Everything we learned at Google Design’s SPAN Newcastle-Gateshead event


In partnership with

Google Design’s goal is to connect, support, and inspire designers and design technologists.

A few weeks back, It’s Nice That wrapped up warm, jumped on a train and headed north to colder climes at Newcastle-Gateshead, where we joined with Google Design for the latest instalment in their SPAN conference series. For those that don’t know, SPAN is an annual conference about design and technology hosted by Google across a trio of cities. This year’s SPAN had Google Design travelling to Pittsburgh in September, to Mexico City in November, and, for October, somewhere slightly nearer to home — for the It’s Nice That team at least — Newcastle-Gateshead.

Each of the cities chosen by Google Design represents a space where design and technology intersect in ever-evolving, constantly fascinating ways. For SPAN NCL, we set up camp at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art for a workshop and evening presentations from some of the UK’s most sparkling creative talent. The workshop invited 30 guests to explore the North East’s long-standing association with progressive design and new technologies by collecting urban data on the streets of Newcastle-Gateshead with the help of the folk at Newcastle University’s Urban Observatory, Tim Shaw and composer Ed Carter, software developer James Rutherford of creativenucleus and then visualising it back at the BALTIC with the assistance of creative studio Novak. You can read more about this over on the Google Design site where Google will be getting a backstage insight into the process behind data gathering and visualisation.

In the evening we were joined by an influx of excitable new guests and four fantastic speakers: Jimmy Turrell, Ed Carter, Charlotte Gregory and Adam Finlay.

Here, we take you through the take-home points from each of the four talks, so it’s almost as if you were there in person…

Place and time and energy = context

First to take to the stage was Ed Carter, who conceptualises and creates musical compositions and interdisciplinary projects based on their context, laying a particular focus on process.

Talking on architecture, music and light, Ed noted: “I’m interested in how those thoughts can be applied to contemporary practise.” Using the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quote that “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music” as a jump-off point, Ed compared architectural ratios with musical scales before going on to speak about a selection of recent projects. One such was ~Flow, a collaboration with Owl Project, which was commissioned as one of a series of large-scale public art commissions funded by the UK Arts Council on the occasion of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games. ~Flow was a floating mill house moored on the River Tyne which became the home to wooden musical machines powered by a 4.5m waterwheel which reacted to the constantly changing environment of the city’s tidal river. Using wooden electronic music, Ed noted, allowed us to look at our relationship with waterways. Crucially, Ed concluded, his projects demonstrated that place and time and energy equals context.

Affordable studio space is all around — if you know where to look

Next to step up on stage was Charlotte Gregory, director of the NewBridge project. Having lived in Newcastle 12 years, after studying fine art in the city and then staying, Charlotte told the audience that she had became immersed in a community of artists who were growing their careers from the north east, “experimenting and testing out ideas” in a more financially viable city. In 2010, Charlotte told us that she set up artist-led community the NewBridge Project “to provide exchange and support in an engaged and discursive community of artists”. Developing creative talent through “artist development programmes, curatorial opportunities and provision of space”, the NewBridge project offered what Charlotte termed a “truly affordable work space”, where artists could “meet, socialise and collaborate”. Occupying buildings around the Newcastle-Gateshead area awaiting redevelopment in a workplace “grown from the needs and desires of artists”, Charlotte said, provided unconventional spaces for a “critical mass of makers and thinkers” in a truly inspiring project.

When it all goes wrong, go back to your books

Graphic artist Jimmy Turrell is no stranger to regular readers of It’s Nice That, but his candid approach to presenting had the assembled audience at Google SPAN in fits of giggles. The Newcastle-born creative spoke through his allegedly “accidental” entry into the world of graphic design, from his days at student magazine Shout with Richard Turley (“I got sacked three times in a row”) to his “obsessive” use of analogue techniques while he was studying. After illustrating for Seven magazine, where Richard was art director, a job which freed him from his job at one of Newcastle’s bread factories, Jimmy told the audience that he’d got an unexpected call from The Prodigy and ended up making “probably 500 covers for them”. “I was throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticked,” he laughed. When his designs were dropped by the band, Jimmy went to university to do a master’s at Central St Martins, a move which he explained to the audience at SPAN was a career-defining decision which allowed him to step back and look more critically at his work. It was here that he learnt how to use a computer to design, and discovered a latent love for “disruptive brutalist typefaces”.

Be more unexpected

Adam Finlay, studio director at Novak spoke about the data visualisations which coated the walls on the BALTIC around the audience. “Data makes you work outside your normal process,” he mused in reflection of the day’s events. “It’s like having an additional collaborator there.” Working with live data pulled from the Google SPAN workshop, Adam noted that usually, Novak works with pre-generated content. “We spend our time projecting onto things that weren’t made to be projected onto,” he summarised before moving on to break down the process behind projects from nearby Whitely Bay, to a gasp-inducing Brighton Pavilion projection which had the whole town turning up for a look.

Share Article

About the Author

It's Nice That

This article was written by the It’s Nice That team. To find our editors and writers, please head over to our Contact page.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.