Speaker spotlight: Christopher Murphy on the designer as ‘orchestrator’

Chris Murphy1

As the role of designers has changed dramatically over the last three decades, how do you keep up?
Keeping up in this industry can be incredibly challenging. The landscape is constantly shifting, and it seems like new tools are introduced almost daily. Whilst ours is an incredibly exciting industry to work in, it can feel incredibly stressful to keep up.

The idea of ‘unicorns’ — who know everything about everything — is, I think, potentially very damaging. I think it’s important to note that no one can know everything.

Of course it’s essential to have a broad awareness of what is possible and the tools one can use to realise ideas, but I believe it’s important to know one (two, or three) things well.

My focus as a designer has always been centred around just one thing: design. Learn the principles and they will stand the test of time.

And as an educator, how do you decide what to teach to your students?
The complexity of our industry poses a considerable challenge to students as they try to establish a focus and a passion. I think one of the key roles of an educator is to act as a navigator, showing students the way. If the students are committed, they take the map you’ve provided and choose their own adventure.

I see education as a design challenge. As my mentor, Alan Livingston CBE, put it: “Christopher, you’re a designer of minds….” I passionately believe that good educators are designers of minds and I’ve shamelessly stolen and used this quote from Professor Livingston often.

Educators, especially in our industry, are often accused of being out of touch with industry. That is certainly true of some educators, but my team — who are incredibly talented — are still makers. They share what they are learning in their day-to-day work with our students. That ensures that what we are teaching is current.

In addition to my consultancy, I also undertake a lot of experimental side projects, helping to push boundaries. Not so long ago, I designed a typography publication for BERG’s Little Printer. Though Little Printer sadly died, the project gave me some insight into the emerging world of designing for connected products, an area I now teach as an integral part of my Interaction Design degree programme at Belfast School of Art.

Education should be drawn from hands-on experience. I have no time for educators who teach the ‘theory’ based on years-out-of-date knowledge.

Little Printer

You’ve recently given a workshop in Saudi Arabia. How does teaching differ over there?
I’ve actually run a number of workshops in Saudi Arabia. I’m working in partnership with a lovely company called JODAYN and hope to work with them more on further workshops, which I’m currently developing.

I wouldn’t say my teaching differs in Saudi Arabia. What I’m teaching is broadly similar to what I deliver at Belfast School of Art and at conference workshops. There are, however, a number of significant cultural issues that I’ve had to inform myself about.

I was born in Hong Kong, I grew up in Scotland and I had my first design job in Canada, so I’m used to the shifting demands of different cultures. I love meeting new people from different cultural backgrounds, it can be incredibly inspiring and it opens your eyes to the world.

The workshop participants that I’ve worked with in Saudi Arabia are incredibly courteous and attentive, and I’ve very much enjoyed my time there. I hope to return soon.

What are the first steps in turning a (design-led) business idea into reality?
Firstly, I’d give it a name. (If it’s a service business, maybe that’s your name?) Having a name is incredibly important.

Once your idea has a name, you can really get behind it and share it with others. “I’m currently working on ________. It’s a ________.” Even if your name is a working title, call your idea something. Do that and it starts to feel real.

Secondly, I’d suggest using a service design tool called ‘Tomorrow Headlines’. Tomorrow headlines are incredibly useful for helping you to distill your vision down, so you can share it with others.

Lastly, I’d start thinking about your business model. I believe designers deserve to be paid, preferably handsomely. If you’re trying to turn an idea into a reality, you need to consider how it will pay the bills. There are many models — an upfront fee, a tiered pricing strategy, an ongoing subscription model… Find the one that’s right for you and establish if it’s viable.

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that and it would be remiss of me not to offer a little more advice. I’m passionate about helping startups, so I’m more than happy to offer a free copy of my first Tiny Book Start! Stop Procrastinating and Pursue Your Passion to help others get started. Just use the discount code PLUTO and you can get it for free.

Chris Murphy2

What are the best ways to raise awareness of your brand and cut through the noise? 
It’s an incredibly noisy world out there and we’re bombarded with messages 24/7. Your business might be a service or a product, but above all it’s a story.

Stories are everywhere. We can learn through stories, we’re entertained by stories, and our lives are lent meaning when stories lie at their heart. To build a business that lasts and provides value, we need to look inside ourselves and identify the stories that drive us.

We are all individuals. We all have stories that matter to us. The secret to building a business that matters to others is to identify these stories and build around them. When we do, we find ourselves no longer creating products or services, but stories.

People buy stories by people.

Whether it’s through social media or a website, it’s important to share your story. You might just have embarked upon your business adventure, but that doesn’t mean to say you can’t tell others about it. Tell your story from the heart and you’ll begin to cut through the noise.

What’s the next book in your Tiny Books series going to be about? 
The next book — which has been in the pipeline forever! — is about ideas and where they come from. It’s called ‘Eureka! Unleash Your Creativity by Building an Idea Factory’. I have a first draft written, I just need some (elusive) time to finish it.

It explores where ideas come from and dispels a few myths of innovation along the way.

With the right toolbox in place, ideas are easy to come by. It’s the execution of those ideas that makes the difference between success or failure. In the book I provide a set of tools that allow you to create what I call an ‘idea factory’.

I can’t wait to finish the book and the accompanying materials. I think it will prove helpful to others.

You seem to be a never-ending source of life-hacking advice (see your recent articles for SuperYesMore or 24 Ways). What are your favourite techniques right now? 
Heavens! My resources are ever-shifting. I read a great deal and that reading informs my thinking. I also write a great deal, now in a monthly series on ‘The Design of Business’ for net magazine.

I believe a good writer is a good thinker. Writing helps you to clarify thinking and it keeps your mind sharp.

It’s worth noting that when I was at school I was awarded an ‘E’ in my A Level English. I spent all my time focused on Art as a subject and my English suffered as a result. A few years after leaving school I saw the error of my ways and taught myself to write.

It’s never too late to learn and I’m hacking my life all the time. If I had one piece of advice it would be: Say yes and worry later. I’ve learned so much by just saying ‘yes’. A client: “Would you like to help us on this new connected product?” Me: “Yes!”

If you say yes, you’re going to have to learn what you need to know to deliver. You’ll learn a great deal of new knowledge and find your life is changed as a result. It’s a win win.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received yourself?
I’m going to cheat and repeat what my mentor Alan Livingston told me a number of years ago: “Christopher, you’re a designer of minds….”

Until that point I’d never considered education as a design challenge. Of course, Alan was right (that’s why he has a CBE).

Education has huge potential to change people fundamentally, altering the trajectory of their lives. Understanding that is incredibly empowering. When others parrot: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I want to take them to one side and firmly, but politely inform them that they are sorely lacking in intelligence.

I love teaching and I’ve loved my time at Belfast School of Art, but I feel that education needs to move beyond universities.

Universities are archaic institutions that move at far too glacial a pace and are, sadly, burdened by ridiculous politics. I’m more than a little tired of the politics, which — frustratingly — impedes what should be the core focus: changing lives.

There is huge potential to disrupt education and I believe that disruption needs to take place. Watch this space.

You’re not only an educator, mentor and writer, you’re also an active designer. What are your favourite tools and why? 
My primary tools are pens and paper. Tools change (in this day and age increasingly rapidly). Understanding how to communicate through drawing, however, is a skill that will stand the test of time.

Look at Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks. They’re hundreds of years old and they are still incredibly potent.

If I could suggest one area to develop skills in, it would be drawing. When I meet a client, I always bring a sketchbook and I usually find that the answer to their problems lies in my initial sketches.

Tools like Sketch, InVision and Keynote are — of course — important to me to convey a higher sense of fidelity, but if I had to choose, it would be pens and paper every time. Don’t just take my word for it, Khoi Vinh’s research on this speaks volumes

Why has Belfast such a vibrant web community?  
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Andy McMillan. His vision — establishing Build — really helped to put Belfast on the map internationally and without that conference we wouldn’t be where we are today.

I still remember meeting him many years ago when he outlined his plans to me. I thought he was crazy, but I admired his ambition.

His single-minded sense of purpose and his ruthless attention to detail saw Build move from taking eight months to sell out in its first year to selling out in a mere one hour and eight minutes in its third. That alone is evidence of the impact of Build, not just locally, but further afield.

I was sad when Andy decided to move to the United States, and I thoroughly miss our conversations over a pint or two of Guinness in The Duke of York.

I have, in a small way, tried to build on his legacy, helped by an intensely passionate community.

I feel incredibly fortunate to live in Belfast, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. Though I’m not from here, I’m proud to call Belfast my home.

What can people expect to take away from your talk at Pixel Pioneers?  
I hope they’ll leave the talk inspired and ready to conquer the world.

We’re fortunate to be living in an incredibly exciting time and — though our industry is accelerating forwards, headlong — the opportunities it presents are nothing short of incredible.

I’ll be talking about the tremendous opportunities that we have as designers living and working in a ‘connected era’. The future, where we design increasingly complex interactions between hardware and software, is full of potential and I’m excited to be exploring that potential.

I’ll share a vision for the future that I believe is within our grasp, if we choose to reach for it. I’ll lay down a challenge to us all — as designers, as builders — to use our skills to effect change and, in so doing, shape and transform the world we live in.

Christopher Murphy will open Pixel Pioneers Belfast on 16 November. He will be followed by Harry Roberts and Eva-Lotta Lamm (who will also run workshops on Front-End Performance and Sketching Interfaces on 17 November), as well as Laura Elizabeth, Una Kravets, Sharon Steed, Sareh Heidari, and Chris Armstrong.

Tickets are still available, but workshop spaces are limited — reserve yours now. 

Photography by David Pauley.