Amy West graduated from Visual Communication Design in IADT in 2013 and spent three years working as part of the design team for the Web Summit, which she spoke to us about here before. She's come to the end of her time there and has just landed in Amsterdam to begin work at WeTransfer. It's a time of major transition and as such she's reflecting on what she's learned over the past three years and how it has broadened - and maybe even contradicted - what she thought she knew about design on graduating, as well as what it's taught her about the opportunities offered by working in-house. Here are her thoughts...
'Broadly defined, graphic designers are the visual ambassadors of ideas. Their role is to translate, communicate - and occasionally agitate - by rendering thinking as form process and experience.'
- Jessica Helfand, An Introduction to Graphic Design
When I graduated I was faced with juxtaposing ideas of where I needed to work. I tried hard to join a studio, but had perhaps voiced too much of an opinion on design and its purpose to be taken on as a mere cog in their machines. Nevertheless, I needed a job. I spent a year working for the Leprechaun Museum - interpret that as you will. And then I joined the Web Summit.
I travelled the world, learning from and working with an incredibly diligent and enduring team of event producers, designers, sales reps, business developers, engineers and data scientists, content producers, journalists and founders. I watched as they developed a conference and listened intently as I began to understand Paddy Cosgrave’s driving idea - ‘Engineering Serendipity’. They were not just creating conferences, but tailoring gatherings, and algorithmically placing the right people in the right room based on social connections, industries and interests to ignite and create new connections, relationships, ideas and projects. The conference was the meeting ground, designed to allow for this networking, and provide content for inspiration, motivation and ideation.
When I started, there was just a logo, but from working with this incredible team, and understanding the purpose of the product’s existence, I knew it needed an identity. (Anyone would, it was a no brainer. I remember calling my lecturer Dave Smith when I started, freaking out down the phone about how this could possibly be? How can they just have a logo? What am I supposed to do? He told me that if I thought I saw an opportunity to speak up about it, realistically I had nothing to lose. But if there wasn’t one, to bloody bail. So I stayed.)
In first year of viscomm the foundation for everything we would then go on to apply a craft to was imagination. They had us making crows out of hessian and frogs out of pasta. We had to make typograms out of phrases and personify fonts. We had to imagine. Visualise the word supercilious with a colour, a texture, a shape, an image. Create a self portrait out of food. Create a game, and understand what chocolate bar that game would be if it were one. What car would it be. What famous person would it be. We had to understand and analyse every single aspect of any given subject, distill and interpret it, so we could design informed, smart, and beautiful solutions.
By knowing at a very basic level the vast amount of tailored experiences the attendees of the conference receive, my brain wouldn’t let me try and design the solution until I knew how everything worked, and why it was so. From having to investigate, gather and distill every team's requirements, processes and content, not only did it help me map out what needed to be visually designed, but I was able to identify the gaps in the experience. The missing parts of the product that needed to be designed. The conference itself wasn’t the only experience the attendees were getting, there was a pre and post experience too, that, if designed (in every sense) could even improve overall business value for the company. There was an opportunity to enhance the entire experience for any attendee, from the first point of contact to the final wave goodbye. I went on to work with the data science team and the production team to design the most suitable name tag design, the design and production team to produce the most suitable wayfinding system, the engineering team to design the most suitable content management system, and the entire company to then design a visual language that could encompass and enhance this entire experience from start to finish and be applied to 7 different conferences, each with a unique identity, but an underlying visual language to suggest that they were all connected.
I think part of the fear for graduating designers nowadays, or at least it was for us, was that working inhouse has the potential for monotony. Our passion is creating visuals and ideating smart logos, so the new fuels us. But there’s a path that isn’t hugely apparent because it’s only been newly paved, that allows for a deeper dive into the solutions we create. Not only can we design identities for products, but we can help design the product as well. There’s a whole new level of satisfaction that comes from being inside and really involved in the product you’re designing. To see the results, and meet the people you’re designing for, and to get their feedback and develop it and constantly make it better.
'We’re at a point now where an institution or an organisation's identity could be adapted almost infinitely by not just its users but by its audiences to work in different ways.'
- Michael Bierut, How to use graphic design
I got my kicks in college from the problem solving. From understanding every aspect to be able to find to smart solution. The smile in the mind. Web Summit gave me the opportunity to practice that professionally, and gave me a playground to explore opportunities for applying that to every problem I faced while working there. You know the excitement you get when you’re brainstorming with your fellow designers and friends or colleagues, and you come to a solution, and then you get to play with it and apply it to loads of different things and think of smart extensions of that identity when you face a challenge and it just feels so great when you get those slotting together moments? Well that’s timed by 10 when you have a whole company to work with, and you figure out how that same identity and system can be applied to everything they’re working on as well!
I reached a time recently where I began to feel satisfied with my work. I began to reflect on the design I was producing, and I realised that I didn’t need to fit into a studio, that I could find companies whose work I admired and see if there were ways I could help them. WeTransfer is a company I have long admired for their flawlessly designed, simple product. And what’s more, it was created by creative people, for creative people. I got in touch with them recently when I heard they had acquired an entire design studio - PresentPlus - as I was intrigued as to how they had enough work to sustain such an addition to their team. Their plans for the future of what they want to discover and build is exciting beyond belief, and after explaining to them what I can do, and love doing, they offered me a job.
I spent three years working for the Web Summit, and thought it came with challenges that lost me kilos upon kilos of blood sweat and tears, it was the most exciting and influential time for me as a designer, and has vindicated what I so passionately believed as a budding graduate to be the best and most exciting part of our profession:
'Our purpose is to transfer a thought, or a sensation, from one head to another. The bait should suit the fish, not the angler.'
- Alan Fletcher, 2004
Amy has just kicked off her new role at WeTransfer and she will be back with her progress in a few months. Stay tuned to hear how it's going...