Posted by Will Thomas on Oct 09, 2015

On brewing, design and space travel

As a designer, I sometimes struggle to remember that the audience can’t always see what I see. When I solve a problem there are usually many constraints and frameworks that — unbeknownst to the audience — must be adhered too. I have to make products that not only solve a problem but make sense to me, and the audience.

Last weekend I visited my parents in the Worcestershire countryside to help them work on their house. It had been a long week, and I ended it two storeys up a ladder drilling gutters into soffit boards. On the Sunday night I checked the train times to discover there was a disruption on the local line and I needed to use a rail replacement bus service. It looked like it was going to be a very long week indeed. Thankfully my dad offered to drive the family to Oxford — a 40 minute journey — where I could easily catch a train back to London.

Living in London and cycling everywhere, it’s not very often I get driven around in the back of a car, particularly my dad’s. It’s October and it’s getting dark early, looking between the front seats I can see the dashboard lit up with blue glyphs and the bright headlights of other cars in the windscreen above. I’m exhausted and squinting my eyes, the lights stretch-out into a light show. This takes me back.

I used to do this a lot more often. A three hour drive to visit my grandparents in Devon, a drive home from a family holiday perhaps. The car was a big spaceship. I’d look up and out the window and see orange sodium-vapor stars fly past with the pace and consistency of a metronome. The glyphs were aglow on the dashboard, their purpose a mystery.

But since then, life experience has taught me a few brutal truths. The car wasn’t a spaceship, the button to start the hyper drive actually switches on the hazard lights and the stars were streetlights all along. I can understand why some people think life’s mysteries are best left undiscovered.

But not all of them.

Last year I started brewing beer. One Saturday morning the door bell rang, it was a delivery for a twenty five kilo bag of malted barley. I couldn’t wait to start my next brew, that was until the realisation of carrying the bag up two flights of stairs kicked in. Eventually my small galley kitchen was awash with the rich biscuity smell of malt. The barley was boiling up in a large steel pot on my stove top — a mixture known as wort — it’s sweet, nutty and slightly spicy.

Next, I grab a pair of scissors and cut into a silvery foil pouch of vacuum sealed hops. As soon as the seal is broken, my nose is punched by the overpowering smell of Willamette aromatic hops. Flowers, fruit, spice and herbs. It’s still my favourite part of the recipe.

Only by experiencing that whole process, could I smell and taste the various effects each method and additive contributed to the end result. Three weeks later when the beer is ready, I can appreciate what works, I can isolate the components, I know what to change next time. And drinking other’s people’s beer got a whole lot more interesting too.

Understanding the individual components and processes, allowed me to take a reductionist approach to something I was already familiar with, and enabled me to appreciate it in a whole new light.

However some times this insight can turn an otherwise innocuous experience into a painful assault on my senses.

A painful assault

For better or worse, it’s hard to go back to seeing things the way I used to, insight has a cost.

For design to be complete, an audience must participate. It’s easy to forget not everybody knows my methods and additives. I need to make my rules as easy as possible to grasp, and I must accept and expect deviations from those rules. If I make the time to step back and put the rules aside and reflect on my work, if I do things right, the audience will know how to participate. If I’m lucky people will experience something greater than anything I ever intended.

I need to look at my product in an old light, I need to see the car and the spaceship.

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