Omnium. The Conversation on Notes on Design

Notes On Design invited Rick Bennett and I to talk about our experiences of long-distance and global online creative collaboration within the Omnium Research Group. We suggested that some of the more interesting conversations we have had have been over a couple of beers in informal settings, so we decided to have a public conversation and publish it online.

You can read the first part of The Conversation over at the Notes On Design blog. In it we talk a bit about our first experiences and thoughts about online collaboration from ten years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long) in the context of what now seems commonplace: social networks and online communities.

The second part, concerning emerging cultural trends and Omnium’s outreach projects follows soon – I’ll post an update here when it’s up.

UPDATE: The second part is now online.

Omnium need a Sys Admin

Just a quickie to say that the Omnium Research Group with whom I work in Australia are looking to hire a sys-admin.

So if you’re a Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL and Shell scripting genius (pretty darn good will do) and want to work in a lively design studio at the [College of Fine Arts](] at University of New South Wales in Sydney, then go check out the Seek listing or send Sam an e-mail.

Pass it on.


Omnium software released as Open Source

Omnium V4.0

Last night the new v4.0 Omnium software that runs all of the Omnium projects, such as the Omnium Creative Network and the forthcoming Creative Waves 2007 (as well as all of COFA Online’s courses ) was released as a beta.

It is a massively upgraded version, although much of the effort, as always, has gone into making things simpler not simply adding new things for the sake of it ‘Word-style’. (Of course re-writing and packaging it as open-source took a great deal of time too). There are loads of improvements, including a brilliant admin interface.

It looks beautiful and if you have ever struggled with the likes of Blackboard or WebCT (or even Moodle) then you’ll enjoy this. If you are a creative or research group collaborating in any way (especially involving images and other rich media) and prefer an interface that feels like someone has thought about it rather than a ‘view on a database’, you’ll love it.

Download it now from the Omnium Open site.

The Omnium Blog

Omnium Blog

I’ve written before about my work with the Omnium Project and the Omnium Creative Network, but it has been needing another home…

My colleagues from Omnium and I met up in Berlin for a conference and worked out lots of exciting plans for the future, which will steadily unveil.

One big change is that the Omnium Interface has been massively overhauled (with some very cool additions) and will be released as open-source. We hope people will start contributing some cross-funcitonality with other platforms too (like Moodle, which although it has some great management elements and is also open-source, is pig ugly).

So the new home for many of my thoughts and writings about education, is Omnium’s blog that we have finally got up (about three years late). It’s pretty vanilla at the moment, but we hope it will give a bit of a window on the interesting work going on.

Launching the Omnium Creative Network

Omnium Creative Network

I am very pleased to announce the launch of the Omnium Creative Network (OCN), which is what I will be spending quite a bit of my time on from now on. The OCN is a free and non-profit online global community of creative people (students, professionals, educators, theorists, writers) and its aim is to encourage members from all over the world to collaborate in a variety of ways; to focus their attention on more socially aware and ethically responsive art and design projects.

Over the past eight years The Omnium Project has run several global projects exploring creative collaboration online. The last big one, Creative Waves involved 107 participants from 22 countries around the world and included such design luminaries as Stefan Sagmeister and Steven Heller.

I was fortunate enough to be involved in the very first project as well as Creative Waves. Each time a thriving community was built and many engaging conversations and debates were had. But once the projects wound up the community dispersed again. We wanted to continue those conversations, which is what the OCN is all about.

Membership is free and made up of participants from a wide variety of countries worldwide; in particular, we hope, countries less fortunate in terms of having easy access to creative interaction through conferences, publications and exhibitions.  The OCN aims to become a rich research resource and information exchange, as well as a place for its members to get the chance to meet and work with people normally out of reach due to their geographical or socio-economic situation.

Apart from the ongoing content (debate, essays, interviews, guest lectures) we hope to run a project each month for organisations and charities. Suggestions for topics, guests and projects are very welcome.

You can join simply by going to the OCN page, which by should also soon be hosting the top ‘scrape’ of activity in the community as a website called Outline.

It’s crucial that we spread the word far and wide, so if you would like to help you are invited to download this PDF and send it on to people that might be interested. A more detailed PDF outlining some of the above can be found here.

New Omnium site – an online haven of collaboration

My friends and colleagues on the Omnium project have just launched their shiny new site. It is the outcome of over six years of work and research and they have now launched various versions of their software. Expect exciting developments and new projects along the lines of this year’s Creative Waves project. Also keep an eye of the Omnium Creative Network:

The OCN aims to attract multi-disciplinary interaction between students, educators, theorists and professionals within the visual arts and design. Although the OCN will be facilitated by the Omnium team, it is hoped members of the ‘Network’ will also generate much of its direction and discussions that take place.

I hope to be continue to play a part in this as the very first project in 1999 was one of my first contacts with COFA and Rick Bennett. Oh yes, you can check out my ugly mug there too.


Coursekit is a free online learning management system. I’ve used a lot of the heavy duty, clunky systems over the years, such as Blackboard, WebCT and Moodle and most of them feel stuck in 1996. Right now I use Omnium for my online teaching. It’s something I’ve put a lot of time into helping shape in the early days, but I’d be fibbing if I said it couldn’t do with a bit of an UI update.

I haven’t used Coursekit yet – these days I mostly create a blog for my students and let them use whatever tools they like – but it looks promising and is really how these systems should look and feel. Light, uncluttered, user-friendly. Obvious, really, except to university IT departments.

The only worry is its financial model, which is the build it and hope they will come approach. I’d like to know they’ll be around in 5 years’ time.

Via Veronica Grow (@oldschoolthenew)

Creative Waves – COTEN – Call for Participants


When it comes to thinking about higher education designers – or perhaps just design academics – seem to suddenly forget everything they know. We teach the value of ethnographic research, 360º stakeholder input, co-creation, yet throw it all out the window when it comes to designing curricula and the institutional structures they are housed within.

To have a crack at tackling this, I am running a new collaborative online project called Creative Waves – COTEN (the COTEN part is short for ‘co-creation 2010’), which aims to take a service design approach to higher education. It builds upon over a decade of successful online creative collaborations bringing together world renown designers and thinkers together with students, experts, practitioners and academics from all over the world. The project will also have a line-up of special guests such as Arne van Oosterom and John Thackara with more to be confirmed.

An army of politicians, bureaucrats, auditors, managers and administrators have failed to offer an innovative vision for higher education – we invite you to apply your most innovative thinking to the problem. It is free to take part, but places will be limited. The deadline for applications is April 30th 2010 – please see the COTEN web site for details.

If you are involved in higher education or some other networks, please pass on the links and information to your students. It’s important that we get a mix of practitioners and students on the project to get a fully-rounded view of the issues. And please blog and tweet the project far and wide!

Does Graphic Design Have Superpowers?


(Photo: ndinneen)

Rich Smith, a graphic design student in the UK wrote to me about the presentation I gave at AGDA’s Design A Better World event. He asked me what thoughts I had about the title of his thesis, “The Superpowers of Graphic Design” and the impact it can have on little things that might create big changes. It’s quite a question – here was my long answer:

Your subject is a big issue at the moment and it’s not easily answered. A while ago I talked with Stefan Sagmeister about this and his view was that it’s irrelevant whether or not we are designers, simply that we all have a duty to the our fellow man and the planet as human beings. I put some of it an essay I wrote with my colleague, Rick Bennett, when we set up something called the Omnium Creative Network (now morphed into the Omnium Outreach Projects. It’s called What the World Needs Now and there is also an interview with Paul Nini for the same project, talking about ethical issues.

I think the power of graphic design is paradoxically both overrated and underrated. It’s overrated because it’s pretty superficial most of the time and many designers execute their designs pretty superficially too. There are manifold reasons for this – from lousy clients, bad pay and unrealistic deadlines to laziness and lack of care. But the digital revolution has a big part to play. It’s so easy to turn out a huge body of work and have it printed or otherwise exposed to the world. It’s easy to make many variations without much thought. When it took a great deal of effort to manually draw a new version of a design, the slowness gave you time to think (something that Tomato’s John Warwicker once said to me was how much he liked it when computers were slow – the progress bar gave him time to think). It also made you consider your decisions much more because there were real penalties to changing your mind later down the line.

I’m not saying computers are a bad thing – I’m originally an interaction designer and generally a ‘digital guy’ – but I do recognise the impact they have on designers’ processes. Although it seems like computers have been around for ages and that so much has changed in the last 20 years, they’re really pretty new in the much longer context of design as an activity. I don’t think designers have become mature in their relationship to the computer yet. I think there’s at least one more generation to go before that happens – when the designers in their 60s and 70s are the grand old men and the equivalents of Milton Glaser and are the ones that have used computers all their lives, then I think they’ll have something interesting to say. We’re not there yet.

But I digress.

So, graphic design is, in one sense, totally superficial and has little power, not to mention superpower. In fact it regularly contributes to a lot of problems due to its rather slavish relationship to advertising and marketing. But that’s the paradox. If graphic design’s little sins (branding on everything, glossing over the truth of a product, using sexualised imagery to sell, greenwashing products, etc., etc.) are such contributors to the problems of the world, then that also means it has significant power. You can cause problems without having some kind of influence. But it’s as much power as, say, leaving your hall light on all night. Many of the small things are the things that got us into the environmental mess we’re in because they’re easy to ignore and because they don’t seem to matter.

But they do matter when you add them all up. All those seductive images of bottled water that make you feel healthy and pure and fit when you buy it and drink it – all lies, all terrible for the environment as a result, all seemingly trivial. So the paradox is that it is exactly graphic design’s triviality (and, by extension, it’s role in advertising and consumerism) that gives it its power, albeit a negative one. The fact that people don’t think about whether a picture of some clouds or a Scottish spring on a bottle of water really masks an industrial scale process that uses masses of petrochemicals in its bottles is both a feat of design genius and pretty insidious.

Designer’s give up that personal power because they tend to, like the consumers themselves, either not think it’s a big deal or consider what they’re doing as trivial. Sometimes they get wrapped up in the creative process and serving a client and forget to consider those aspects. Lastly, graphic design has constantly been kept low down in the production foodchain – you get given the brief after all the important decisions have been made. So, it’s easy to decide it’s not your role and that putting food on the family’s table is more important.

Yet there is still power there in that last stage of the design chain because it’s where the rubber meets the road, as Nancy Bernard says in Citizen Designer (a book I recommend, by the way, and most of it is on Google Books). The point being that graphic design is often the first point of contact anyone has with a product or service. So designers might be the last in the production process, but they play a vital role in nudging behaviour. People buy this brand instead of that brand based on pretty superficial aesthetic reasons most of the time. Many people deny this, especially those with science or engineering backgrounds who pride themselves on rigorous rationality. I don’t believe them. The best example is to think of when you last bought a bottle of wine based on what the label looked like – I’d be willing to bet it was pretty recently and happens quite often.

Nudging behaviour is, of course, the way to make or encourage people to make small changes that seem trivial and that’s what’s so important and where the power can be used. (There’s even a whole book about nudges too). A huge poster or web campaign about saving the rainforests or stopping glaciers melting is just too big. What can I do? I can’t stop a glacier melting, so why should I bother or pay attention? A piece of label design that tells me something encouraging and honest about, well, let’s say a bottle of wine, might make me change to that brand. It’s a small decision, costs me very little money or intellectual energy and it’s precisely because it’s seems trivial and irrelevant that I will so easily change my behaviour. My feeling is that graphic designers should pay attention to the details with the big picture in mind. Fight the small battles in order to win the war. And designers are good on details.

Of course there are a whole load of other areas where designers can make a difference to behaviour, but I think these move into interaction and interface design, service and experience design, product design and many other areas. Things like smart meters can and could have a big impact on energy usage in the home and office – some the biggest contributors to man-made CO2 output. It makes no sense to have a gas or electricity meter in the cellar, tucked out of the way and counting up in units that the consumer can make no sense of. It makes much more sense to have a meter telling you how much money you are spending on electricity at the moment or visually display your energy consumption in an informative way. That’s where designers can play a role by helping make sense of complexity and presenting it in ways that users can make informed decisions about and change their behaviour accordingly. Switching off appliances isn’t taxing, but making people care about doing it is.

All this also requires understanding the history and context of a service such as electricity provision, how it has been installed and ‘curated’ by energy companies and, of course, why they have a vested interest in you not knowing how much you are using until you get the bill at the end of the month or, like here in Germany, at the end of year when it is a total shocker. That involves design thinking – service design thinking I would argue – at a more complex level than graphic designers usually get the chance to do in many of the projects they are brought in on.

Sometimes superpowers aren’t necessary. Being the drop of water than cracks the stone can work just as well and, best of all, some people don’t even notice how much power you wield and won’t try and take it away from you as a result.