A challenge to think differently – Thinking Digital

Recently we threw ourselves into the 3-day digital frenzy that takes over the North East every May.

The annual Thinking Digital Conference brings some of the brightest minds in tech from across the world right onto our doorstep.

Working in Higher and Further Education, we often find ourselves looking at conferences like these with a dose of scepticism. How can it be useful when it looks like so much fun?

Returning to the office from any conference, you often get hit with an air of curiousness mixed with a slight doubt – there is a need to disseminate the learning (or to justify the expense, you decide!).

This is my first attempt to do this.

Ask the right question

Re-asking the question can be one of the most powerful tricks in solving difficult problems.

The best questions help us fail forward, Aza Raskin told the audience. Design your projects knowing you’re going to fail, embrace the failure and learn from it to succeed.

He gave an example. Engineers in early 1900 were given a challenge to build a human-powered airplane that could fly in the figure of eight. While most engineers focused on the question “How can we build a human-powered airplane” the person who finally succeeded (after nearly two decades of failed attempts) asked himself “How can we build a human-powered airplane that can be fixed quickly after crashing”.

Questions (like “Can you make a Big Mac cheaper than buying it from McDonald’s?) were also at the heart of a talk from two teachers demonstrating their minimally invasive education approach. Jo Fothergill & Tara Taylor-Jorgensen challenged teachers to challenge students with ambiguity that makes them think about new questions themselves.


We are in the danger of losing our listening. We’re expecting more and more from tech but less from each other. Why pay attention when you can always google it later or watch the video.

Julian Treasure, talked passionately about how we ignore the power of sound in design, architecture and in our lives.

We’re constantly bombarded with background noise in places where we need to concentrate or relax, like schools or hospitals. According to Julian, as little as a 5db reduction in the noise levels would improve our cognitive capabilities.

Use constraints to increase creativity

Adding constraints into a problem, making it harder, actually encourages creativity.

Aza Raskin argued that constraints have been proved to increases both perceptual (do you see the forest or the trees) and conceptual scope (how broad is your thinking).

There are examples everywhere. Instagram constrained people to a square. Twitter forced us to write less than 140 characters. Even poetry, the most creative writing of all, has structure. If you don’t believe him, try writing a memoir in 6 words.

Don’t stop at ‘good enough’

This one is for all the people priding with their ‘just get on with it’ attitude.

Be bothered! Aral Balkan urged. We live in a world of ridiculously bad design all around us. Mediocrity is everywhere. It’s time all companies stopped thinking about what is their business plan and just admit ‘UX is the business plan’.

Aral wants us to craft experiences. ‘Superhero experiences’ that make us feel amazing, empowered.

Details matter and the only way to get it right is not to separate design and development, hardware and software.

Attempt the impossible

Determination, perseverance and curiosity can be a powerful combination.

At 14, Jack Andraka lost a close friend for pancreatic cancer. At 16, he’s touring conferences talking about a super quick and cheap pancreatic cancer test he created.

“Imagine,” Jack finished his talk, “I was able to create a test for pancreatic cancer without knowing what a pancreas was!”