Creative Social went to have a chat with Daljit Singh, founder of Digit, Executive Creative Director at Conran Singh and sketcher of beards…
CS: How did you get to where you are today?
Daljit: I studied Graphic Design at Nottingham Trent University. After graduating in 1991, I went to work for IBM as an Interaction Designer. Two years into the IBM job I decided that actually the next thing to do would be to set up my own business, and that was when Digit was born. From its inception, Digit grew to about twenty people in the first five years. We were in Soho to start with, and then after Soho we moved into East London and were one of the first companies in Hoxton Square. In 2005 we sold and became part of WPP, so in total I ran Digit for about fifteen years. I left in March 2010 and thats when I started Conran Singh.
CS: Why was Conran Singh created?
Daljit: The Conran Group is run by Terence Conran, they’ve been around for almost two decades and the businesses include the Conran Shops and the Conran restaurants, of which there are about thirty around the world. There is also a publishing arm to the business, called Conran Octopus, and then there are the actual design studios which are based just behind the design museum. Within those businesses there are Conran and Partners, which is an architecture and interior design business with about sixty people in the practice doing jobs all around the world. There’s Conran Studio which is product design and branding. There is also Conran and Company, which is involved with product developing and licensing. The one thing which they have never had was a digital division. I started speaking to them and they asked if I would be interested, and here I am a year on. It seemed like the right thing to do and quite an opportunity, so I guess that’s the straightforward reason for it being born.
CS: What work have you been involved with that you are most proud of?
Daljit: Throughout my career there have been lots of things. I suppose some of the highlights have been in the Digit years. The stuff that I have always been very passionate about is R&D. I think Digit was one of the very first companies to really invest in doing research and development. We developed lots of our own projects, non-commercially, which ranged from looking deeply at interactive design and seeing what you can do with interaction on screen, and then physical interaction, which lead to some really interesting commercial projects. We did the redesign of the Habitat site many years ago which at the time was very groundbreaking. In more recent times, some of the physically interactive work that we did for Motorola has been really interesting. There’s also a project for the National Gallery which we did in collaboration with The Partners, it won a Black Pencil at the D&AD awards, I am very proud of that.
I think now, being with Conran, I am really looking forward to applying a kind of design sensibility back into what interactivity really means. There are a number of very interesting things we are doing at the moment, none of which I can talk about. Its fascinating because it is maneuvering away from straightforward marketing and advertising, into the realm of actual design and solving problems, and that is very exciting in terms of what the future holds. More importantly, I think our clients are very interested in that kind of attitude, they need it for their business.
CS: You have been quite heavily involved in education throughout your career. If you could change anything in the UK education system what would it be?
Daljit: I think we need less people. Design education is suffering at the moment, in some cases there are over one hundred people in a year group. There are simply too many students, which is a problem because there just aren’t enough jobs. I would have less students in classes because that way you are able to concentrate on solving a particular problem in a particular way. Less students would mean they have more chance of actually getting something at the end of it. In terms of interaction design, it’s so new that I think being able to teach or study it requires people from industry to be involved. Close collaboration is really important. So, I think there’s an issue of size and scale, and I think with newer design disciplines it’s equally important to be able to teach people the kind of fundamentals of what design is, above and beyond new techniques and using software. Understanding an idea, understanding how that idea functions, so when you leave as a graduate and you go out there with your portfolio of work it has got something that is different in it, as opposed to the same as everybody else.
CS: What majour changes, in your opinion, can we expect to see in the Digital Communications industry in the next ten years?
Daljit: That’s a big question. I think the multi-platform world will become less multi-platform. We will be doing much more than we already are on the move, as opposed to being tethered somewhere. I think there will be a significant change in our notion of entertainment and the way that we view it. Look at television and you can see this is already happening. Up until now it has always been in the corner of your living room, this is fundamentally changing. I think our engagement with information will become simpler because we will get rid of all of the noise that is in the market place at the moment. I also think that strong, creative ideas will have to become more prevalent and more important to cut-through, because I think that brand and business can only survive where they have a very strong notion of what they’re trying to say and what they are trying to talk about, and actually the technology will need to become better designed. Apart from looking in a crystal ball I don’t think I can do anymore than that!
CS: The title for the last CS Presents was: “Creative Looting: Whose Idea is it Anyway”. What have you stolen?
Daljit: I once stole a packet of chewing gum when I was about eight years old, but I ended up going back to the shop the next day and paying for it because I felt so bad.
I think we all, in some capacity borrow from other disciplines. Originality as a notion is not true. Everything, generally, is taken and interpreted in a different way. I wouldn’t like to say I have ever stolen anything creatively, I don’t think I have, but like every other designer we interpret stuff in different ways. The Motorola Motoglyth project is a good example. It was a digital spray-can we made that sprayed light into glass. That was stolen, other people stole the idea, in fact lots of my ideas have been stolen by other people. You could argue that a spray-can that sprays with light is not that different to a spray-can that sprays with paint? No, it’s not, but you’re reinterpreting. The idea of looting, sounds a bit like being in a riot, smashing your way in and taking something, but actually it is about interpretation. We all interpret stuff in lots of different ways all the time, you can’t help it – as designers we are like magpies, we’re always picking up stuff and reinterpreting it in different ways.
CS: What is the most interesting thing that you’ve seen recently?
Daljit: I’ve been obsessed with beards recently, so I’ve started sketching them in quite large scale drawings. I’m finding facial hair quite interesting, which is slightly worrying, but it has been my obsession for a while now. I think the act of drawing is interesting because it makes you stop and think about things – it’s quite relaxing and you kind of maneuver away from the complexity of different types of communication and the commercialities of messaging and business. It allows you to just stop, think and focus about a crafted act, I find craft very interesting. I find lots of things really interesting, but specifically I think art and what it can do is quite magical.
CS: Are there any buzz-words that you would like to erase forever?
Daljit: Yeah loads. Buzz-word in itself I think I’d like to get rid of because what does it actually mean? I think the language that we sometimes use in the new media, digital, new web 2.0 environment, is actually absolute bollocks, it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. There is a whole language that we use in our industry which is just there to confuse people. We are ultimately still dealing with how we get an idea across, and you should do it in the simplest way. Technology doesn’t help, it’s full of acronyms, phrases and words which are completely made up. I try and stay away from them, they just really piss me off.
CS: What do you think the biggest challenge for the advertising industry is at the moment?
Daljit: Integration is a big problem. I think the way that organisations integrate with other forms of creatively needs to change, the problem is that everybody wants to hang onto their own idea. The way that you come up with those ideas, and the notion that it has to be owned by a Creative Director, is fundamentally changing. I think that the idea of compromise and integrating with the wider team where the skill base is much broader is important.
For me the biggest challenge is the way that some of the traditional advertising businesses are set up, it has to change. There is a new wave of thinking and they have to engineer themselves to follow that.
CS: What has been your biggest learning throughout your career?
Daljit: That’s a good question actually. I think that my biggest learning is that in order to get to a good idea, don’t look in-front of you, look sideways.
CS: As agencies start to look beyond advertising and towards creative business development, do you think they will have to start acting as cultural change agents within their client’s organisations?
Daljit: I think that that already happens. As business faces bigger and bigger challenges, particularly at the moment, I think they look to creative people for new ideas and new thinking. To do that successfully you need to get to the the heart of how you can culturally affect the way that a brand works. Good creative business has always done that but there needs to be a recognition for us to be able to do it more. Creativity in new market economies is really, really important. Where new ideas come from is really important, but then being able to make them happen is also really important. Doing this means understanding the client and the business that you are trying to deal with, as opposed to trying to sell them ideas which make no commercial sense whatsoever. As a creative business I think you have to do that more and more.
CS: What keeps you awake at night?
Daljit: Sleepwalking. I’m an avid sleepwalker, I will often wake up in different rooms.
CS: CS’s new book is called the best piece of advice ever, what piece of advice would you give to somebody starting out in their career?
I think it would be to mentally walk very quickly. Think about stuff and try and do things very fast, stop, think about them, repeat the exercise ten times, and don’t stick with the first thing that comes into your head because invariably that will change. You very rarely get to change tact and move in a new direction once you are into a process. Early on I think it’s worth trying out as many things as possible, but you must stop and think about them. Just have a very good plan and write it down, refer back to it every once in a while and make sure you’re hitting all the goals. This is basically another way of saying do a business plan, but it can be done in a very creative, conducive way, which i think is important.