The Moleskine meme

mehYou don’t have to follow too many designers on Twitter for too long before seeing Moleskines touted as the ultimate in note-taking, sketching or idea capturing.

I tried Moleskines for a whole year – even dubbed it ‘the Moleskine Experiment’™ – using a week-to-view notebook, a squared notebook for wireframe thumbnails and a blank notebook for sketches.

After a couple of weeks in use however, for me they became… just another notebook. The quality of the paper became immaterial, the ideas no better or no worse for being committed to Moleskines. I also discovered something cheaper of comparable quality – the ASDA executive notebook (reviewed here and here) that offered a similar feel, quality and, if you must, “experience” that a Moleskine offers for around a third of the price.

Moleskines are a meme amongst some designers; you’re not a real designer until you’re using them, right? Don’t get me wrong, I’m no hater. Moleskines are more than pleasant to the touch and there’s no disputing their quality. They have managed to establish themselves as the Apple of the notebook world and for that, I congratulate them.

For the record though, the Moleskine Experiment™ ended with the conclusion that notebooks shouldn’t be that expensive. To paraphrase a previous post: if a particular brand of notebook makes you more productive, buy it. If you think it makes you more creative, you’re doing this whole design thing wrong.

Upgraded. Deflated.

What a let-down :(
Sure signs that I’m getting older, number 37 in a series: software upgrades no longer excite me.

Photoshop has helped to mould the design industry we know today. I’ve been around long enough to remember life before Photoshop, and it seems like a very long time ago. Designers coming into the industry in recent years have known nothing else and, like me, they have no viable alternative. We’re stuck with the application as an industry standard for better or for worse. It has even become a verb, a confirmation that it dominates its market; think Hoover, Xerox etc.

But its ability to surprise diminishes with each successive version. The video demonstrating CS5’s new Smart Fill feature conveniently created a buzz in the lead up to the launch of the CS5 suite, drawing gasps of amazement from designers worldwide. As ever with these things the reality was not quite as amazing in practice and the need for it in day-to-day projects is minimal.

Software marketing promises a false dawn. Design challenges remain design challenges; no amount of new features will replace or enhance the ability to interpret client requirements. Improvement and change comes only with experience.

If upgraded software makes you more productive, then it’s worth the price of admission. However, if it makes you a better designer, you’re doing it wrong.

The long wait for Boards of Canada

The BOC brothers

It’s around ten years since I first noticed the name “Boards of Canada” creeping in to designers’ discussion forums (ahh discussion forums, what a quaint idea). It seemed that BoC was the soundtrack of choice for any designer worth their salt in the heady days of the dot com boom.

I had dabbled with electronica before, but BoC opened my eyes and ears to a whole new world of avant garde IDM. Strange thing to say now, as BoC are so often seen as almost mainstream.

There has been very little since, with the exception perhaps of Proem and Ulrich Schnauss, that has made such an impression on me, left me feeling that I was listening to something new, fresh and unfettered. The vocal samples, the eerie atmospherics evoking vague childhood memories, all combined with the duo’s mischievous marketing giving them the aura more of a cult than a musical act, made listening to their music a mesmerising experience.

Within 18 months of discovering them, ‘Geogaddi‘ was released. I remember clearly wandering around Paris as part of a professional trip with IDI Ireland, listening to Geogaddi on a cassette Walkman, taking in its strange aural landscapes in the equally strange (to me) environment of the French capital.

But something went wrong. ‘The Campfire Headphase‘ took 3.5 years to emerge after Geogaddi. Apart from an EP in June 2006, BoC fans have now been waiting over 5 years for new material to arrive from Hexagon Sun. Not quite latter day Pink Floyd standards, but a huge period of anyone’s life.

I’m sure Marcus and Eoin are happily making a living from their work, but music consumption has moved on significantly in those 5 years. There was a time when I would have bought new BoC material without hesitation. Nowadays, I may just sample what is on offer before parting with hard-earned cash to buy it.

With artists such as Horizon Fire so ably scratching the itch of BoC fans (and for free), and Proem maintaining such a regular schedule of high quality output, I’m at the point where I almost don’t care whether anything appears from BoC again.

I don’t know how BoC see themselves now, but that must surely be the worst possible news for any musician who releases music commerically.

Ogon wallet


I’ve had an Ogon aluminium wallet for over 4 years now, and when the time comes to replace it – which shouldn’t be for some years yet – I’m going to get another one.

It feels great in the hand, it’s around the same size as an iPod (Classic), made of smooth aluminium, comes in a variety of colours and is – when it comes down to it – a beautifully executed piece of design.

The concept is based around the fact that our 21st century financial life (so far) is dominated by cards. The Ogon wallet holds around 10 credit cards comfortably and… that’s it. One key litmus test for a new gadget is if it creates change in your life or lifestyle; the Ogon has been instrumental in my stopping carrying cash. While you can fold up a tenner and tuck it in somewhere, it actually feels like cheating, spoiling the purity of the concept.

I’m tempted to buy a second wallet, in a different colour, but why bother? Why would I want to change my cards from wallet to wallet? I can’t remember what the shelf life of my old leather wallets was, but I’m pretty sure that 4 or 5 years was the limit. I’m going to hazard a guess that the Ogon will beat that hands down and I’ll also suggest that longevity is probably the biggest barrier to sales for the company.

The Ogon wallet is one of those little things that makes you feel better about using it. It inspires comments from anyone who notices it. It’s just feels right. I’m planning to hold on to my Ogon wallet for as long as possible… then I’ll get another one. Rinse and repeat.

Deconstructing Build

A collection of circumstances prevented me from getting along to Build Conference this year, much to my shame. And while videos of all the events – main talks and fringe events – are available, I know from experience that nothing can replace just being there, with your peers, having your head sent into a spin by the words of those preeminent in their field.

Andy McMillan – Build’s architect – has put together what he calls a ‘hand-crafted’ web design conference. Post-event his head must have been spinning with the torrent of praise coming his way. The thought he put into it was evident at every turn, with no detail left untended to. He is but one man yet made all this happen, the likes of which is rarely seen in Belfast.

The event has become something much bigger than it arguably set out to be. With a heavy emphasis on fringe and social events, spread out over a week, and with a much broader appeal than its humble tagline suggests, Build is as close to a design festival as it gets. Although a web conference, the wider design community beats a path to Build’s door and the whole shebang is spread over a week. Speakers’ topics this year extended to typography and the design process, while fringe events pushed the ‘web design conference’ description beyond breaking point. This was a festival of design by any other name.

I’ve been around long enough to see at least one national design body try and fail to motivate successive generations of designers and engender a sense of community. Through Build (and a not insignificant amount of other activity such as Refresh Belfast) Andy has achieved it within a couple of short years. Build it and they will come indeed.

I don’t know Andy and have no idea what he has in mind for future years, but his seemingly endless drive will surely result another landmark event in 2011. For what it’s worth I hope Build retains its unique ‘belfastness’. I also hope it ditches it’s increasingly inappropriate “love us because we’re small” marketing bent. Those tickets aren’t cheap, and for good reason. This is a first class design event, worthy of the title of festival, and deserves to be enjoyed and lauded far far beyond the often clique-y world of online design.

Forget #buildconf. Next year’s Twitter hashtag should be #buildfest