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Annie Atkins talk at D&AD discussing Grand Budapest Hotel props
John Taylor

D&AD Dissected: Day Three

Categories: Better News, Design

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes.

Rufus Leonard – Creative Fixers

Our final day at D&AD kicked off with a tube trip to Farringdon and the offices of Rufus Leonard. In one of the most interesting and more organised fringe talks, we were treated to an embarrassment of riches, from Google’s Zoo to wind-up radios via a living staircase and some pretty deep questions.

First up was Andrew Bent of Google’s Zoo, a think tank division of Google, designed to help brands and agencies be more effective in the digital space.

Paul Cocksedge talk at D&AD festival 2016 featuring living staircase

While Google Zoo isn’t quite Google X (the semi-secret R&D ‘Area 51’ of Google) it does adopt similar “moonshot thinking”. In other words, they aim for a 10x improvement over the status quo with any project, operating under the belief that it’s easier to get people collectively pushing toward a near impossible aim rather than an easily obtainable one. Andrew believes every brand has its own moonshot; that’s what Zoo aims to find and build on. Of course because they’re Google, they sit on a mountain of data, so all of their ideas are led by data first and designed for the user with the belief that all else will follow.

Andrew illustrated this by first advising us to think of every search query as a customer putting up their hand and asking for help. Google’s data showed that while there was a massive amount of beauty bloggers talking beauty on YouTube, very little of that conversation was owned by actual beauty brands. This led them to fuse the two into a voice-activated hair dye tutorial, adaptable for any hair brand, based around the fact that while people enjoy tutorials, no-one wants to touch their device with fingers dripping in dye and bleach.

Next up was the softly spoken Paul Cocksedge of Cocksedge Studios, demonstrating the range of projects he takes on; both commissioned and self-generated. One interactive art piece saw a vast LED chandelier/mistletoe fusion light up when couples kissed beneath it. Paul went on to collaborate with a bank who matched each kiss with a euro, ultimately raising €100,000 from 100,000 kisses.

The project has gone on to tour the world, raising almost a million euros for good causes. In another more self-generated project we saw a Kickstarter project he called the Vamp. In essence, a bluetooth audio dongle that resuscitates old speakers by turning them into a self-powered wireless sound system. Despite massive interest, rather than distribute through the high street, Paul opted to run distribution himself, adding on a recycling element to all orders by including free up-cycled junked speakers with every order.

Paul Cocksedge talk at D&AD 2016 featuring The Kiss installation

Paul Cocksedge talk at D&AD 2016 featuring The Vamp speaker

Following some deep questions from Jonathan Wise of Comms Lab, such as “What is it you want to do with your one wild and precious life?” and some heavyweight climate change conference action from Kirsty Schneeberger, we arrived at the highlight of the event; one Trevor Baylis.

Famed for countless inventions designed to help the disabled and, of course, his most well-known innovation, the wind up radio, Trevor was an absolute pleasure to spend time with. He took us on an eccentric journey from his Army days, his stunt double work and time as a circus performing high-dive escapologist, all of which paved the way for his incredible inventions.

“Do what gives you a buzz!” he enthused, along with other gems like, “Art is pleasure, invention is treasure” and the classic line … “What’s more important? Dead sheep in formaldehyde or a paperclip?”

Trevor Baylis at D&AD 2016

“Taking apart is the work of those who cannot construct.”

A true character, a true eccentric and arguably a uniquely British type of genius who left us with the wonderful advice “Chance favours the prepared mind.” He also dropped a lovely comment that is worth bearing in mind when your delicate creative ego has to suffer the slings and arrows of critics…

Sir Paul Smith – My Creative Process

As this represented the design equivalent of the headline act at Glastonbury, the room was absolutely packed as Sir Paul Smith took to the stage. As the living embodiment of his eponymous brand, Sir Paul came across as charismatic and vibrant as his collections. He led us on a journey from humble beginnings, in a three metre by three metre back room of someone else’s shop, to international stardom and general god-like genius status. Along the way he dropped a few pearls of wisdom, the first of which was about slowing down. Don’t just look, look and see. Give yourself a day to think.

Sir Paul Smith at D&AD Festival 2016

He explained that despite living in an always on, ADD world of instant communication – creativity isn’t a fight or flight situation. You don’t need to make snap judgements; let things settle, slow down, sleep on it. If you’re not sure about an idea today, come back tomorrow.

No-ones life is hanging in the balance, but the quality of the idea is. Even the best don’t decide in a split second.

He also advised that staying grounded and humble never hurt anyone. In fact it keeps you more open and makes you a nicer person. And in addition to that, be yourself. That’s what you’re best placed to be. Sir Paul certainly was himself; relaxed, down to earth and honest. Even if the famous Paul Smith signature isn’t really his writing, at least he admitted it. And finally, as his characteristically good humoured ‘coat of arms’ states, “never assume.”

Annie Atkins – Designing For Films

Annie Atkins was an amazing way to round off the event. An absolute pleasure to get a peek behind the curtain of her design for film, and a special treat for a movie fans. The primary focus of this talk was around her stellar work on Grand Budapest Hotel, but first we were treated to a brief jaunt through previous projects and working practices. From quirky fantasy animation in Boxtrolls, to Spielberg’s cold war thriller, Bridge of Spies and back in time to gothic horror mash-up Penny Dreadful, Annie was responsible for the look and feel of any ‘designed’ props and background elements. These ranged from matchboxes and sardine cans to period subway signage and even Victorian stained glass theatre awnings.

Bridge of Spies signage by Annie Atkins discussed at D&AD

She meticulously researches, recreates and often originates highly accurate and convincing versions of just about anything the script requires. Interestingly, in this modern age of computer generated design and typography, Annie has a very strict rule on when she does and doesn’t lean on her Mac. She says, “If there was a machine that existed in the period that the film is set, that could have been used to generate the item, then I will use a machine. If not I do it all by hand.” Annie believes that turning to computers too soon in the process results in an artificial feel, even if you use ‘period fonts’ you can still tell.

Ultimately, computers will be used at some point to digitise certain elements, but initially if was done by hand, she does it by hand. This in itself already hints at the attention to detail that goes into her work, but when you factor in the need for multiple ‘back-up props’, all of which need to be identical, you start to get an idea of the obsessive nature of this work.

Penny Dreadful set discussed at D&AD by Annie Atkins

Her work is a curious paradox because in many ways if she is doing her job properly you shouldn’t notice it, you should just simply accept it as part of the world you are watching. It should support the story and make the fabric of the film more believable.

In one instance she showed us a handwritten letter that was torn up, stained with blood, crumpled, then put back together with Sellotape. She had to duplicate this seemingly unique, almost random collection of elements no fewer than 30 times for back-up props in Grand Budapest Hotel, because the letter was destroyed onscreen and they needed multiple takes.

Annie Atkins talks at D&AD about Grand Budapest Hotel props

In one particularly nightmarish scenario, Annie told us about the iconic (and now infamous) MENDL’S Patisserie box she created for Grand Budapest. Or should that be MENDL’S Pattisserie? Annie received a call from Wes Anderson to inform her of a small error, she’d misspelt Patisserie, adding an extra T during her hand lettering. Certain that she hadn’t, and sure of her attention to detail, she argued the case. But on closer inspection, it turned out she had.

The problem? They’d printed over 3000 boxes and shot all of the scenes with them in. Of course these days “Fix it in post” is an easy phrase to throw around, but all post incurs cost, which wouldn’t be so bad if the box only featured once or twice.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Annie Atkins talk at D&AD discussing Grand Budapest Hotel props

It was easy to like Annie, she was open about the odd mistake and even took a sort of perverse pleasure in highlighting some of the prop ‘goofs’ that had been spotted by the insanely eagle-eyed fanatics on IMDB. How many people can say they studied Hitler’s calling card while designing a business card for a fascist character in a Wes Anderson movie?

All in all, a fascinating and fitting end to a great three days.

Key takeouts from Friday

1 – Houston, we have a problem.

Think about the moonshot style result for each project. It might not be attainable, but in trying you may get a lot further than you would otherwise.

2 – Rules can be a good thing.

Setting yourself certain rules and constraints can often force innovative solutions and workarounds. Having a prescribed framework or working process, no matter how idiosyncratic, will help you get going on a project and may even lead you to unique style.

3 – Stay humble, never assume and be yourself.

Much like the famous W&K doorman’s advice to “Walk in stupid every morning”, keeping an open mind is deceptively simple advice; it’s hard not to become jaded, tired or led by ego in an industry where people look to you to magically pull beautiful concepts out of thin air on a daily basis. But nevertheless, open minded and humble is the best way to be. There is always more to learn, nobody knows it all and as Trevor Baylis says, “Taking apart is the job of those who can’t construct.”

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