christian and he’s an evangelist”, this talk was entirely new — a substantial selling point in a web conference with non-exclusive speakers. Christian used the book (and animated short film) The Lost Thing as a metaphor for the web. As something that web creators love, but that not everyone understands yet. Then stressed as we, web creators, tend to build things for ourselves and not for the client / user, generating a so-called “inspiration loop“. And that the web is ours, as is the responsibility to where it flows. Since failing is not the worst thing, we should celebrate the freedom in market. Because we are craftsmen, we should be respected, as long as we also respect the web with future proof attitudes: design for use; enhance progressively (think escalator vs lift); build for the next person; ask for reasons; be technology agnostic; and know that best practices are found in use, not defined. We need to play with the players by reporting bugs on bug trackers, but also let things go: old browsers cannot ever handle the same requests as newer do. We have to go outside our comfort zone, say no to stupid requests and build things responsibly, because “Today is the tomorrow you expected yesterday“. (Christian even did a screencast for those who could not attend!)

Joa Ebert – Abstract Abstractions
Although I enjoyed this session, as most of Joa’s Twitter followers enjoy some of his highly technical and cryptic tweets, this was also a massively technical talk. He might have gained audience’s attention when he compared baking with programming, but, sadly, I must admit that I got lost half way (as also a lot of other people in the audience). He introduced us to what he has been working recently, the Hiddenwood project: a Java based collection of tools and libraries that is platform agnostic and outputs to Java, Javascript and C++ (instead of “write once, run anywhere” philosophy), thus being compatible with desktop web browsers plus iPhone and Android devices. Again, this was a very complex talk to grasp around and this was pretty much what I could gather before my brain started melting. shame

Sara Blake – The Art of Fucking-Up
Sara (also known as ZSO) is a talented designer and illustrator. Although digital design is her day job, it’s primarily with her illustration that she gets recognition. Her illustration style is a hybrid between hand drawing and digital illustration. By documenting her process for later reference, she gets to learn faster and improve her skills. With the same goal, she does collaborative work with other artists. This not only gets her out of her comfort zone, but additionally, because she’s usually sharing it at an early stage, allows her to not be as emotionally attached and embrace rejection when it happens. Sara shared with the audience some of her collaborations, live drawings and best works (most on display at her website) as well as juicy stories behind those and a few techniques she exploited to get such results, like using water drops to smudge areas in hand drawings.
Perhaps one of the best advices in this talk, that also summarises it, was to make a plan, but not stay strict to it or as she said: “make a plan. fuck the plan.”

Lernert & Sander – Lernert & Sander all the way in Brighton
Although I had seen works of these creatives before, I have to confess that I had no idea of who they wore until they showed the window displays created for Selfridges. Much of the projects they showcased blur the line between commercial work and contemporary art. Their works usually feature simple concepts but with strong visuals that trigger an emotional response on the viewer. Again, as with previous artists showing their best works, lots of funny stories from behind the scenes were being revealed as the portfolio unfolded. From children going to school crying on the morning after the Chocolate Bunny commercials were broadcasted to the extend of glass scouting they went to play the song No Limit at the glass harp video for MTV. This was a truly amusing and enriching hour.

Yves Peters – Two Decades of Trajan in Movie Posters
Oh typography! Though I like it, I’m surely not as passionate as some of my mates who would love to be there. On the other hand, this was not a talk on glyphs and bézier curves but one from a more analytical perspective. But a work of passion nonetheless. It was time to sit back and relax (and use the second booze coupon!).
Yves demonstrated how choosing fonts is like choosing what to wear, that one needs to consider context and requirements other than just personal preferences. Then went through a selection of alternative series of movie posters like Spacesick, Removie and Minimalist. Only to then aim at the real focus of this session, since not only trends and similarities are used as hints for the movie kind, but also that the typeface alone can convey the movie kind. This lead to him doing an extensive study on Trajan as THE movie font.
Since there isn’t an encyclopaedia with all movie posters ever released, Yves used IMP Awards as the closest catalog to base on his semi serious investigation. He was able to find over 400 posters released in the past 20 years, with the first appearance in 1991 and having usage peaks throughout the years matching Oscars won and availability in multiple digital formats or being bundled with software. By the end of the session, a harsh true was revealed: Gotham is catching up really fast to become the new movie font. The first usage peak occurred after Obama’s “Hope” poster, and even Oscars event posters got up to speed! Let’s wait and see which font will take the title in the coming years…

Last day? Nooooooo!


Various speakers – Gimme5
This session was an immense opportunity for everyone willing to try the speaker role in front of a keen audience. But, since not all newbies used their 5 minutes slot as good as others, I’ll limit my notes to just the talks I enjoyed most. Luke Whittaker demoed Lume, a beautiful game he worked on. Matt Stuttard Parker showed his Unity3D skills by live coding a game as a tribute to Flash on the Beach. Reece Millidge demoed another lovely game: Icycle. And Jean-Marc Le Roux brought Minko, an open-source tool to build 3D apps for web and mobile.

Simon Collison – A Philosophy of Restraint
Judging by the title, one could comfortably take a guess on a possible “heavy” talk heading our way. While well disguised under a simplicity blanket, this was indeed a talk with loads of content to take away. In about an hour, Simon described to the audience the process / reasoning / philosophy that his web projects undergo. He starts by simplifying the aesthetics, without sacrificing the creative style, but justifying all decorations. Creates systems to help keep things organised and define hierarchy. Embraces medium constrains because complete freedom can ruin a project. Exercises restrain by responding to the problem with the simplest solution. Tests the solution by adding and removing complexity to find a balance with simplicity. Keeps complexity under the hood but accessible for more experienced users. Outlines the site at functional level to avoid clashes and distractions and keep call-to-actions imminent. Designs with content to tell the story. Once finished, audits all before launching, standing back from the work to get new perspectives and avoid catastrophic failures. As he said: the real design tools are delight, emotion, surprise, systems, constraint, restraint, simplicity and complexity not just Photoshop and Illustrator.

Grant Skinner – Building Fun (with CreateJS & HTML5)
Albeit I’ve been keeping a close look at Grant’s work for years, this was actually the first time I saw him live on stage. Just like other Flash developers / community supporters, who expanded their skills to HTML5, he too was frowned upon by the same community. Luckily he sees technologies as tools, not religions, and is now dedicated to research and explore the possibilities of HTML5, with the caveat of agreeing ever more that HTML5 is a bigger mess than Flash. With this in mind, plus his experience in stressing Flash with game development, plus Atari’s 40th birthday in 2012, lead to Microsoft teaming up with Atari and approaching him to recreate some of Atari’s most popular arcade games for the web browser, in time to launch Windows 8 and IE10. The result was this website: Atari Arcade.
Grant proceeded to explain lots of details, technical difficulties and workarounds that his team had to go through to pull off this project. From the usual IE not supporting the same methods as the competitors to specific performance optimisations, technology limitations and security protections.
On the technology side of things, this platform makes extensive use of CreateJS libraries and tools + jQuery + Backbone.js + Underscore.js + node.js + socket.io + Modernizr + Codekit (CSS and JS compression) + IcoMoon (used custom font for all icons) + Adobe Toolkit for CreateJS + lots of custom JSFL.
On the workarounds, Grant pointed a few solutions to brash issues: choosing to load games in iframe to keep memory and resources free after loading and unloading games; a proxy to handle communications between iframe and page, that broadcasts mouse and keyboard to iframe and looks for advert elements and controls its visibility; a CSS3D class to fix issues between browsers (like depth sorting, existing conflicts between Z-axis and Z-index and IE not supporting preserve-3d); delaying asset loading; caching and generating sprites on runtime and even adjusting the performance profile during gameplay by monitoring framerate. These were some of the “secret” ingredients behind the recipe for this massive technology achievement.
Oh… and apparently (according to brief) “edgy” means dubstep and “cool” means a vampire looking guy, as shown in this promo video for IE.

Chuck Anderson – What Plans? Figuring It Out As You Go
Sadly this was the last session of the conference but happily not the least interesting. I had never seen a talk by Chuck (also known as nopattern) before this, but had already heard someone telling how he made it into the industry spotlight. Not sure when or where, but it was definitely Joshua Davis who told this story of how a mate (years ago!) browsed all design magazines available at his local library, just to collect the names of the magazines’ art / creative directors; so he could, later at home, by brute force find their email addresses and them email his works hopping for any feedback and, with some luck, getting it featured. Nowadays this would be disregarded as spam, but back then it paid off and his works got featured in some of those magazines.
During his talk Chuck shared part of his portfolio along with his life story and advises for others. Reiterated the importance of restraint, doing personal, non-commercial and collaborative work just for fun, and how this can get clients to know one’s work. Even big clients like Microsoft to whom he created desktop, login and packaging.
Even though he’s self educated on design and started a business without knowing anything about it, he closed his session with this humble advice: “figuring things as you go is not something you do alone”.

“Your dad’s favourite computer company.”

Another noticeable change happened on the sponsors side.
Although Adobe was one of the main sponsors, there were no Adobe evangelism sessions. Not that I was keen to attend, but these used to be popular sessions.

On the other hand, Microsoft keeps betting high to jump on the cool kids bandwagon. Just like earlier this year in Reasons to be Appy, there was a competition to win Windows enabled devices, but instead of bunch of shiny Lumias, lots of Atari Arcade t-shirts and an Acer laptop were up for grabs.

More ideas but less audience.

From my perspective, this year’s sessions moved more towards creative ideas and concepts. Or maybe it was just the ones I attended…
Anyway, the number of attendees seemed to have decreased, judging by more empty seats in Dome than in previous years. Maybe due to rebranding or just people saving money, as there’s a handful of good web related conferences happening yearly in Europe, but unfortunately one cannot attend all.

The End.

I only joined this conference last year, but this has been a conference that attendees can easily fall in love with. The location helps a lot (sure, Brighton is a lovely town), but then there’s a feeling of being part of a group, almost of a big family, and that’s something you don’t get on most conferences. I reckon we have to blame John Davey and his team for this. Guess I’ll have to get back next year!

Want more?

If you still feel like reading a few more lines, check these write-ups by other attendees:

This list is sorted by found date with a dash of randomness.
I’ll update this list if more posts show up on my radar.

BOOM!

This is it. The end of this loooooooooong post. Finally!
Took me days weeks to put good links and some words together, but I did it.

Thank you for reading this article, whether you read it all till this point, or just the headlines and clicked on some links (as I would have done!).

As always, any feedback will be much appreciated.