What is the truth? | Lessons from Semi Permanent 2019

What is the truth? | Lessons from Semi Permanent 2019

Every day, you are confronted with a series of truths that influence how you live, work, interact and design with the world around you. A system of decisions, interlinked by a response-process that tints your contribution to (or diversion from) the common good. 

But what is truth? That which is factually correct — probably. But to who, and when? The simple answer is unhelpful, so we spent three days exploring the term at Semi Permanent 2019, as part of Vivid Sydney. Here’s what we learnt. 

The truth is hard to hear; easy to tell

For the first time, we programmed an entire day around our Future State panel framework, inviting some of the best businesses in the world to talk about the truth that guides them.

For Tom Armstrong at The New York Times, that meant first admitting their business was headed for financial oblivion before finding a solution to fix it. The result, a priority on things ‘people actually wanted to read’ with an in-house brand studio and emphasis on interactivity, meant they could pivot to an incredibly profitable business model without losing their core offering of the world’s most powerful journalism. Levi’s head of sustainability Michael Kobori had a similar sentiment, looking at sustainability as an opportunity for business innovation and rather than a restriction (for example, replacing the chemicals that age jeans with a laser that reduced their environmental damage and production costs). And Michael Leon, the former Patagonia creative director now heading up design for SONOS, drove home the idea that celebrating exponentially diverse voices was an essential tool for business success. It was, arguably, the only thing that mattered. 

By 2020, Gen Z will account for 40% of all consumers. Listen to them.

Michael Kobori, Levi's
Left: Michael Kobori, Levi's; Right: Levi's sustainability showcase

Change is fucking inevitable.

SNASK 
Michael Leon, SONOS

Speakers touched on the level of responsibility placed on those who have achieved success. For Uber’s Michael Gough, that meant understanding that a poorly designed driving app could distract someone enough to crash their car; for Colenso BBDO’s Beth O’Brien, it meant making the things you wanted to make regardless of constraint, like a black pencil-winning radio station for dogs or short-film for Hillary Clinton shot in a single afternoon; and for VICE’s Royce Akers, it meant being steadfast in pitching ideas you love, even if they don’t get off the ground (canni-bus, anyone?). 

Champion diversity, no tokenism.

Beth O'Brien, Colenso BBDO
Left: Royce Akers, Vice; Right: Beth O'Brien, Colenso BBDO Group

As part of their Neuromuscle installation, Tim Devine and AKQA ruminated on the role technology plays in our lives and the undeniable truth generated by algorithms with no qualitative thought process. He described the feeling of controlling another human being through an AI as "one of a couple moments in my life that I genuinely considered life changing" while warning that the direction of this technology is limited by our reluctance to understand it. The running theme was that the truth is a business proposition and value asset; everything else has already set its timer to self-destruct. 

Tell storied that are well crafted. Tell stories that are worth being true.

Michael Gough, Uber
Neuromuscle by AKQA

The truth can be creative 

On days two and three, we heard from some brilliant minds conveying and abstracting the truth in multiple mediums, disciplines and formats. 

In the world of motion design, PJ Richardson showed his knockout visual experiments for the likes of Tyler, The Creator and The Simpsons while admitting the number of failed pitches their studio had worked on ran into the hundreds. Future Deluxe’s James Callahan showed us how they made one of their most well-regarded projects with little more than a fruit bowl and an ashtray. And Patrick Clair and Raoul Marks’ homecoming keynote questioned the nature of entertainment as something that can be both cerebral and beautiful, with their work on Westworld and American Gods puncturing the ideas of what can be achieved before a TV show has even begun. 

We know what an artificial brain looks like. What does an artificial soul look like?

Patrick Clair, Antibody
Patrick Clair and Raoul Marks, Antibody

Film, one of the great universal languages of truth, was over-represented as Michel Gondry took us into his dreams and produced an animation live with some help from the audience; Mark Woollen discussed the fine art of compressed narrative, turning 40-minutes of film footage into a workable cinema trailer; and Erica Dorn gave us lessons on designing on a millimetre-by-millimetre basis (hint: it’s hard work). 

And closing off the weekend, artist CJ Hendry discussed her life and career as an artist firmly committed to her craft. If you thought you worked hard by the end of her talk, you weren’t listening enough. 

If you have time...and you do have time... take the other 40 hours of your week to make something.

CJ Hendry
CJ Hendry and Murray Bell

The truth can come from anywhere 

The spiral of voices speaking truth in our world grows larger each and every day. Partnering with Google's RARE program gave us an opportunity to hear underrepresented voices putting the industry to task. Semi Permanent’s first all-indigenous panel ‘The Deadly Advantage’ brought to light the invisible barriers that block diverse voices from creative success, while ‘Your Difference is Your Superpower’ accelerated the notion that what makes you unique makes you better; a scalable advantage with less competition. 

Run your own race.

Dr. Sandra Eades
The Deadly Advantage panel by Rare

We saw creatives putting themselves at the forefront more than ever. Erica Dorn discussed how she leveraged her own childhood in Japan as an essential element in her graphic design work on the Oscar-nominated Isle of Dogs; Jonathan Zawada reflecting on the impact of genetic conditions in his installation for Z by HP and Vice; or the next generation of creatives doing away with standard job titles as part of our Western Sydney University panel. 

Be kind and try to create situations where everyone can win.

Dan Portrait, Kamp Grizzly
House of Genetic Diversity by Jonathan Zawada, Z by HP and Vice.

But that's not limited to the individual experience — businesses and brands need to pay attention too. The ways by which new generations consume and the brands they align to requires diversity of thought at each and every level. SONOS’ Michael Leon even mentioned he didn't believe in hiring on 'culture fit' because it killed any chance of outside-the-box thinking. Artist Jason Woodside discussed his unwillingness to work with brands that don’t align to his values; often at great financial expense. And National Geographic and R/GA's three-day ‘Make Good’ workshop tapped into the latent creativity of Australia’s future problem solvers to change the way we look at plastic (it was also the very first plastic-free Semi Permanent event — a lot easier to do than we thought). 

Principles and values only matter if you're making decisions based on them. 

Ian Spalter, Instagram
National Geographic & R/GA 'Make Good' Innovation Lab

So what is the truth? It’s that same series of decisions you make every day, filtered through the lens of personal experience and empathy for others; it’s the way you take control of your individual identity and use it to share something good with the world; it’s the voices you choose to elevate and prioritise in your positions of influence; it’s how you choose to represent the creative outcomes of your practice; and ultimately, it’s the honesty you bring to design a world you want to be part of.

That’s what truth is. 

Big thank you to the speakers, partners and crew who helped bring Semi Permanent to life this year. Let's do it again sometime. 

Faustina Agolley, Host
 
Carby Tuckwell, Deus Ex Machina; SP19 totes
Opening night party 
Tom Armstrong, New York Times; Installation by Kamp Grizzly
Michael Leon, SONOS
Left: WSU student showcase
Carriageworks

Transformation is an operating model. It never stops.

Michael Kobori, Levi's 
 
Installation by Kamp Grizzly

 

Ian Spalter, Instagram; Michael Gough, Uber 
Volkswagen VR showcase
Kamp Grizzly with Simon Haskell
PJ Richardson
 

 

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