Liveblogging a presentation at @media2007 London by Jon (not typically pronounced Yon) Hicks

Jon took the stage at 2007.06.08 09:35.

Is one-half of a creative partnership, Hicksdesign, with his wife. Designed Firefox and Thunderbird logos. Quotes Mr. F (Norm): “How do you do it? How do you get the ideas to a actually design something?” Well, I said to him, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. But that’s not really true or I wouldn’t be filling an hour of your time this morning. There’s lots of parts of the design process – typography, grids, colour – but a lot of those things are kind of the end of the design process. But how do you get started?

(Runs quote from Jason Santa Maria about designers being visual leeches.) You’re never switching off. Ben Terret: “You can’t stop looking at things through your designer eyes.”

Now: Visual leeches? Sounds a bit parasitical. Creative magpies? That sounds like a bad funk band. Visual vampires? Not gonna work. But then I realized that “creative sponges” works. What do we do with creative sponges? We collect creative juices. That’s as much as the metaphor is gonna be stretched this morning.

Three stages of the creative sponge:

  • Collect
  • Catalogue
  • Create

What do we collect and where from? Not necessarily inspiration and isn’t necessarily ideas. We’re collecting ingredients, fuel. This is what drives you to be a designer. Not something you have to learn or are born with; it’s something that you do. The temptation here is to collect only good design, but everything you collect has a relevance later on.

Sources to collect from:

  • Observing life. (Shows streetlife sketches by Khoi Vinh from SXSW.) They’re really simple lines.
  • Collecting books. (Shows ancient Penguin paperbacks.) They’re very iconic; they’re a design classic; good examples of grids and typography; and you can get them for about 20p each.
  • Collecting magazines. There’s been a problem in the last few years of repeating the mantra that the Web is not print, and we’re in this mindset now of never looking at print before doing the Web, and I think that’s a shame. Especially Sunday-supplement-type magazines give you great ideas for callouts, sidebars, quotes, headers.
  • Found typography. You’re always stopping to take pictures of signs or an S on a wall made of iron, or an old Music Boy transistor radio. Fortunately, I have a partner who is a designer and is very understanding. All of these have different styles that can be used later on.
  • Stuff off the Internet. Everything is already is an image; all you have to do is drag and drop it. Kate Moss logo by Michael Johnson; Veer; Print & Pattern.
  • Freebies. Shows House Industries schwag, T26. And I would like you to know that Veer never sends me anything.
  • T-shirts. Threadless. Ready-made colour schemes.
  • Leaflet racks. Does anyone else get excited about leaflet racks? They’re the all-you-can-eat buffet for the creative stylist. Don’t just take the things you like; take everything. You never know when you’re going to need this stuff. It might be bad design, but you might get a project where you have to make it look like a bad leaflet.
  • Clothing labels and tags.
  • Packaging. (Shows Dorset Cereals using American Typewriter.)
  • Photos that go wrong. (Shows long-exposed motorway photo with wavy taillights.) Just because you like the result of it.
  • Photos using other objects. (Shows photos resembling telegraph wires that actually was taken through a beer glass.)
  • Doodles from your head. You’ve got a lot of stuff in your head that has nowhere to go until you get a call from a marketing department or a client who doesn’t quite know what they want, and that’s when this stuff comes out.

The one thing I don’t collect is Web sites – almost, at least. The temptation is to look at Web sites for inspiration to design other Web sites. Same for logos. I’ve talked to other Web designers; it doesn’t work.


  • A sketchbook is what you’d expect most designers to use. (Shows Rob Weychert.) But they’re full of client work sometimes. Rob uses Letraset in his Moleskine. Simon Collison used to keep wonderful sketchbooks; he’s too lazy now. Paintings from real life, notes, photos of art installations with written notes.
  • Binders. Too time-consuming, so I just put everything in a box.

But except for the binder, there’s no easy way to get these ideas out again. He uses iPhoto. Puts photos in multiple scrapbooks, like tagging. Veerle uses Yojimbo. But the killer app for the creative sponge is Flickr. For the first time, people’s design collections are going from these personal squirrelled-away things to being public and accessible to everyone, including in pools. (Shows Typophile group. Pictograms and Public Space Typography. Ron Turner Cover Collection, a British illustrator.)

Create: Peter Blake, album-cover artist, collects from second-hand stores, then rearranges the objects to create art.

The fear: The blank piece of paper.

Creative catalysts, not based on our design collections:

  • Deadlines.
  • Change your environment, as by going for a walk or a drive.
  • Go to bed.
  • Peace and quiet: “(go for a wee).” It’s a bit like preparing for nuclear war: Pack the loo with magazines and leaflets and such.
  • Take a shower.
  • Brainstorming/mindmapping.

“Critique it”: Don’t just collect the stuff you like. (Shows original bid logo for London 2012 Olympics. Shows new one. Then shows submissions to Daily Mail Olympic-logo-redesign contest from punters, which are mostly worse.)

Moodboards. Flowery shirts? (I CAN HAS MOODBOARD?) Starts with blank sheet. About two months ago, I started having that itch again to redesign my Web site. Like what Andy Clarke said about making something look British. I’d really like to have a British theme on my Web site that doesn’t play up on things like the British empire or colonialism or any of the bad stuff we used to do, but things that to me make me feel British. (Shows telephone box, the Queen, Britpack “pants,” Malarkey/mod target/RAF roundel, bobby, Penguin, Sgt. Pepper, The Italian Job’s red Minis, Johnston font for Underground.) The red, the royal blue.

But somebody else might produce green things (for the same theme of Britishness – gardens, trust logos, Wellies). That’s what’s great about moodboards.


  • Helps you and the client to concentrate on the concept or mood. Avoids “I can’t visualize that. Is this finished or rough?”
  • Stimulates conversation with stakeholders, a term I used to hate before.
  • Quick to make.
  • Clients can make their own.

With your design collections, spot design patterns. What you’re designing may already have a design pattern or convention associated with it. (Shows Chris Messina’s collections of screenshots.) With iconography, as Cederholm said, it’s best not to go against design patterns.

Sampling colours. Photos that went wrong are a fantastic way of generating colour schemes, particularly for me who has problems with colours.

(Shows painting in gallery in Austin, then similar interlocking curves on top of his camera. Shows T-shirt with text on a slant in white, ochre, pink. Used those in a Web site.)

“Soak up everything. You never know when you’re going to need it.”

Ends 2007.06.08 10:14.


  1. Q. from man: Do you still keep a sketchbook?

    A. Yes. I spurn Moleskines for being too expensive and too pretentious. (Demonstrates landscape hardback that fits nicely below a keyboard, has pockets in the back.) Just feels great to draw in. And it’s my favourite pencil as well. Sometimes it can feel time-consuming maintaining a sketchbook, but it always pays dividends. It’s almost like the fear of a blank piece of appear when you start a new sketchbook – the first page is going to be crap! You have to get over that fear and just start using it.

  2. Q. from man: Why don’t you collect Web sites?

    A. If I’ve gone to other Web sites for inspiration, what I’m creating is an exact copy of a Web site. I would never have gotten the idea of slanting text from another Web site, but I did get it from a T-shirt.

    — They already are solutions in themselves. You just re-create the same.

    — That could lead on to design patterns, and there are some times when it’s right to copy something and follow conventions that make it easier for the user.

    — I find that some of the inspiration is also drawn from other Web sites for some problems.

    — If you’re designing a shopping site, then you probably would go to a shopping site to see how they do it. And record what they do as the critiquing part. So in those instances where you’re trying to display information in a particular way, you would look at design patterns. But for the look and feel, I wouldn’t necessarily go to a shopping site.

  3. Q. from man: How much thought do you give to technical considerations when doing a design?

    A. If you’re one of these designers that only ever does comps and hands them off to someone else, you don’t have a technical feel. but if you’re like me and you do both sides and you do the HTML and CSS, you’re always looking at things and saying that’s going to be an h1, that’s going to be a div, that’s going to be an ordered list. But I always start with the design: Is this going to work? But I would not think about the technical stage initially. Doing something and finding out how I can do it later, and if I can’t do it, I have to rework the design.

    — Designers with a more technical bent are at a disadvantage because they have that hanging over them?

    — No, I think it’s a good advantage. These things do have to be practical, and there is so much to consider. Sometimes I get designers’ comps at 300 dpi in CMYK, and it’s obvious they want everything to be an image (in the final job).

  4. Q. from man: Colour choice. I can choose colours in a room for decoration, but I struggle with colours for Web sties.

    A. I’m always asking my wife, Does this colour look good? You often don’t have to have thing said to you, because the face tells you all you need to know. If I didn’t make it clear from the start, I’m red/green colourblind, which makes choosing colour schemes difficult. [Inaccurate paraphrase: Colour schemes may or may not work for him, but they can work for his wife.] Kuma, an Adobe site for developing colour schemes. Part of that’s fashion as well – brown and pink is quite in at the moment.

(Scribe was tired and stopped writing at 2007.06.08 10:26.)

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.06.12 17:30. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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