Interview: Brendan Dawes

Interview: Brendan Dawes

Following the launch of his Fermata installation at Bruntwood Neo in Manchester, we caught up with digital artist Brendan Dawes to find out more about the process behind his generative works.

Let’s start with some basics: how would you describe what you do? And how does that go down when explaining it to, say, an elderly relative at a wedding?

That’s always a difficult one – I like the explaining to a relative at a wedding analogy – god knows I’ve been there! I think I mostly say “I design things”, which then usually begs the question “what things?” to which I then try and explain a little bit more — “things like large video installations, bits of hardware that connect to the Internet”. At this point I’ve usually lost them and more often than not they make an excuse saying “think I’ll go and take a look at that buffet, nice to see you”.

In all serious though it can be quite hard to explain what me and people like me do, but to be honest I learned to stop worrying about it a long time ago. I’d like to think my work explains what I’m about. At the heart of everything I make is the idea of interactions and reactions – I want to make things that deserve to exist and provoke a reaction from people, maybe help them ask questions about popular culture and how we interact with the things around us.

I’m not into technology or having tech as the the main reason for making something. Instead I’m more into universal themes such as delight, curiosity and beauty. Those things transcend fashion or current trends.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today? Did you have any formal design or technology training?

I’ve never been to College or University having left school at sixteen with mostly grade E qualifications. I found school boring and instead wanted to be at home sat in front of my ZX81 or ZX Spectrum learning how to code and making stuff. School back then had no idea what the impact of computers was going to be – I think we had one computer in the whole school – a Commordore Pet – and it was only allowed to be used by the A streamers, and I was a B streamer. So school was a complete irrelevance to me.

After leaving school I got a job as local news photographer (My Dad was a professional news and sport photographer all his life) and I did that for about two years. I then left that and did a sound engineering course in Manchester and saved up to buy myself an Atari ST and a mono sampler so I could have a go at making rave / acid type records. On that same course was Graham Massey who would then go on to form 808 State. I on the other hand managed to get a deal with 3 Beat music in Liverpool and did a couple of 12″ singles, played what would later become Cream and made £400. I was also making breakbeat albums for Warrior Record in London which never paid any money either. At this point I was broke so I needed to get a proper job and ended up getting a job in a local electronics factory where I stayed drilling holes in fibreglass for eight years. That kind of stuff focuses your mind to be determined to get out of there.


Then I discovered this thing called the World Wide Web and realised that my coding skills such as they were, together with this thing called Photoshop I had been learning via my Dad’s Macintosh 180c laptop might actually be of some use. In 1995 I then found myself in a junior position at a young web design agency called Subnet and over four years rose to Art Director, making websites for the likes of Disney and Club 18-30.

From there I worked in New York for a time working with the legendary Hillman Curtis, authored two books, began speaking at design events and eventually wound up in Manchester as the Creative Director / Director of an agency for ten years.

In 2012 I left to do my own thing and so far it’s been going really well, though I never become complacent about it. I think if I look back at how I got to where I am now it’s been about putting things into the world that I believe deserve to exist – things that might cause some disruption and cause a debate, such as Cinema Redux, The Happiness Machine or Plastic Player. These things act as markers or flags in the ground to say “this is me” which then thankfully attracts clients who want to work with me. You have to put the work out there. Ideas trapped in a sketch book are worthless.

That’s quite a varied career! Your work feels a lot more like “art” now compared to what you were doing in your earlier life. Was that a deliberate shift away from design projects to those that are more experiential?

I think it’s taken some time to understand what I’m interested in. I realise now that my early career was largely about trying to provide answers but actually what I’m really into is creating work that leaves you with questions or at least leaves room for questions. Back then I was often sat in briefing meetings from a client thinking to myself “I really don’t care about helping you sell more boxes of this product”. Eventually I had to be true to myself and try to find a way to do what I wanted to do and still be able to afford a beautiful pair of shoes!

Do you find you reference back to your earlier work, or those skills you developed during your earlier career, as you progress into more experimental fields?

Yes absolutely. If you take the break beat work for example I was finding things that already existed and sticking them together in different combinations to make something new. I think I still do that but the things I’m now sticking together are digital things such as bits of code, data sets or inputs from sensors. I’m not sure it’s really using older skills but more of an overarching attitude or approach to creating things.

It feels a little bit like we hit a saturation point with traditional infographics over the last few years, with a lot of people now creating more emotional rather than functional pieces. Can you tell us about how you use data in your work, and what kind of balance between conveying information and making people feel something you set out to achieve?

I would never describe any of what I do as data visualisation. To me data is a material like any other that I can use to mould into pleasing forms or be the catalyst for an interesting aesthetic. I’ve had conversations with data viz people and to be honest most of the time I have no idea what they’re talking about. My brain is just not wired in that way plus it doesn’t really interest me. I’m unapologetically about creating beauty as I think that speaks to people universally – it’s my main goal and in fact is pretty much always the thing clients want from me.

I often like the idea of layers. If you take Cinema Redux for instance it can be experienced at a different levels. If you stand a distance from it you see it as a whole but then step really close to it and you see what you were looking at is actually tiny frames of a film laid out sixty frames per row at one second intervals. What’s interesting about this work is that the data – the frames of the film – IS the form. There’s no abstraction into another representation of the data. yet was I thinking about this when I was playing around making it? No. I was pursuing how do I get from ugly to beautiful that would fascinate people.

I never use any kind of data visualisation tools. To me these things imply a certain aesthetic and I’d rather make things by hand so they have a me as an integral part of the composition. It’s a lot more work of course but that’s what works for me.

Going a bit deeper into your process, how clear is your vision of the final piece at the start of a project, and what are some of the steps you take to realise that? Do you (or your clients) mind if it veers away from your initial ideas?

I usually have a concept that I’m working to but it’s often more of an emotional sign-post than anything concrete. Kind of saying “Let’s go this direction but we might find some interesting detours along the way”. I play a lot, just essentially making marks, pushing and prodding to see what might happen. They’re things to criticise, for both me and the client, that start conversations. People who have worked with me will know I do a lot of quick sketches, both on paper and rough coded things, often just in black and white so at this early stage we can concentrate on the form of the thing rather than worrying about whether it should really be magenta or something. I once read about a mathematician that managed to solve a complex problem “because he had the innate ability to make good mistakes”. I love that. Good mistakes. I think that’s what I’m trying to find, or at least create something that has the ability to surprise me.

Much of the time I’m creating environments for things or people or both to play within. They’re not finite things but systems that allow for play within certain rules or parameters. If you take the Local Murmurs project I did for Airbnb at The Sundance Film Festival, the system let people submit stories about people in their neighbourhood via SMS which visitors to Sundance could then print out on tiny printers. What surprised me was the depth of many of these stories – really interesting, rich stories appeared over the course of the festival, resulting in a forest of beautifully told tales that everyone engaged in. All I did was create an environment to allow that happen – it was the people and their interactions that made it special.

How hard is it to sell ideas that are fundamentally experimental in their nature to your clients? Do you have any tips, or pitfalls to avoid, for helping clients share your vision?

I would say confidence is really key. Often times a client will say “what will it look like?” and quite honestly at that stage I have no idea. Instead I talk them through my process. I might also show them a previous project and how it went from this weird ugly thing to the finished piece. On that point I think it’s really important to document your process – I’ve now started to make little books that show a projects progress, mainly for myself as a document to remind me of what went into it, but also to show other people too.

The other thing is to actually talk to people, or even better meet them in person – I know it sounds crazy in today’s world but on a phone call or face-to-face you have subtlety and nuance – none of which you have on email or inside a pdf. I’ve lost count of the number of times there’s been a light-bulb moment with a prospective client because we chatted on the phone or met in real-life. Of course in the future clients will probably just be AI bots so I’m making the most of that physical interaction whilst I can.

Speaking of AI… although you say you’re not entirely focussed on tech, you clearly have something of a passion for it. Are there any emergent technologies that you think you’d like to experiment with in the future?

Technology is certainly an enabler and a great mechanism to explore new creative possibilities. I’m currently talking with Gary Hustwit, director of Helvetica, about a VR project we’re going to be doing together. There’s a lot of possibilities within that space with lots of room for “button pressing” to see what might happen or where it can go. At the back of our minds though is always the question why? What does VR bring to this story that can’t be done in a more traditional way? Does it add anything?

Thanks for much for this insight into your world, fascinating stuff. Is there anything you or someone else is doing that you’d like to plug?

Be sure to check out the work of my friend Mario Klingemann. He’s doing amazing stuff with neural networks, were machine learning is creating art. The images are really beautiful and – rather scarily – don’t look like they’ve been made by machine.

Alex Nelson

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