Graphic designer Jack Bardwell and I used to be colleagues at the Useful Simple Trust, he bringing alive the many wacky ideas I have had about how to teach people engineering. Over our three years working together we had many fascinating and long discussions together about creative processes and teaching design.

I recorded this episode with Jack last summer just before he left to puruse new adventures in interior architecture. I miss him in this office, so it has been a pleasure therefore to listen his voice in the edit, and to hear the many fascinating things he has to say about his creative process, what he has learnt from working with engineers, and, most intriguingly, the spine-tingling effect other people’s creativity can have on him.

In this episode we get into:

  • Tuning in to other people’s creativity
  • How people express creativity without realising it.
  • The receiver is the context
  • Cooking is design
  • The importance of copying in developing skill as a designer
  • How new skills open up possibilities, too much skill can limit them
  • Using jigs to constrain the creative process
  • How a carefully tuned jig can force a particularly aesthetic on what you create.
  • How you communicate different parts of the design to the client.
  • When is a jig not a jig.
  • Thinking in lists
  • The way information is presented to you is not necessarily the best way for you to look at it.

I’ve got a feeling this going to be one of those episodes I keep coming back to when I need angles for looking at the world. Enjoy!

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More podcasts on Creativity

If you enjoy this podcast then you should check out my interview with JP Flintoff in episode 10 where we get into:

  • Improv games
  • Valuing what you are good at
  • Not losing track of what is working well already
  • The importance of getting started
  • Not worrying about whether it is going to be good.
  • Shared space in the creaive process
  • Why we need to keep noticing

Episode 11 Show notes


  • 00:50 – What it is like work to work as a graphic designer amongst a group of engineers.
  • 1:20 – It’s a humbling experience as the design world can get insular.
  • 1:30 – Design is problem-solving in a creative way.
  • 1:45 – Graphic design can become obsessed with style. Engineers have a logical approach to problem-solving, which has really influenced the way I think about design. It’s more of a processed-based approach, which is the way my brain functions.
  • 2:20 – The value of work when you make something physical. With graphic design, the work can be a lot less tangible, like producing an emotional response, it’s quite hard to measure. This is reflected in a lot of ways that the industry has evolved. The result is people may need to express themselves in different ways, like the way they dress or how they express themselves and the culture that goes around it.
  • 3:50 – Matthew Crawford, the case for working with your hands: plastic jobs, where you shape the world, to virtual jobs, where nothing is shaped. For the plumber, the success is about whether the tap works or not; for the knowledge workers, the success is less tangible, and so perhaps they have to other ways to express their success. Maybe there is something the engineer benefits from [in making something tangible].
  • 5:00 – OB – in our working relationship, it is you who have brought the things to life. The irony for us it is the other way round, I am coming up with the intangible and you are making it real.
  • 5:45 Intereting that in our office it is the graphic designers who have pushed for the installation of a workshop, and not the engineers.
  • 6:22 – The Great Recovery
  • 6:30 – You cannot not communicate (attributed to Paul Watzlawick). The importance of materiality, and how materials communicate. I am constantly thinking back to communication and how is every bit of what you are designing communicating. If you haven’t considered it in the process then you are missing a trick of communication.
  • 7:00 – Super Collider and engineering communication
    8:00 – When different disciplines work together you always see things that one discipline sees as trivial and the other sees as fascinating. That’s why it’s a good way to collaborate, because you will pull out things that you wouldn’t otherwise focus on.


  • 9:25 – Jack thinks we ought to redefine who we think creativity is for. A lot of people are hindered and held back by notions of creativity. He thinks it is much more than that. It can be the tiniest of output that can express creativity.
  • 10:05 – Jack defines creativity as when you can see the workings of a personality or a human. You can see that that is their way of doing something, based on some logic in their head – seeing their logic is amazing, and the more deep that logic is it feels more creative, because I think wow I haven’t seen things like that before.
  • 10:35 – Creativity is an inherently human quality, and that the thought process itself is creative. And it is defined by difference.
  • 10:58 – Everyone’s way of thinking is completely unique. By definition then everyone is creative. By definition it has to be the output of that – we all think, but I think creativity is the output of that thought into a way that communicates with others.
  • 11:27 – It doesn’t have to be about painting. One of my favourite artists, Sol LeWitt, does work that is instructional, which tells you how to create the piece yourself. In his work you can specifically see that it is his mind that is arranging stuff.
  • 12:15 – OB – is there a joy from seeing that creativity in other people?
  • 12:30 Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) – spine-tingling stuff. Jack gets it when he sees someone accessing that part of their brain and they are in flow. When I see if I get a tingle response from other people’s creativity.
  • 15:23 – OB – is there a role for everyone to show their inherent creativity to others? It is about people finding what that is, and acknowledging it, because then it will stop people from saying, I’m not creative. A lot of people are already expressing creativity and they are not acknowledging it.
  • 16:00 – They can be creative in conversation. Making people laugh is a completely creative act.
  • 16:20 – OB I want to raise the role of the person listening to acknowledge the creativity?
  • 16:50 – 1960s psychometric tests of creativity
  • 18:30 – Context is as important as novelty. An existing idea moved in a different context then it is completely different. The receiver is the context in a lot of design.
  • 20:00 – Cooking is a design process. It is a very physical bare-bones example of the design process, where you can see all these decisions being made. You can’t see why the decisions are being made. But you can see the options laid out in front of them and you can see the impacts laid out.
  • 21:20 – Cooking as a design teaching tool. What’s the brief?
  • 22:45 – Working from a recipe or freestyling? You wouldn’t become a top jazz musician without spending most of your time playing other people’s music. You understand what the structures are to communicate different emotions. It is the same with cooking.
  • 23:40 – patterns are important in cooking too.
  • 24:00 – suffuring from not wanting to copy too much. Through a lack of copying, you have less to draw on. Copying gives you a different set of intuitive frameworks.
  • 25:50 – New skills open up possibilities, too much skill can limit them. There is a real balance. In terms of how much knowledge you have of something, at the beginning it really starts to open up the possibilities. Then it gets to a certain point where it becomes a hindrance, where you know too much, and it stops you dreaming of something new, the things that might push that technology, because you know the limitations so you don’t try to push them.
  • 27:50 – If someone says this has to be this slim, and you say we can’t do that with our current technology, and they say no it has to be that slim, you have to think about how the limitations of that technology can be pushed to achieve what the client wants.
  • 28:10 – The realm of limitations opening up possibilities.
  • 28:50 – in the design process I am always categorising things in order to limit my focus because at the beginning it is a whole world of possibilities, especially working in 2D because I can make it look like anything so you have to apply these limitations to yourself.
  • 29:25 – The concept of the creative jig, from Matthew Crawford’s book the World Beyond your Head.
  • 30:30 – Exciting design emerges when the jig can tell a story. For example let’s say the client wants to talk about how sustainable they are. If your jig for the project is that all the materials in the project have to be reclaimed, then that is going to create a very strong aesthetic. And you can make that aesthetic even more refined, and say that all re-used materials have to come from within a one-mile radius. You keep refining the jig until it forces an aesthetic, and that aesthetic communicates sustainability. It is about finding a jig that communicates what you want to communicate.
  • 31:30 – When you say, it is what in the graphic design world we simply call a concept. It is the way that you are communicating an idea. Sometimes it is so you can sell it to a client. If it has been an intrinsic process it is about trying to articulate why it is good.
  • 32:30 – OB – I have the jig as a tool in the process, but you now have it as the output. JB – There are many jigs in your design process that you will use. OB – the sustainable materials jig imprints itself on your output, just as a cookie cutter would, which is also a kind of jig. These necessities are visible in the outputs because they have left their impression.
  • 33:40 – The challenge is when you are motivated by something different than the client. So you have these jigs that you use, but they aren’t what you show the client.
  • 33:50 – Jack mentions our colleague Bengt Cousins-Jenvey
  • 33:55 – Design is a Venn diagram of aligned circles. Each of those circles is a constraint or a goal. The best design is when all those circles can be pushed together, some more than others. But you only communicate a different section of that too different people. So you know that this particular slither of the overlap is important to you, but you are going to communicate a different slither to the client because that is what matters to them.
  • 34:50 – you don’t have to produce lots of different outputs, just many different views of the same thing.
  • 35:25 – when the carpenter uses a jig to create a sharp edge, it communicates that they care about precision. In this case it might be a jig not to use a jig…if you want to communicate rough edges!
  • 36:00 – on Jack’s move from graphic design to interior architecture. This is very much to do with having been influenced by other design processes at the Useful Simple Trust.
  • 36:30 – when I started I had to create an award which was a glass vessel and a magnet and iron filings inside. That is when I had this realisation that I had this concept, and because the concept had something to do with materials, it designed itself. We collaborated with an amazing glass blower and that had a lot of influence in it. It felt like these material constraints really designed it. And so, after I had this concept, everything fell into place. The concept was that it was an arts and business award, when businesses get awarded for funding arts. The idea is you get a trophy, and you put it on a shelf and you forget about it. And you can’t do that with the arts. You can’t just fund it once and forget about it, you have to keep active and keep excited. Jack started thinking about materials that do this: how could you create an award that does nothing until you interact with it.
  • 39:20 – and that led me to thinking about how my design can be influenced by materials. And also seeing that graphics are an important part of public engagement, but spaces are also really powerful. A lot of the work that I have done has been about behaviour change but it has to work in tandem with spaces.

Practical philosophy

  • 40:00 – what Jack does to help him think about things.
    A lot of my approach is written in lists. Jack does lots of words and arrows joining things together. Maybe it is a part of the way of dealing with dyslexia, so I can break content down into an understandable way.
  • 41:40 – Being here I have become better at drawing based in my thinking, and that is important because otherwise using words you can become too intellectual in your thinking.
  • 42:00 – The intellectual scalpel from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  • 43:00 – I really want to understand the project, and get under it, and the writing helps me. Like with that award project, I just wrote down ‘you have an award and it goes on the shelf, how can you make it come alive?’.
  • 43:45 – OB – I used stories to help me work out how to teach maths to people. What happens and why it is happening.
  • 45:00 – The way information is presented to you is not necessarily the best way for you to look at it. You can re-order it. And that leads you to other things, that there is an author, and there is a thought behind why it was laid out in that way.
  • 45:30 – OB – I find it difficult to read recipes.
  • 46:25 – There is a different way to do everything. And you just because it has been presented to you in on way doesn’t mean you can’t change it.