Designing for a Changing Reality

Filmed on June 15, 2017 in San Francisco
Jim Bull is the Co-Founder and CCO of Moving Brands. With twenty years of running an independent, creative business, he's back at Designers + Geeks to share his thoughts on what will influence designers and their craft going forward. What's keeping Jim (somewhat) awake at night: the death of the rectangle, the influence of AI and next realities, how to prototype for the sake of sanity and the slow decay of the agency model. Nothing is off limits but everything is on the table for this new age of designers.

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Jim Bull
Co-Founder of Moving Brands
Jim Bull co-founded Moving BrandsĀ® in 1998. He was instrumental in developing the innovative Moving BrandsĀ® approach to branding, storytelling and experience design which has seen the company become the leading independent, global creative company it is today. As Chief Creative Officer, Jim is responsible for the creative output of the business across its studios in London, Zurich, San Francisco and New York. He is based in San Francisco where he has creatively led engagements with clients such as Microsoft, Google, Sony, Apple and DeviantArt. Jim is a regular keynote speaker and interviewee for creative, design and business publications. He's been featured in Fast Company, Design Indaba, Adhesive & Co, The Venture and more.


Thanks for being here. Thanks to Designers and Geeks. Thanks to Yelp for their great use of the space, and for setting up the AV.

I'm going to talk a little bit about myself. I live and work in San Francisco. I work a bit in New York, because we've got a New York studio out there, and I'm down in L.A. Quite a lot. I'm not really a Lakers fan, but I'm down there wearing the hat a little bit when we're doing work down in L.A.

I come from this place called the Isle of Wight. It's in the UK. It is this tiny little island off the coast of the UK. It's like the Barbados of America. It's a cool place, and it's famous for a few weird things.

This is an Iguanadon, and they discovered these on the Isle of Wight. This is the Isle of Wight Music Festival, which was a big thing in the 60s, like the Woodstock of the UK, so like a crap Woodstock. This is that same music festival now, called the Isle of Wight Festival. It is still going. They started back up about 15 years ago. It's a really big festival, and it looks like that. We have the six wonders of the Isle of Wight, which are a bit like the six wonders of the world, but really not very wonderous. They say things like "downs that you go up" and "cows that you can't milk" and stuff like that. It's basically the names of places. It's really fun.

This guy is an Isle of Wight surfer. There's a big surf culture, much better and bigger than the one here in California. And that is companied by weed culture, because a lot of the weed that comes into the UK goes through the Isle of Wight, because it's got really lax borders.

Anyway, that's the Isle of Wight. That's where I grew up. I went to a place called Central Martins, which was a college in London. It's famous, and it's cool, and some other cool people went there. Alexander McQueen did a load of fashion stuff. He's dead, but cool. Gilbert and George, they did a lot of art base stuff. They're one of my favorite art duos of all time. Antony Gormley, a great sculptor and artist who did a lot of really good stuff. Then this girl down here was in the year below me studying graphic design. She's called MIA, and she's a musician you probably remember for giving the finger at the Super Bowl. She's cool.

Moving Brands, which I am a part of, is in a few places. We're in San Francisco and in New York. We've got studios in both those places. We've also got a small studio in Zurich, but the main bulk of our business is in London.

I started that business back in 1998, straight out of college. So I graduated, and within a few weeks we collected together as a group of people, and within a few months we'd set up our own business without really knowing what we were doing. We were sort of dumb, young, talented, and full of gusto I suppose, and we just set the thing up. What Moving Brands does is four things. We do branding, which includes the story behind a brand, how a brand might be named, the brand identity, and the identity system that goes along with that. All communications that go along with that, as well. We do a lot of comms and digital comms for clients. We also do experience design, so a lot of digital design. A lot of stuff I'm going to talk about tonight is much more in this experience design realm. Also, we do business design, which is actually working with clients.

It's a bit more like an IPO type offer, but it basically works with clients to ideate new products, new services, and new things that they might want to do and go into. We use our design and creativity to help them find new products, services, and stuff, basically.

What that means is, we do work like this. We do a lot of work with the BBC. We've helped write the central story for virgin. We did the reinvisioning of HP, which are now seen on laptops and all kinds of stuff.

We've done lots of work in Europe for telecoms companies like Eir, and Swisscom. We redesigned the Netflix logo. Asana is a Bay Area thing because we do a lot of Bay Area start-up businesses. We were over at Asana for a number of years to make them really cool. We do a bit ofwork of with Google, and lots of other stuff. We're basically very broad, and we do work across a lot of different businesses. That's all about moving brands, so hopefully that gives you a bit of a picture.

Now, I've been thinking about this thing, designing for a changing reality. Last time I was here, I was talking about things like VR and MR and and all these other things that were going to change the way that we might need to behave as designers, and the sort of things that we might need to look at. And recently, I've found myself in meetings about virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and everyone's got slightly different versions of those things, although they're very clear what the differences are. I've actually just started calling all of that stuff next realities. I've heard some other people say new realities, but it's just a neat way of talking about it. So if I say next realities a few times, you know what I'm talking about.

I think there's something going on in the fact that, at the moment, I'm seeing a lot of stuff in VR and MR and next realities, that still sort of locked to a certain way of thinking. It seems like we're designing websites and experiences that transfer into these worlds, that kind of flow and transfer them to these worlds. It strikes me that in a world that is without those same restraints, we shouldn't really be doing that.

If I see another weather augmented reality thing that's a floating rectangle with the weather in it that looks like it's pulled off a map and put in VR or AR or MR I'm going to explode, because it just doesn't seem right. The opportunity is to be label-less on product, and have that only on-product, and updated, and full of lots of media and technology and all kinds of stuff. When you're choosing to be in that next reality world, the opportunity is that we won't really need billboards, because you'll be able to attach information and advertising and whatever you want to any object.

Therefore, the normal rules of where all of that stuff is going to be will gradually disappear. You're going to get a lot of information that you're gonna have to deal with. What are the ways that design, and us as designers, are going to deal with that? Even in this fairly early example, you can still see they're kind of trapped in this rectangular kind of way of thinking about how people want to view information. You've got businesses like Magic Leap doing this kind of stuff, which is much more augmented and mixed, where you've got characters and new types of ways of interacting and coming into life. Then finally this one. I'm not sure what this is, really, but it's basically the same idea. The way branding can work in these new realities is going to be really interesting.

Now, I don't have all the answers, but these are the sorts of things that I'm thinking about, and maybe these are the things that we can have a conversation about later. So, there is this world coming where there's something approaching, which is a bit like the death of the rectangle. You're already seeing lots of products where we're not having to be in this rectangular screen format to be able to interact, and to be able to call up information, and to be able to be given design, and have displays that can basically be any shape or be display-less. So, as designers, how are we going to cope with that? It's still got the same sort of parameters. We still think about borders and edges and corners, and it's still about composition within a rectangle. If that disappears, what are we going to be doing? How are we going to be bringing that to life? What are the new ways that we need to think about that?

Then, there's the impact of machine learning and AI, on top of these new ways that things can be brought to life, which makes it even more interesting. So suddenly, you're in this world, about which there seems to be two main opinions. One is: AI will be a powerful tool for me as a designer. Then, the other one is: AI won't need designers. I believe it's true that eventually, AI won't need designers. We won't need to do the things that we're doing now at all.

Whereas, there's another point of view, which is: Well, we'll always need a designer, and we will always need the creativity to tell those AI, that machine learning, what to do. Yes. For a bit. But what happens past that? Do we want to push past that, into a world where we're not needed as designers? Or do we just think that that's not possible? That's something to think about as well.

AI will be a powerful tool for designers. There's this role of the designer, that I started calling a design engineer. I just thought about it as you're more like a designer that's just pulling levers, and telling AI what to do, and the parameters and that sort of stuff. Designing will be defining the problem, and designers will set up and select the AI systems that they want to use, because there might be a series of different AIs that you can use for different types of tasks. Design will be defined by the task and parameters that you need.

Designers will then train the AI. You hear a lot about AIs having to be sort of trained, and have trial runs on getting things right, and how they actually learn how to problem solve.

So, a designer will be able to be in the mix of all of that. AI will create outputs. Designers will evaluate and designers will deploy. You hear this sort of statement from a lot of smart businesses. Part of this I ripped off from Censure, but I changed a bit. They would talk about automization. A.I. allows for the execution to eliminate repetitive tasks and liberate my workflow to help me concentrate on other, more creative things.

I think AI won't need designers, which is a bit more like: AI designers where AI will define the problem, and AI will set up and select the system, and AI will define the task and parameters. AI will train the AI. AI will create the outputs, and AI will evaluate, and AI will deploy. The output there is: What the fuck do I do now? Because, as a designer, if that's happening around us, what are the things that we should be training ourselves in? What are the skills that we think we're going to need? How's all of that going to change? I have not thought about the time parameters on this. Maybe it's 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. I've been in business for 20 years, and at that time we weren't really that teched up at all.

The UK which is basically like the US in the 1970s, I suppose. So, if you think about the change that has happened in the last 20 years, and then apply that to now, it seems like even in the field of machine learning, people feel like they don't think we'll ever be able to get to this point. I feel like this doesn't seem that unreasonable.

Basically, there's these two helpers. One says that's really helped them. The other one thinks, what the fuck? What do I do next? then there is something in-between which is like, "Alright, maybe I just need to deny that that's happening." Not learning any new skills, not pushing into these things, maybe it will go away. I don't think being in the middle would be very good place to be.

So, what we're talking about there is how machine learning could basically improve workflow, improve tasks, and maybe do parts of design for us by automizing bits. Once we've done a design, it can automate a lot of stuff. There's a lot of this already happening. There's also a design happening from a single design, and then a machine's output.

There's always this question about whether machines can really be creative. Again, I don't really know the answer to this. I think the majority of design isn't that creative anyways. Really, there are design skills and the process of design and the things that you learn as a designer, which are designer things. Then there's practical considerations of everything you need to know, and what practically is going to work. Then there's things that are logical, and then there's patterns in the design, so that you can replicate them in the right way. And then, there's about being predictive with a design and adaptable with a design.

When you look at all those words, and the other things that are involved in a lot of design process, it doesn't feel like things that a machine can do. Even as words like design, practical, logical, pattern, predictive, adaptable, they feel like something that can be picked up by a bit of a Conky machine that it wouldn't take too long to create.

Whether that's case or not, just leaving that on its own for a little bit, one of the things I think that's wrong right now is that when you only work in this way, you get this thing called Sheepism. What I mean by sheepism, is that all the ride-sharing apps and website experiences look exactly the same. Now, I don't know why that is, because I don't design these things. But it's really interesting that the photography is the same, the typography is pretty much the same, the buttons are highlighted in the same way, the brands are sort of positioned similarly, and the language is pretty much exactly the same.

So, my question to everyone is: why is that? Is that because that's the ultimate design for a ride-sharing experience online? Or is that because we are following patterns without realizing we are? Or is that because the process of design isn't that hard, actually, and could be done by a machine?

Next, these ones. I'm sure if I covered up the logos, and if I swapped the products around, you'd have no way to pull apart Nest from Kwikset. This really surprised me, because I know Nest is a wonderful brand, and they did a lot of work on it, and it's great. But it's interesting that it's so similar. It's almost pathetic. I don't know if it's because there are no balls in design, or if it's some of these other things that I'm talking about. These are the things that I'm trying to pull apart and work out.

Here are all the food apps. Photography shot from above? Okay, let's all do that. Orange buttons? Cool. It's just madness. It's just a bit odd. I think part of it is because of that process that I highlighted before. There's a logic to it. We're getting data back from people. We're using a testing. There's the things that we think. There are the things that we're been taught about for what good design is. We're trying to be differentiated, but at the same time, we also want people to like it. Basically, because, why bother?

These are even more interesting, and much newer. You've got the likes of Mercedes, and a few others. There's Jaguar at top right. They're all looking at how graphic user interface, and the user interface, and the experience in these cars, is going to look in the future. I was amazed how similar these look. I know blue is probably a good colour, because it's easy on the eyes, and all that sort of stuff, but it's pretty amazing how similar they all are. To me, it's this thing, sheepism.

Again here. We know that brands copy, but some of the things going on here is just amazing. Even the style of photography and the colour of the product are identical. The fact that that exists. I can't imagine being in this product team, and doing this. Why would you do that? What's the logic behind behaving in that way?

Then here, this is a new product. And again, really similar. These essentially are sorts of microphones and processors and speakers that we can interact with. Why do they look so similar? Are they all using the same technology in them? Is it just laziness? I actually think the texture on this and the texture on that is incredibly similar. Even the shape of this. This is the first time I think I've really seen apple and thought, "Wow. This is Apple endorsing that this is correct." Interesting. And the top is even more worrying. They're all circular. They've all got a colour rim that rotates. These are colour circles that rotate. These are four buttons in a formation like that.

So, there's a sea of sameness across things, which I think is somehow tied to the processes we go through, and the things that we need to do.

So, if you've got design, and practical, and logical, and pattern, and predictive, and adaptable, you can only really can get to this sheepism and sea of sameness result. Because of logic and the practicality of the thing, and the way we've taught ourselves as designers to behave, and the economy of the thing, you get to quite a grey result.

I think what needs to be added is this "randomness" thing. I wrote a piece for Forbes about how I generate good ideas. It basically says, "Over the years, I've perfected my own technique for coming up with new ideas. It's based on free association, where I weave together seemingly random moments, ideas, and objects, whilst thinking about the brief itself. It's all about starting at the challenge, and allowing the feelings and ideas it evokes to fill my mind. I then let my thoughts wander towards different words, visuals, people, and objects, as I arrive at a new perspective or way of thinking. Have trust in free association, and don't simply rely on data you have at hand.

So, it's a little statement. Maybe this is just normal stuff to people, but the reason I am talking about this is Im trying to work out what AI might need to be able to be creative. I think it is something in this free association, and this adding of a random thing. The brain's ability to see the non-randomness in it, and then use the randomness in it to reapply that to this stuff that we are all used to be doing, is how you get something really good.

I don't know if you know these cards made by Brian Eno. They're called bleak strategies. They're originally designed for musicians, I believe, who are in the studio. You've got a thing, you've mixed bass like you normally do, and you've mixed a treble like you normally do, and you've added the effects and the vocal and all of those things. However, for some reason, it's just not feeling special. Well, they develop these cards where you can pull one out of the deck, and it basically says something, which then if you act on it, you can create something a bit more special. It says things like, remove specifics, and convert to ambiguities, emphasize differences, go to an extreme, move back to a more comfortable place, be dirty, how would you have done it, and all those things.

It's like this thing about making an exhaustive list of everything you might do, and do the last thing on the list. It's adding a bit of randomness to the thought process. People use these sort of techniques to create much more effective communications that are much more interesting. I think there's something in this about how we could teach machines to do that process. Add the random thing to the logical thing to create a special thing, because if we can only act and design on the logical thing, we won't get anything special. That's my point of view. I also think, in that designer's point of view, that this is the route to how you actually get something to be creative.

I call it visual randomness. Is anyone working on something that they're trying to solve? A design problem or something? Just picture what you're working on at the moment, and the way that you are trying to solve things, and think about what I've been talking about the logic of the thing, and the process of the thing, the economics of the thing, and how that's working in the design process you normally go to. Then add this image in your mind, and see if it helps you come up with new ideas that have nothing to do that logic, but are somehow connected. If you add an empty abyss of darkness to the problem, what happens?

Just picture the problem you've got right now, or the thing that you're trying to design, and add pictures to it to see if it helps your creativity.

It's interesting, because I'm work with a widened company at the moment, and you get an entire way that that looks and works and all of that stuff. It's so interesting to just put a random thing in the middle of that, because if you only put this in the middle of that, lots is possible. I think it's just all right to add these random things. That's pretty random anyway, it's a spaceman not in space. He clearly doesn't look real, so it's 3D. It's all over the place in terms of imagery. I think it's interesting what can happen from that when you play that kind of thinking to something.

Like I say, this is a technique I use, but I don't actually use images. The thing I do is I sit at my desk, I read the brief, and I have a lot of things because we've done brainstorms with the team. Everyone is doing everything in their minds. I often just drift off. I find myself staring at a person on the other side of the room, or a wooden texture, but there's something in that wooden texture, and the fibrous nature of the wood, and the way that it is all aligned and the colours in that and all kinds of things that can really add so much. If you go back to the roses, and you looked at the colour palette, something is really interesting, because there's a natural palette in there, that if you are to pull it all out and apply it to your design thinking, it could really work well.

The last one is my favourite image, Christina's World. If you're trying to solve some sort of product thing tomorrow, just get this image up and look at that for five minutes. It'll help a lot.

Really, what we need to do is have design, and practical, and logical, and pattern, and predictive, add a random element, and then teach AI how to do the normal design bi- which I think would be quite easy for them to do- and then add this randomness, and somehow we'll get to a creativity. then, somehow, maybe that creativity feeds back into the AI and you can keep going.

So, what we probably need to do in this world of new realities and machine learning is build a bleakness with an AI to achieve creativity. Give it the ability to tangenize or something, and come out with random factors, and then work out how they are interesting, and that's the route to be able to get AI to be creative.

In summary, machine learning and AI will create new opportunities for designers and design, which is really fundamental. I think if you're a young designer starting out, this is where I'd concentrate efforts, if I was you. I'm 43 years old. It's a bit late for me. I'm an old dog who likes drawing logos. But, if you're starting now, I'd be in this world. I'd be trying to work out how these things work. I'd be trying to work out how I could be an expert in this sort of stuff to enable design to happen, if you're interested in design.

We need to use next realities to create new design vernacular for a world without rectangles. That's more about if we aren't going to have screens and if we aren't going to have rectangular-based information. That's all going to be transmittable and transferable and mappable onto any object, or it's going to float within space. That means the death of the rectangle. What does type act like in a rectangle-less world? What does photography act like? How do we view film? How do all these things work? I think there's some massive job for us all to do there collectively as a design community, to work out what that new vernacular- that new lexicon for design- is.

Then, we need to embrace AI within design, and find new ways of creating and working. I think that's just about not being scared of it. If I was on a chart of really scared of AI vs. bring it on, I'm definitely in the bring it on camp. I think the sooner it makes a majority of design tasks obsolete, the better. I think then we can all concentrate on much more creative and much more interesting things.

It will mean, though, that designers will concentrate on just laying things out, and reproducing layouts and those things. Your job is basically on the way out. You're going to have to relearn the trade somehow, and get into other things.

Oh, and some visual randomness is good to the process, so try and add that.

And, that's it.