Can design ever be truly authentic?

Photo: Davy Jones © POINT

Jenny Theolin reports from the first ever Point Conference in London, featuring Erik Spikermann, Nicholas Roope, iA, Phil Lewis and more.

Last week, London hosted a brand new two-day creative conference – Point – featuring speakers from design luminaries such as Erik Spiekermann and Jonathan Barnbrook to representatives from the younger generation including Get Müllered & Dance and Clare Sutcliffe.

This inaugural event was based around the subject of ‘authenticity’. But did the speakers manage to keep it real? In short, yes.

In the first talk of the conference, Oliver Reichsten Founder of iA, spoke about Microsoft, the “masters of bullshitting people” and their ridiculous use of jargon, such as ‘Authentically Digital” and pointed out that ‘good design is invisible” – and to achieve authentic work, a designer needs to use both eyes; one for the function and the other for the form.

Poke and Hulger’s very own, Nik Roope (above), spoke about telling stories, symbolism, context, identification and association when creating something authentic.

I sat down with him after his talk to question him some more about his diverse background in fine art and sculpture and how his father ended up designing Stanley Kubrick’s specs; the main take-away was, however, to “not care about being popular”. Any creative pursuing such a vast array of projects as Nik does, and with that attitude, cannot be anything but authentic.

A substantial common thread between many of the talks was, as Erik Spiekermann (above) elegantly put it; “Don’t work for arseholes, and don’t work with arseholes”.

Milton Glaser shared a similar sentiment in his film interview, “only work with people you like” and used his long-term Brooklyn Beer relationship as a terrific example.

Phil Lewis’ talk (above) was more focused on authenticity in brand strategy. He pointed out that “your brand is just you doing what you do. You’re not Apple, you’re you,” and that “strategy just happens”. He also pointed out that “nobody is perfect” and that failing is part of the process. Similarly, Spiekermann’s theory of “Life is in Beta” and “everything restarts as soon as its finished” made a lot of sense too.

When I sat down with Clare Sutcliffe, creator of an after-school coding club network for 9-11 year olds, after her talk, I asked “how do you even begin realising something like Code Club, where do you even start?”

It very soon became evident, that she is completely fearless and as soon as they came up with the idea, they just went for it. And according to her talk, what they do is “92% fun” – now that’s something.

Authenticity, it seems, has also become a negative word in itself. David Tonge referred to it as being ‘dirty and negative” in his talk, but when translated to Japanese (he speaks Japanese), the definition is more “genuine, pure and real” – point being everybody sees it differently.

Lucienne Roberts also touched on the fact that there is “something inauthentic about Graphic Design in the first place.” She used her recent Miliband Campaign as an example how slick design can actually work against you; and that hand-drawn corner shop signs and shoddy amateur design work might just be more authentic – it all depends on context.

So, how can we be more authentic? Up-and-coming duo Get Müllered & Dance (above) have a brilliant attitude towards taking traditional craft and bringing it into a modern context. They see the computer as “just a tool to bring things together” and this approach is proving successful in creating their new and wonderful collaborations.

Andy Altman and Gordon Young when presenting the Blackpool Comedy Carpet confessed that they “are just amateurs” when it came to a project of this scale, and “everything in their past was just a training exercise for this project.” And the most significant thing to Milton Glaser’s working life is “to have done something [he] hasn’t done before, or learn something [he] didn’t know.”

Apart from the design titans on stage, the work by Sean Rees (above) and Nathan Webb at Purpose really moved the audience – they even received the first ‘audience whoop!” of the conference. Their story was as authentic as you can get. Sean, who stutters, not only inspired Purpose to re-brand the McGuire Program – a not-for-profit organisation helping coach people out of their speech impediment – but also took on the stage with confidence and, together with Nathan, moved us with not only their genuine and authentic story, but informed and clever graphic design.

And what about Bruce Gilden (above) and Elliot Erwitt? I don’t think they even mentioned authenticity in their talks, they just showed it through their work. Outstanding.

Morag Myerscrough (above) did something not too dissimilar by ending her talk and the conference with a bang. She invited her friends, punk band The Highliners, to perform live alongside her colourful talk (below) – pretty special indeed.

After the conference, I asked The Highliners what they thought about Point, being a last minute addition to the line-up. Luke, their lead singer, commented that he thought “it was exciting that Point understood the relevance of the band to both Morag's work and their own origins.”

And what did Morag think of the theme? “You just do what you do,” she said. Before she was given the subject, she had never thought that ‘authenticity’ might be something she’d been aiming for. She comments; “It is a label other people might give you if they can see it in you. Being true to yourself is the most important and rewarding thing.”

My conclusion was that the key to true authenticity is people. I believe the level of authenticity in ideas lie with the people behind them. Authentic people create authentic work.  And every single speaker proved its case in point.

We’re looking forward to future installments of Point. Rumour has it the next one will be on the subject of cities and urban planning, followed by music and design.

7 tips for creating authentic designs from speakers at Point

“Don’t work for assholes. Don’t work with assholes” – Erik Spiekermann

“Travel makes you more creative” – Nick Couch

“Don’t care about being popular “– Nik Roope

“Is it good for the soul? “– Sean Rees and Nathan Webb

“It’s important to love what you are attempting to do, as it takes a lot of attempts to do what you love” – Get Mullered & Dance

“Ask yourself, what matters to me? And am I doing it?” – David Hieatt

“No Guts, No Glory” – Morag Myerscough

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