Simon Meek Digital design for humans

  1. Okayso project Goes to Town wins Best Marketing Campaign at the Museum and Heritage Awards!

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    In 2013, my company Okayso helped create a marketing campaign for the Oxford University Museum of Natural History called Goes to Town. In 2015, that campaign has won the Museum and Heritage “Best Marketing Campaign” award. This is the story of how it all came about, and how we approached the campaign.

    A little background

    When your roof leaks, it needs to be fixed, especially if you have a hall of priceless exhibits beneath. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) had just this problem, and needed to shut for a whole year while vital repairs and other renovation work was carried out. All the exhibits on the floor of the museum had to be moved and covered in bubble-wrap to avoid damage.

    All of which presented a problem. If you shut a museum, it has no visitors, and you’re very much out of the public eye. So the comms team at the museum came up with an ingenious plan; take some of those exhibits and send them out into the community for the year as something of an outreach plan, engaging the community with the museum even while closed.

    The museum had the name “Goes To Town” (GTT), along with a plan to develop a “trail” around Oxford town centre to find all the exhibits. Okayso was asked to look at identity work, the website, printed materials and some short films to bring the campaign to life.

    Initial ideas

    Finding the right tone for the campaign was an early challenge. The temptation to do something very “museum-y” was pretty strong. Semi-serious, with classic typography, and lots of shots of exhibits being prepared.

    Then we saw the plan. A penguin in the fishmonger. Edible insects in the coffee shop. A snowy owl in the church. Alice’s animals in the library. Just the choices here made for a very different approach. It was playful, joyous and experimental, and we decided to approach the work in the same way.

    Working with designer Charlie Piggins from Mode of Thought, we embarked on a series of ideas for visually representing the concept. We played with passports, with suitcases and claws. In the end though, a scribble on a piece of paper yielded the final concept.

    Initial concepts for Goes to Town

    The Crate

    The crate creates a narrative. It spoke of moving, but without the anthropomorphic issues of the suitcase and passport. It also had a wonderfully Indiana Jones quality about it, but even within this idea, there’s a multitude of tones to be had. Do you go slightly horror movie or really playful? Above all though: what should be in the crate?

    After tinkering with revealing the beast within, we settled on just a simple solution. An illustrated crate, with a single eye, hinting at breakout. It was playful, with just a hint of menace, but without being overtly scary. This would be our central anchor element.

    But for the crate to work, we need a label, almost as an instruction to the mythical packers. In the end we settled on the idea of a stamp, making the crate a real shipping container. This stamp also doubled as the logo mark for the entire project. Finally, we let the crate’s shadow be that of the exhibit itself.

    From there we worked with OUMNH’s brand guidelines to link the GTT identity with that of the museum. Deadlines were too tight for us to do every poster and flyer, so we created a wide set of design templates that the museum could update themselves in InDesign and print on demand as and when required. Because of the multiple locations of the exhibits, we had templates for signage and posters from A5-A0 in size.

    The Crate concepts

    The trailer films

    We shot two trailer films for the project. The first was a fairly straight “locations” trailer, teasing the places in Oxford that might see an exhibit. The second though really played to the crate narrative, imagining the packing up of a slightly rowdy exhibit in the rarely-seen bowels of the museum.

    This was the crate concept made flesh. Or wood. Sourced from the local reclaimed wood yard in Brighton, the crate made the journey to Oxford for the day’s filming. This was also the point at which the stencil was created for real, involving some very deft, old school scalpel work from Charlie, who also doubled as the beast in the crate making it rattle and shake.

    This is my personal favourite element of the whole project. I love how it all came together, working with designer and client, all of us pitching in to create a really nice mood piece. Scott from OUMNH even wrote and recorded the haunting, semi-Morricone soundtrack for the film.

    The site was a key component to the project. It was how people could find the exhibits and enter a competition for when the museum re-opening. It was designed from a mobile-first perspective, since it was likely that people would be accessing the site on their smartphones while out and about.

    We also integrated audio in the shape of podcasts from the exhibit experts from the museum using Soundcloud players.

    The return

    When it was time for the museum to re-open we shot two more short films to promote that event.

    “Into the light” was a hand made animation featuring some of the exhibits returning to museum, with sets and puppets created by Mo MacNeill. Reprising the music from the crate short, this was a moody but playful intro to the re-opening of the museum.

    The second film, “Breakout”, was a spoof news report from Oxford, creating a rolling news narrative for the animals return. With a script written by Scott, and cameos from several of the museum staff, this was a really fun way to introduce the re-opening date.

    The empty cases feature statements from the exhibits, all of which were given their own identity and written by Scott. The insects, for instance, had formed a something of a 70’s left-wing union for their note. Really lovely attention to detail. We even fashioned a logo for them.

    Lastly, during the editing we created the audio “sting” for the OUMNH news channel. Not as easy as it seems, as I discovered. It’s hard to get the build and intensity right in such a short time period. It’s also worth noting that once you’ve made one of these, you can never take real news audio stings seriously again. They’re genuinely emotionally manipulative pieces of work, designed to heighten excitement and leave you slightly breathless, imparting weight to whatever the news anchor might say.

    Wrapping up

    So, what did we learn from this project? Several things for me:

    A really great client can make a project sing, even though we weren’t working with a massive budget. The comms team at OUMNH are young, hungry and really supported by their management team, and it shows. They’re prepared to try out ideas. muck in and follow them through.

    Collaborative working is great. Partnering up with Charlie from Mode of Thought made all the difference to the identity work (the crate was Charlie’s initial concept), and working with Scott and the team on storyboarding, scripts and music made the films really strong.

    Iteration is really important. There were probably 20 concepts before the crate, and then a further 50 versions of that. Never stop at the first idea.

    Being in control of the whole visual side of the project made for a really joined-up approach, following the tone and identity through print, digital and film.

    The award itself is a nice ending to this innovative and playful project’s story. It’s not the be all and end all, but I must admit it’s a nice feeling to know that all that thought and work from everyone has been recognised.

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  2. What does “professional” mean to you?

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    Another in an occasional series of posting things I wrote for the Elated newsletter.


    I’m beginning to suspect that “being professional” is a movable feast, and means very different things to different people. For some in management, it seems to mean being neat and tidy, toeing the company line, keeping your distance and showing “strong leadership”, whatever that is. Equally, for some designers, it seems to mean practically nothing, beyond owning a MacBook Pro.

    I’ve often felt at odds with both of these extremes, but there is a lot to be learned from basic common courtesy, for example turning up when you say you will, and being nice. This kind of fundamental behaviour should be obvious, and will get you a long way. No-one wants to work with someone unreliable and unpleasant.

    Here’s what I think being professional means in our industry:

    – Be really good at what you do, and focus on doing great work.

    – Listen to what people are saying, and learn to read between the lines.

    – Be prepared to say “no” to bad ideas, but try to do it nicely. Stand up for the users of the thing you’re making.

    – Learn new stuff, and keep up to date.

    – Do stuff when you say you will. If you have a deadline, hit it.

    – Be pragmatic. Nothing ships as perfect.

    – Be flexible.

    – Take time off. If you’re working every weekend, you’re likely to be churning out rubbish after awhile.

    – Don’t have silly creative tantrums, you’re not an artist. If you think something’s wrong, frame it as a business issue.

    – Try not to swear in meetings til the client does it first.

    – Be nice, and show up on time (it’s worth repeating).


    Here’s what it doesn’t mean to me:

    – Being neat and tidy. Anyone who says otherwise is concentrating on the wrong things. No-one’s meeting the queen here.

    – Your hairstyle? No, I don’t care about that either.

    – Owning a MacBook Pro.

    – Always saying “yes” to the client. Or indeed to colleagues.

    – Your sex, race, sexual orientation or class.

    I’d sum this up as “be nice, be really good and be reliable, and forget the rest”, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we should try to blend into our organisations, always say yes and keep our heads down at all costs. What does being professional mean to you?

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  3. Keep your mind open, and your chops sharp.

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    An occasional series where I post some thoughts I’ve written wrote for the Elated newsletter

    With Android finally making the kinds of marketshare inroads promised for years, I recently bit the bullet and bought a tester Android phone. The thinking was along the lines of “you wouldn’t not test your site in IE, so why is jt okay to not test on Android?”. So, I went to the Google Play store, and bought a recently-discounted Nexus 4.

    To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. How good could it be for £159 + shipping? The answer, rather pleasingly, is “pretty good actually.” Sure, the hardware design is pretty unexceptional, and some of Android’s interface quirks rather feel like a small child being taught to use After Effects, but this thing is pretty solid, and the screen’s great. My most important apps are all there (Twitter, Runkeeper, Spotify, BBC iPlayer Radio), and the browser’s fine, with the much-vaunted Android “laggyness” yet to rear its ugly head. Plus, the Android browser’s version of the UIPicker mentioned in my SOTM elsewhere in this newsletter is far easier to use, in my opinion.

    I’m now of the opinion that unless you have a lot vested in iOS apps, or particularly want a champagne-coloured phone, you should just buy one of these. It’s fine. Really. And did I mention how much it costs?

    So, I’ve learned that Android is not the horror I feared it was. Will I be switching to it full time? No. I really do have too many iOS apps for that, but if my iPhone fell in the water tomorrow? I’m not sure.

    In a somewhat related matter, buying the Nexus has reminded me of the importance of keeping up to date with new technology in our business. If you simply ignore the new stuff coming out once it’s reached a critical point, and don’t test for it in your designs, you’re really shooting yourself in the foot. This applies equally to new hardware, software, skills, techniques and ideas. You snooze, you lose, in other words, and as I get progressively more aged (I started making sites in around 1996), that’s becoming more resonant than ever.




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  4. The Continuum: The Connected Web of Art, Business and Love

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    So, I wrote an article for called “The Continuum: The Connected Web of Art, Business and Love“. A wonderfully flowery title, and I do worry that the whole thing makes me sound like something of a smug fool, but I at least find it interesting, and hope that others do too.

    It’s essentially about how I see things, both work and play related, and tracks my career (such as it isn’t) through the prism of interconnectedness.

    Read The Continuum: The Connected Web of Art, Business and Love on Elated.

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  5. Whither Apple’s professional software?

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    In defiance of Apple’s overall corporate strategy, I still use a Mac to do actual production work. That means I use a lot of pro-level software, often produced by Apple themselves. It’s becoming apparent though that Apple really doesn’t care too much about this market, in their drive to shift more consumer-oriented iOS devices. I do realise that this is where their future profits and growth probably lie, but with a significant investment in Apple’s software, it’s important to me that it gets updated.

    Let’s look at the software I use on a daily basis.

    Aperture – three years since the last major update

    This is Apple’s supposedly pro photography app, the companion to the consumer-focused iPhoto. It’s nice, but very resource hungry, and could really do with having some rough edges smoothed out. It was first released in 2005. In 2010, it hit version 3, where it currently languishes. No major updates since 2010? The only thing preventing me moving to Lightroom is the appalling idea of having to move my library.

    Logic – four years since the last major update

    The pro counterpart to Garageband, Logic is used by pro musicians the world over. When, you ask, did this last see an update? 2009. I kid you not. Four years with no significant update. The whole digital audio workstation (DAW) market has moved on significantly in this time. Ableton’s Live, especially, has been updated regularly and is now something of a standard, while really, Logic is feeling very old hat.

    iWork – four years since the last major update

    This is the king of elephants in the room. iWork is Apple’s alternative to MS Office, comprising Page, Numbers and Keynote. This version used to be called iWork 09, because of course it was last properly updated then. Apple have since dropped the “09” part of the moniker, presumably because it’s utterly ashamed at being so tardy with an update. iWork is actually really good software, and I still use it to produce layouts for just about all proposals and other business documentation in preference to the uber-clunky MS Office, but its showing its age.


    For me iWork is where Apple could make the biggest impact. If they allowed you to measure in pixels with better typographic control, they’d have a suite that could be used as a great digital design tool, and with a touch more work on the drawing tools, it could be a rival to Illustrator at the low end of the market.

    Final Cut Pro X (FCP X) – two years since the last major update

    I don’t use FCP X (I use Premiere because it’s part of the Adobe Creative Suite that I subscribe to), but I’m throwing it in because it’s the only piece of pro-level software Apple makes that has seen any love at all in the last three years. That said, it’s coming up to its second birthday in June, with only tiny (albeit important) incremental updates to show for it.

    Maybe Apple feel that for pro software, three or four years is a reasonable gap between updates, but the rest of the pro industry is moving to a more regular cycle, with Adobe on 18-month update cycles, and even Microsoft shifting their business models with Office 365 and yearly updates for Windows. When even they are changing with the times, you know Apple is massively behind the curve.

    So what are they playing at? It’s difficult to feel anything other than that Apple is giving up on the pro market, starving the pro software departments of developers to focus entirely on the iOS side of their business. I can’t help feeling though that one of their strengths is the vertical integration between its pro users (MacBook Pros running Logic and FCP X) and the hordes with iPhones who consume that output. Maybe they feel that this integration doesn’t matter anymore. The fact that they can stop selling Mac Pros in Europe without replacing that model suggests that the pro market is not high on the agenda.

    Unless Apple properly gets behind its own software, and issues a rash of updates this year, I pronounce the pro market dead for them. If that’s the case, they should come clean, end-of-life it all and let us all grieve and move on to pastures new.

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  6. Managing a website? Here’s what you need to know.

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    Managing a website? Here's what you need to know.

    In a new article for Elated, I make several points about what skills you should have if you’re in charge of managing a website. This has been born out of frustration with years of talking people through how to use computers, how to resize an image and how to string a sentence together.

    I suspect it may not make me terribly popular, but take a look anyway, and tell me if you agree!

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  7. Web Design State of the Nation

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    Web Design State of the Nation header

    I wrote a piece over on Elated called “Web Design State of the Nation: One Designer’s Journey“, all about how my workflow and focus has changed over the last 18 months-2 years.

    It covers responsive design, progressive enhancement, mobile and the tools of the job. All these things have changed a great deal for me over the least couple of years. If you’re a bang up to date design whizzkid a lot of this stuff will maybe be old hat to you, but this is an article really aimed at those of us who don’t operate right at the cutting edge, which, I suspect, is quite a lot of people.

    We’ll see, by the volume of cackling youngsters.

    Take a look, anyway.

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  8. 12 months of ideas

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    12 months of ideas

    I have a lot of ideas. Some are, if I’m honest, somewhat far-fetched or desperately impractical. But some I think have legs. I’m never very sure which they are, and mostly, even if they did have promise, I lack the skills to execute them.

    With that in mind, I propose to open up any and all ideas I have for the next twelve months. If anyone out there likes one and can help to do something with it, great. If not, maybe the exercise will help me better formulate these thoughts into something useful.

    The ideas might be small or large, and involve a simple software interface idea, or instead a full business concept. Whatever the scale of the idea, it’ll show up here for public scrutiny and ridicule.


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  9. A Vicinitee Christmas

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    With Christmas just around the corner, my wife and I produced a cute video Christmas message for Estates Today‘s client Vicinitee. Based on my wife’s concept, and Vicinitee’s core strength of software for commercial property, we created a festive gingerbread cityscape.

    The video plays to the idea that Vicinitee create amazing software from raw ingredients.

    Lots of baking, decorating and one cat-related disaster we should draw a veil over later, the finished product is really very sweet:

    There were loads of different skills involved in this:

    • Concept work
    • Sketching
    • Baking
    • Setup & lighting
    • Filming (a Nikon D90 DSLR)
    • Video editing (iMovie)
    • Bespoke music (Logic Express)

    Update: The message is now live

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