One of the things I do is serve on the council of Unitec Institute of Technology, and last night I as privileged to be asked to speak at Gradfest – our annual celebration of great work and achievement by design and creative arts students. 

Thank you for inviting me to say a few words, share in your success and drink the beer your hard work and the hard work of your teachers has earned tonight

I’ve been thinking for a while about what to say tonight… about what design and creativity mean, why it matters, what it is

I was at a talk last night at another tertiary institution, given by one of the most clever people in the world… and he has a Nobel Prize to prove it. That’s pretty clever.

He talked about his work using lasers to cool caesium gas, slow down its atoms and make its movement easier to measure, which makes it possible to make incredibly accurate atomic clocks… the best of which are now accurate to within one second over the entire life of the universe

It was an impressive talk. There were demonstrations, stories, lots of liquid nitrogen and even prizes

But all I could think about was the design of his first slide

It literally stopped me in my tracks. Derailed me. I don’t even know where the train went

Bad design can do that

I shouldn’t have remembered his slide…. For bad reasons but not for good ones either

I think in a way good design should be a bit invisible. Good design doesn’t get in the way of the story, or the purpose, or the idea

A great chair isn’t one that people look at and go wow, that’s a great chair. It’s one they sit in for three hours watching a Peter Jackson movie without getting a sore bum

A great painting isn’t one that just demonstrates amazing technique, or understanding of colour and composition. Although it could and it might.  It’s one that makes people cry, or turn to God, or look out the window at their own landscape in a completely new way

A great beer bottle isn’t for looking at; it’s for drinking out of

Good design isn’t done for its own sake

I should point out here that while I’m a creative director…. Which I sometimes sum up as taking a good idea and adding that final 95%... I’m not a designer, I’m a writer

I’m a writer, when I think design I often think about typography. For some designers, type is the stuff that if you squint your eyes in just the right way it makes pleasing blocks of grey on the page. For the reader, though, it’s the point.

One of my heroes in type design is a guy called Denis Glover. He was a New Zealand poet, war hero, alcoholic, boxer, publisher and typographer Your parents may know his poem The Magpies. Here’s what Denis said about typography, and I like to think it applies to design in general. After five (beautifully designed pages) discussing at length the choices a designer can make when it comes to type faces and how they are displayed on the page he ended with this one thought:

The best type is the type that is never noticed

The best type is the type that is never noticed

The best design, the best creativity, the best art is the stuff people never even see as design, creativity or art. It does a job. It makes life better. It gets an idea across.

This isn’t decoration, or arts and crafts, it’s essential and important. Design, creativity, art… help people live better lives, make ideas move faster, make machines work better. They make money, they save lives, they change the world.

Anything else is just colouring in

But you know that better than I do. You’ve spent years of your lives studying this, doing this, working with New Zealand’s best teachers, having your thinking challenged and challenging them back. That’s an awesome commitment and you should be proud

Your parents and whanau should be proud too… because you’re not going to spend your lives just working in this city or this country or this world; you’re going to spend your lives changing it, improving it, making it work better, making an impact that might not be noticed but will be felt

And maybe if you have an eye for typesetting you might want to give my Nobel Prize winning physicist a call before he leaves the country

Thank you again and congratulations. Enjoy tonight and enjoy Gradfest. Then go out and change the world

(Also, if you're reading this William D Phillips... you have a Nobel Prize. Your PowerPoint can be as shitty as you like! Loved the lecture, thank you.)