Last month, our design team had the opportunity to go to Semi Permanent Auckland. Semi Permanent is “a global creative and design thinking platform”. It has been running for 15 years and we attended two days of the three day extravaganza. We were incredibly excited to come together with a group of like minded designers and creatives to share, collaborate, and perhaps even accumulate new wisdom.
This year we heard from both international speakers and New Zealanders who have worked all over the world. The talks represented all manner of design, such as fashionable buzzwords from global game changers, and even humble bragging from secret Kiwi superstars.
Design on a global scale
For the first half of day one, we heard from huge players in the world of digital design; Uber (Michael Gough), Airbnb (Ethan Eismann) and Netflix (Andrew Law). Common themes traversed their talks. Each discussed how as designers we have the responsibility to understand the consequences of our design and mitigate those. Michael Gough imagined a future with a completely automated transportation system, but also asked what could the negative consequences be of such monumental change in our cities.
If you can move people from one place to another then you can probably move pizza
– Michael Gough discusses Uber Eats
More than once, the speakers theorised that our decisions as designers, and as consumers, come from an inherent need for human interaction. As social beings, we long to be around people to regain the human connections that we have lost. Could this be responsible for the success of business models such as Airbnb and Uber, which ask us to go against our instincts and put trust in complete strangers?
Amidst ideation, noise, synthesising, and so many more buzzwords, we learned that Netflix has a design team of only 9, a crazy stat considering the company has over 130 million subscribers and 5,500 employees. The way the wider product team uses data is seriously robust, each Netflix customer can be part of 10 to 20 tests at any given time.
It's not just about growth, it's about building something that you love that will have a good impact on society.
– Ethan Eismann, Airbnb
Tall poppies, absolute terror
The talks at Semi Permanent this year weren’t just from global superstars. There were so many wonderful Kiwi artists and designers who were out there leaving their mark on the world, in ways only New Zealanders can. We were particularly impressed with the work of Mark Smith & Alan Bibby from MPC, one of whom admitting “I hate almost everything I ever made”. At that point, I could tell that a lot of designers in the room found this all too easy to relate to.
Terror is a sign that you’re probably doing something new
But the work they showcased was pretty phenomenal, and included a full length commercial for an electric car that didn’t exist yet, created entirely using VFX.
What they hoped to teach us is that we should push outside of our comfort zones to the point of terror. Ethan Eismann (Airbnb) feared that design fundamentals were being lost in fields like product design. However, after seeing the presentation from MPC, 76 audience members asked the online Q&A system what font they had used in their slides, proving that day that we are still overwhelmingly passionate about typography.
Quick fire quotes!
Over the course of the conference we heard from a variety of designers and artists, from graphic design to product design, digital, video, ceramics, photography, poetry, and game design. This diverse set of speakers represented all walks of life, so many of whom inspired with their incredible journeys. Here are a few of most meaningful and quirky quotes from the day:
“Games are a new medium, we haven’t really accepted consequences as we can’t understand them yet.” – Kimberly Voll, Riot Games
“Don’t fear the future embrace it” – Julia Peter, Facebook AI design (who was in fact possibly a very sophisticated AI robot herself)
“You don’t do empathy, you have empathy” – Michael Gough, Uber
“Technology is an extension of humanity.” – Jer Thorp, Data Artist, on making data meaningful
"Get drunk with design and see where it goes." – Mark & Alan, MPC
“Batman smoking crack leads you to the biggest things in life” – Michael Muller, Photographer
Now, that last one might need some explaining. Michael Muller is a photographer who has revolutionised the world of underwater photography, all while facing his fear of sharks.
He got his big break snapping photos on the streets of LA, where you can find all sorts of unusual subjects. And somehow this photo of a man in a Batman costume was a turning point in Michael’s career.
But we still haven’t talked about...
A special mention has to go to Chip Kidd, graphic designer, book designer, and self proclaimed nerdy book fan, who used examples of his work to take us on a journey that was intertwined with the story of his husband's illness. It was a powerful presentation, there are no words to describe the effect his words and his story had on the audience that day.
The conference explored design through many lenses, and challenged us to consider our impact on the environment and society. Good design should solve problems, not make new ones. We were also forced to step out of design entirely thanks to the RARE-AKL panel. Taonga Puoro artist Jerome Kavanagh (Poutama) opened this part of the day with a pōwhiri, creating song with a flute made of a whale tooth (called a ‘Nguru’). The speakers on this panel reminded us to celebrate and embrace our differences “because true creativity and innovation aren't possible without diversity of perspective and experience within a team.”
There were too many more presentations at Semi Permanent Auckland that amazed us, both supremely polished and entirely experimental. As an institution, it continues to stay relevant, and more than that, it remains a worthwhile and meaningful experience for all who attend.
Cheers Semi Permanent, we hope to see you next time.