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Interview with Colin Priest, Course Leader, BA Interior and Spatial Design

The Creative Act is as Much About Getting Lost as Finding One’s Own Way

Interview with Colin Priest, Course Leader, BA Interior and Spatial Design, part of COIN scoping for the Online Identities: Student led course/website project

 

Joe Easeman: What online presence do you think is important in your industry, both for students and professionals?

Colin Priest: Within architecture and spatial practice, so architecture offices, interior offices [etc.] their websites are in many ways the front door to the practice, in terms of those office identities. 

So they are important, so then in terms of the context of students doing their own...they [websites] are essentially a front door, so if that front door is open then there is a conversation that can take place. So I think in some ways that’s great, but at the same time a website or any virtual presence is also a barrier between what actually is the professional business which is about people, and relating to people and about having a conversation one-to-one. Within the construction and the building industry it is very much to do with having these face-to-face conversations, so there has to be a sort of balance between what is important in terms of presentation of oneself and how you work and what your practice is.

 

As we are in the University of the Arts London, practice is incredibly diverse so I’m not entirely sure it is wise to say everyone has to have a virtual presence, and there are significant names within the architectural world who for a long time didn’t actually have a website gaining work through word of mouth, relationships and reputation in terms of what they produced. There is an implicit value to a website and there is an explicit value to having an online presence, but underscore the need for balance. When I’m talking to students about the design of websites and doing things to best showcase their work, or how they wish to work [etc.] it's a solid way to formulate what is your interest, your aesthetic, your preoccupations, and a very good way of visualising a CV and an identity. It takes a lot of time to compile and do wonder if time could be better spent having a conversation with potential employer? It’s this balance between how much you actually want to invest in a particular part of the process of getting a job and having a professional life.

 

Would you say that for your industry the website is more like a support thing for that face-to-face networking?

Yes
What about the use of blogs and other similar online resources in your industry?

I know a student at the moment who is on a travel fellowship and is using a blog as a document of the journey and encounters across the city. It’s actually a really great way of telling a story about one particular aspect of many layers of the experience. He has his main website, he uploads his work, in a sort of blog, but within that he has sub references to other blogs and other lives, but what happens is that if you look at that entity it starts to fragment and that’s a reflection in some ways of true practice.  In a world where everyone is busy and no one’s got time to even look at news websites, you have to ask yourself, 'what is going to be the impetus to look at the website in the first place'. I don’t know the answer to that. I would advise students to literally go out and meet people rather than spend time learning code.

Do you think training into developing your online presence needs to be integrated into the course?
Within the practice of the University of the Arts London to say resolutely, 'this is the way', is a disservice to what we are actually doing, which is about the variety and the diversity of practice and how we communicate as individuals. If support and provision is there and if it’s available and if students have an opportunity to explore it as a way to initiate a conversation of any sort and to communicate - then great.  
Knowing how to do things is an important part of being a member of the design community, and having that small amount of knowledge offers confidence to have a conversation with someone if you need to. I think that most courses have, in some way, some form of virtual identity strand with blogs and such like, so there is opportunity to question the nature of or the character of it within each discipline.
And that’s a deliberate choice?
Spatial design is a complicated business so we have to deal with a lot of things to do with orthographic drawing, visualisation, making, fabrication, there are a lot of layers and ultimately up to students to negotiate.

Do you think it would be useful students to have this as an extra resource that they can use?

In principle, yes. Opportunities to meet other students from other courses and other colleges, and to have shared conversations about these issues, I think is important, as well as with professional people or people who have a particular knowledge about it, can only be a positive thing.
There was an event at LCC last year that my students were invited to go over to, and they really enjoyed that. They enjoyed the process. There are events such as maker’s fairs and shows, and I think when those exciting moments happen, especially at the end of year shows - inter-disciplinary thinking and action gels.
I suppose that comes back to what you were saying earlier about how important face to face network is.
Exactly, and its good practice.
I suppose if those communities you talked about could be set up on some sort of online forum to facilitate face to face networking then that would be useful for specifically your discipline, where there are other ones that say may be able to stick to that online presence

One of the suggestions from the last project is some sort of web portal with help for the students, staff and graduate to set up and develop their online identities, so from your discipline specifically, what would be useful for your students to know?

On the simple level it's about media management, the practical side, which is helpful. Students seem to generally enjoy the context of learning new skills. There is equally a frustration about not knowing things within the software and within the programmes themselves, to, in a way, speed the process up, but also to understand that actually sometimes things take a long time. The perception can be that technologies will speed things up and make you more efficient, where in actual fact it just increases the time somewhere else, because you need to perhaps do more repetitive tasks. One of the burdens of an online presence is that’s its very much about routine and setting up a virtual discipline about file management, keeping up to date and up to scratch on back up, which many people don’t talk about. If there is an emphasis on discipline, as well as the creative side, it becomes a tangible entity and becomes part of your work.

 So it could be seen as an extension of your practice, or vice versa where your virtual world is an extension of your practice. I think if you look at a number of practices, architectural firms in particular, [and] how they categorise their work and what they prioritise in terms of the visual layout [etc.] it says a lot about who they are and why they do what they do.

 
As far as your course goes how important is social media, because you said a lot about networking?
We have our own course website which talks about activities generally, and is a way to picture the parts of Chelsea College of Arts life that visitors may not experience. We broadcast through that, plus twitter at Chelsea. In terms of the students, I think a handful of them have twitter, but I don’t think many of them have their own ‘like’ Facebook (professional Facebook page). They have their own name as a friend identity, but I don't think they set themselves up as a practice, but I’m sure if they thought this was appropriate they would.
What is your online presence?
Sure - I set up my website in 2003 and I did all the coding myself. It was all through very old fashioned word document turned into HTML style, and learnt the basic coding myself. I think I put up with that for about five years or so, and then because my practice was becoming increasingly diverse decided to renew. I employed a student to design one with me, because he knew all the scripting and decided to use WordPress. I consider my website as a loose archive, rather than something that is hierarchical and linear. There are drop down menus, but really the body of work is an entity within itself, so it captures the diversity of how my practice continues to evolve.
I think about 3 years ago it was hacked and I hadn’t backed up, so that was pretty traumatic. I had to start from scratch, which was a real pain in the neck. All the files were corrupted within the website, and the provider couldn’t revert to a primary, original state, so in the end I had to clean out and re-upload everything again. Websites are demanding - and media in general needs constant attention. There are so many things you are reliant on, there are so many bits of kit, if a USB stick that has everything on gets bent then suddenly all that information is gone, begging the question 'how many backups do you need in order to keep it safe?'. In keeping the website simple I can easily upload images and texts, and links of the work, so at least it's there.
The site has been very useful in meetings - clicking to links and so on - instead of carrying a USB sick. It has also been useful to virtually speak - using project links in emails. Equally though I am quite strategic about what I do 'publish', as there are some projects that I haven’t made public as they continue to evolve and there are films that I have made that I keep passworded in Vimeo. A real benefit of using popular programmes like Vimeo means greater fluidity, so you can link up to Vimeo and then Vimeo can link up to this and this, so rather than having a unique program that only one person might know about, it helps keep the conversation moving. I also use my website as a virtual resource, linking any articles, links and references for a project to the project itself. It becomes part of the body of work. It’s a bit clunky, but I quite like clunky.
Online offers like lydia.com, often hear students like it, but also a lot of students don’t like it, because of a virtual wall, where you keep on having to press pause and start - a frustration grows. There’s no such thing as one thing fits all in this situation, in any situation.
In respect to widening the discussion around online identities, as long as there is a form of criticality to its existence and what it is actually doing, there is benefit.
I went to the new show at the Barbican about electronic existence and the history of computers and gaming, it’s fascinating to see how far we have come in such a short space of time. It also demonstrates the playfulness of the early days of the internet in terms of links and hyperlinks. With progress comes smoothness - a streamlining, so much so that it is so smooth that it’s sometimes difficult to grasp. Interestingly, that difficulty in the early days was part of the creative process and I wonder how the next generation will shape it in this respect. Broadly it's about how the students handle media. That comes from knowing how to use it, but also implicitly that having fun within each of those layers and being able to tweak things is an expected part of the process. There are many forums that support this process and so many conversations happening across UAL that a student may get lost in - within a virtual maze. It is clear these online forums are all trying to reconcile opportunities, which are great, but sometimes the struggle is then to decide where the best value is in terms of which link to follow. I suppose the Holy Grail is to create a legible, navigable landscape, but it’s worth mentioning a vital part of university life is actually about finding one’s own way through and that’s part of the learning experience. Signposts are helpful, but a map from A-Z is not necessary useful either. The creative act is as much about getting lost as finding one’s own way.

 

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cfollows's picture

Really interesting read thank you Colin and Joe.

The need to address the relationships between virtual and physical practice comes through really strong in this interview. I'd really like to critique to what extent "The creative act is as much about getting lost as finding one’s own way." applies to online identities, I think we need the same balance with supporting online identities and creative freedom as we do with academic teaching practice and creative freedom, I don't think we are anywhere near a comparison, the concept of online identities could be seen as a neglected practice at HE level, we need to find a better balance.

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