Find Better Problems
Last Wednesday night I attended Find Better Problems. Hopefully the first event of many, and a collaboration with Good for Nothing, SheSays & Hacker News London. It was hosted at Sidekick Studios, and was the direct result of a rant down the pub.
I like Sidekick, I like what they do, and what stood out to me when I first heard about them from a tweet linking to this brief article by Johanna Kollman, was that what they do is meaningful. It was great to have received an invite. It was even better because the invite was password-protected and deliciously elusive.
And so I snapped my laptop shut at the end of the day, threw my yellow Kanken over my shoulder and walked through the London downpour (torrential rain currently being a metaphor for July) to Old Street.
Good designers work hard, we spend a set time each week working, we get paid for this time. Design involves a lot of battles and painful processes, testing, validation, fighting a corner, being right but not understood by a business, being proven wrong, being proven right, iterating and refactoring which is all summed up nicely in the main point taken away from this event: “Better problems make the pain count”.
mendeley.com Victor Henning stood on the elephant stand and kicked things off with a quick timeline of his career from student to punk band member, a lucrative but shallow career move to eventually founding and starting up Mendeley (originally in a small office somehow borrowed from Michael Palin, which in itself was a pretty surreal experience). It was hard work. There were some terrifying moments of potentially selling out to VCs or standing ground at the risk of complete and utter failure. But ultimately this was about solving a problem that had meaning to Victor, and this made it that little bit easier to stick with and make the right choices along the way.
Andrew from Greyworld started by speaking about how he grew up in a very musical family. I asked him about this and it was certainly something that had fuelled his creativity and the honesty in his work. The verse didn’t have to be right, the chords might be in the wrong order, but the important thing was that you were taking part. He then went on to talk about how public art is so inaccessible to the public. Who is that statue guy on a horse with a sword? What does this mean to me? How do I interact with it?
I was astonished at the amount of work Greyworld had produced that I hadn’t attributed to them. Some of it I walk past every day. Other projects I’d heard about, this was one of them (sadly the only clip I could find was plastered with advertising):
Ultimately it gave great insight into the world that we live in, how accepting it is of crazy, wonderful and strangely honest things. How people are so willing to turn a large brass key sticking out of a tree. One example was Andrew, dressing up in top hat and tails, walking around Shoreditch with a fake 4 ft long twitching tail and people walking past without a care in the world.
I related greatly to Andrew, experimenting with musical instruments from an early age has taught me a lot about art, design and learning and. like me, he was a self-taught artist (now a lecturer at Goldsmiths).
This was meaningful work, people related to it but it also allowed big businesses to tap into their project output and commission some noteworthy installations/permanent pieces.
The problem is that schools don’t teach code. They teach kids Microsoft. It’s short-sighted and conditions young learners into thinking coding is hard, or for nerdy/mathematical types or maybe even just for grown ups. It teaches them that coding isn’t creative and that computers are about office jobs. Code Club is actively seeking to teach children how to code and they really seem to understand how to do this and adapt along the way.
I could say a lot about these guys, but their video says more than I ever could:
The food was incredible and while we should be grateful that most event hosts provide free refreshments at events that are free, more often than not it’s a bland mix of lukewarm hummus and soggy carrots and you just end up heading straight for the box of wine. But this time it was vastly different. People were talking about the food, which is something that almost never happens.
Rosy briefly spoke about her new venture and how she’d dropped app design and started a new catering venture (RONG Research & Development Laboratories). She spoke about Dark Matter Fudge, being virtually non dairy, low in sugar and salt. I don’t like sweet things. I am really not that keen on fudge. But I tried some of the Salted Whiskey Maple fudge a little while later. This wasn’t just fudge, it was a Rioja, it was a smack in the face with a cask-conditioned oak baseball bat.
Being that it’s a new venture and she doesn’t, as yet, have a site, I’ve no idea how to order the stuff and only managed to do this informally via Twitter. This was testimony to the value of doing something meaningful. Everyone was talking about the food throughout the evening, people were tweeting about it, even though at this early stage it’s not at all practical for the potential customer. Which goes to show, if people genuinely want something they will ask around and find out how to get it.
stef.io Not wanting to labor the food theme, but next up was Stef who was the icing on the cake. “Playfully hacking on things that matter.” No slides, no projector (I even had the honor of switching it off for him, wow!) Stef took quite a humble stance in front of everyone, scriptlessly telling a story as if relating an anecdote to close friends by a fireplace.
He spoke of how a life-threatening illness had led him to want to make sure that every day counted, create something each day, build things that have value and mean something. This has greatly influenced his career.
Stef is a voracious hacker and has created many projects, products and hacks along the way. Some of which he had to let go to focus on others.
The whole evening was laid-back and unpretentious, the room was full of genuinely sincere people, focussed on solving meaningful problems. Hopefully I can attend the next one – if you want to head down I’d suggest signing up for more information.
And of course, while the most important thing I took away with me is that working on something with meaning makes it so much more worthwhile for all parties – the next most important lesson was to reconfirm that the best ideas are formulated down the pub.