As creative director of magnetic North Brendan Dawes is working to bring the ethos of the mix tape to the digital age. Here he discusses emotional engagement, the development of Flash and how to unlock your inner creativity
.net: How are things going at mN?
Brendan Dawes: Our eighth year’s shaping up to be our best yet. We’ve got some really big projects that are very challenging in lots of different ways – from doing technical stuff that people say can’t be done to projects we believe will make a difference to people’s lives in a very emotional way.
.net: What’s the best project mN has worked on this year, and why?
BD: Weirdly it’s something that will probably never see the light of day, which we created for the now-dead BBC Jam. Subs was a huge project that was all about getting kids to take part in sport but without feeling the need to spend a fortune on brand name kit. We’ve put up a little video as a sneaky peek on our site.
.net: What is MIXA, and how did it come about?
BD: It’s a USB drive inside an old-school cassette that allows you to fill it up with your music, photos, video or whatever. It’s about making physical the invisible digital files that sit on your hard drive so you can give people digital stuff in a much more meaningful, romantic way. The key part is designing the sleeve on the makeamixa.com site. The process of personalisation adds back the care and love that went into compiling a mix tape of old. It’s about trying to put the emotion back into storing and sharing our digital memories.
.net: What’s the best piece of work you’ve seen from another agency in the last 12 months?
BD: One thing I saw that I really liked was an interactive music video for The Arcade Fire. It was a brilliantly clever take on making something that is linear into a non-linear experience by clever use of art direction. Beautifully simple but really engaging.
.net: Do you have any tips for unlocking creativity?
BD: I don’t have any kind of process as such, save that I’m always making stuff every spare moment I get, which can often lead to new ways of solving problems. I’d just encourage people to never lose the ability to play and ‘waste time’. Staring out the window is a good thing.
.net: What are the main tools you currently use?
BD: Photoshop, Flash CS3 and a text editor such as TextMate or BBEdit. I also use things like Processing and the wonderful Nodebox (nodebox.net), which is a Python-based programming environment for creating beautiful 2D graphics. What I find fantastic about Nodebox is that it’s really built for artists/designers when you look at the libraries that have been built for it. For instance, there’s a lovely colour library that can dynamically create shades of complementary colours or create colours based on a word such as ‘anger’. Things like this really open up the scope of what you can do creatively with code. I should also mention that I’m now using Coda by Panic all the time: it’s like Dreamweaver for hand coders but without the bloat!
.net: What do you think of the iPhone?
BD: It’s the subtle attention to detail that makes it such a joy to use: the transitions between screens and the general ‘flow’ of the interface. Yes, there are flaws; things like copy/paste would be great and the ability to download stuff and store it on your phone. But hey, this is version one and new firmware updates will add new functionality.
.net: Have you had a chance to play with Microsoft’s Expression tools?
BD: No I haven’t, though the product manager Brad Becker did take me through a demo and it looked pretty impressive. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing, though. Enough people will have to have the plug-in for developers to begin to create content, but people won’t get the plug-in if developers aren’t making the content! The only reason I think we’d use it at the moment is if it offers something fundamentally different to what Flash can do.
.net: Have you been pleased with the development of Flash under Adobe?
BD: Yes, very much. While the learning curve for moving from AS2 to AS3 is quite a steep one, once you get the hang of it you never want to go back. I’d still love to see much better sound manipulation capabilities as at the moment, while it’s better than what Flash 8 could do, it’s still very poor compared to other environments such as Processing. I love the possibilities that Adobe Air brings. My only wish for Adobe is to not keep hammering on about making applications. Let’s not forget about experimentation and play!
.net: You talk at a lot of design events, would you like to see more of them in Manchester?
BD: Manchester is known for being a city of revolution and risk taking, mainly from the legacy of Tony Wilson and Factory Records. But I prefer to live in the now, not romanticise the past. If there were to be a design conference it would have to be very different to everything else out there and ultimately change things – not just be an ego trip.
.net: If designers do one thing this year, what should it be?
BD: Visit the exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind at MoMA in New York before the end of May.
.net: You’re well known for your love of Saul Bass, but what happened with saulbass.net?
BD: That was down to my overzealous junk mail. Oh, and being an idiot. I didn’t have auto renew set on the domain and didn’t see the reminder email so the domain expired! It lives on at saulbass.tv.
.net: If you were granted one wish this year, what would it be?
BD: To be able to spread cheese on a cracker without it breaking every bloody time.