Thoughts about The Design of Understanding conference

It was a real privilege to have Max Gadney curate the Design of Understanding conference which took place yesterday at St Bride Library. I think we were very lucky to catch him at the right moment: well-informed, well-connected and a clear thinker, at the point we invited him he happened to be mid-leap from the BBC to private enterprise.

At that point he also had some recent design teaching experience fresh in his mind. This experience, as he explained at the time, makes him feel that design students aren’t getting exposure to the kinds of design work that are perhaps the most significant at the moment and that they don’t get a chance to work with the data that characteristically lies behind such work. They don’t have a chance to gain an insight into the business processes or bureaucracy from which the data comes, or to learn the importance of understanding those things to some degree before attempting to pass the information on to others in a polished visual form.

This is also my reading of the short piece he wrote for Eye 78 (on page 100) which was published serendipitously at the start of the week. Eye 78 is a treasure. It focuses on information design and it offers a pleasing set of contributions which I think student readers will find helpful in understanding some of the ingredients. To have it appear at the start of the week brought an extra dash of anticipation to the conference itself.

I was very pleased with the outcome of the day. Treating the event very much as if a test of his new design curriculum, Max chose speakers who work to a greater or lesser extent outside the realm of visual design. It was good to have people who could talk intelligently about visualisation of data without the superfluous embellishments of design orthodoxy. Whatever the qualities of the finished work, they were interested in the success of that work as a whole rather than as an aesthetic expression alone. It was also good to hear authoritative statements about how contemporary exhibition designers are concerned with the communicative capacity of what they create rather than with the media in which they communicate.

The talks showed that our speakers believe that rather than parcelling up information from other people and presenting it in a novel way, the purpose of the design work is to increase the chances of engagement and understanding for the users of the end product. Designers working in such a way can expect to have an influence on their collaborators because they show that they understand the nature and purpose of the information with which they work.


This conference’s tenor was set by dissatisfaction with the way information design is approached, and a belief that this can be fixed by changing the kind of work that students of design carry out. There were 29 concessionary tickets (for students or those over 60) in our audience of around 150. As an event organiser for the Friends of St Bride Library I have argued with little opposition for the cost of concessionary tickets to remain at a generously discounted price. We believe the standard of our events is high and opportunities for students to enhance their understanding of the field, their knowledge of the wider design community and their contacts with practitioners are considerable.

With the last year’s events almost all sellouts, and with its overall budget severely constrained, St Bride Foundation will have to think carefully about future event pricing. I would urge students and other concessionary ticket buyers to share their experiences and opinions about our conferences so that we can make a well-informed decision. Email:

Published on 29/01/2011 at 16:47 by Technophile, tags , , ,

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