Froebel’s Gifts for The Internet

Over the past few days, after John first introduced the topic to me last week, I have been looking in to Froebel’s Gifts. For those of you who are unaware of Froebel’s gifts, they are a series of playthings for kids that are widely considered to be the world’s first educational toys.



The gifts, created by Friedrich Froebel, were introduced in 1838 at a similar time to when Froebel coined the term and opened the first Kindergarten. They appear deceptively simple but represent a sophisticated approach to child development. The six original gifts were accompanied by a series of “Occupations” such as sewing, gardening, singing and the modelling with clay, which were designed to help children mimic their experiences through play.

The idea of these gifts and occupations did spark a thought with us over here at Smithery. What would Froebel’s gifts be if you were designing them today, to help people grasp the idea of the Internet? Can you easily translate the physical lessons from 1838 over to the digital age? This translation is something I have struggled with in the past, as my brain works towards predominantly physical solutions for things.

Some of the lessons Froebel was trying to introduce included:

i) The idea of learning through “focused play”

ii) Seeing the interconnectedness of all creation.

iii) The importance of knowing how information fits together, rather than memorising facts themselves.

The last two lessons really stand out to really lending themselves to understanding the internet. Obviously the world is becoming more and more interconnected, and more recently the emergence of the Internet of Things will accelerate this. But also I like the idea of helping people develop a powerful skill; to be able to use the internet well without needing to be an expert in any of its particular disciplines. A way of closing the gap between amateurs and experts perhaps, or at the very least create common ground for dialogue between the two.

So we’re setting ourselves a task; what would Froebel’s gifts and occupations be for a digital world? We’ll have a little play around, with the Artefact Cards which exist already, and some other ideas we’ve been playing with.

And maybe, just maybe, we will try to create a collection of gifts to go along with one of our new years resolutions about producing more, and set up a subscription service for people to receive them.

We have some starter questions that need answered; if you can think of any more helpful ones, please do drop them into the comments below.

What would the internet look and feel like in your hands?

What would Froebel’s occupations be to enhance education for the internet age?

What’s the metaphor or analogy that helps you understand what the internet is?

2015 Projects / #3 – Produce

This is the final post from a series of four so if you have missed any of the previous ones feel free to catch up first – it’ll all make a little bit more sense if you do.

Slack HQ put out a great blog post in the past week about how companies only really build two things; the content they produce and their internal culture. Most of the time production is external and culture internal.

Seeing as Smithery is now a two-man band at the core, we find changing the culture is quite an easy thing for us to do, and generally we don’t have to consciously make changes to help the internal culture we just have a chat about what kind of work we want to do and how we want to do it.

What we produce however is slightly trickier – I think we are “general specialists”, and whilst we have both had more definite job descriptions in the past, it’s hard to know what to call ourselves when we don’t know what we are going to be doing next. We do a lot of different stuff, which is a massive perk of the job, we are never bored or have jobs which are repetitive of a previous job.

I think that may be the reason that I wanted to steer away from a full-time Industrial Design job, despite that being what I studied at Loughborough Uni.  Generally making a product start to finish for a client takes too long.  The last product I designed was Orb Wheels, a set of motorised wheels for manual wheelchairs which would give users the choice between manual and powered propulsion.

And I did enjoy it, at times I really enjoyed it, but then there were times that I would rather have been doing absolutely anything else.  Maybe this was because I was working on it alone and not in a team or maybe it was the fact it took 9 months of pretty much solely working on this 15 hour days, 7 days a week.  But when I look back on the design process it is the negatives that really stick out.  I enjoyed the other projects which I was involved in that had much quicker results.  I do miss designing though and I really love the way we work so quickly here at Smithery and that no two jobs are ever the same.  So I really want to try and combine the two somehow.


Because of this variation I often find it quite hard to actually define what Smithery does. Maybe John has more luck, we have previously called  “A one-man studio”, “an innovation and strategy consultancy”, and most recently “a product and marketing innovation studio”.

Generally the easiest way to explain it is through the mantra – Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things (MTPW>MPWT).

011 - Workshop

So the third project for 2015 is going to focus on the “Make Things” part of MTPW>MPWT. In the past John has had people contact him as ‘the man who makes stuff’ asking for help – in fact there was even an email asking exactly that yesterday morning. We have had great fun making loads of completely different things in the past including Artefact Cards, Fiducial Keys, SuperGrid Postcards and Field Kits so we are very open to new briefs.

Desk - spreadDSC_0245Hands_On_2_SQUARE_large



All have seemed to be fairly successful – well, by that I guess I mean people seem to like them. So we think we might be on to something with this whole making things business. But what’s more, it helps us learn more about people, and culture – sending out little emissarial ideas in physical form, like Grant McCracken’s Culturematic idea that John talked about a while ago.

If there is something you have always thought might be a good idea, and you want to explore a little, pop us an email or even better let’s grab a coffee and help us on our way to producing something new.

So goals for Project Three:

WBB (Why Bloody Bother) –If you don’t make anything yourself you’ll never make anything of yourself” now this might not be completely true but I do think that only good can come out of trying to make something you have never tried before. Failing leads to learning and all that jazz. Also we can see how good we are at being the people who make things.

WDG (Wooly, Doable Goal) – What will we be making? We don’t exactly know, we aren’t ruling anything out, there aren’t any criteria for just now other than no pointless stuff because lets face it the world is already full of loads of useless crap. Stuff that helps people, has a purpose or evokes a nice reaction out of folks. We do know that we will be aiming to make something every month (MSEM) and that will be the minimum requirement.

The Axminster Font

Seeing as this is my first blog post for The Smithery I think I’ll try to keep it short and sweet. When the idea for me to initially write this blog post was brought up John and I agreed that we would give out a free font at then end of the post but if you decide to read on you will soon realize that we couldn’t quite materialize that initial thought, yet.

I have been working on a new “Axminster” font over the last few weeks and we thought it may be time to release a trial version to get some feedback, as in our minds it isn’t quite right yet.

The whole idea started when someone commented to John on how they really liked the handwriting he used when writing on Artefact cards. Now I don’t think his handwriting would have one any prizes at school nor will John want his children to be imitating the font in the near future but there is certainly something very uniquely harsh when he writes with a Sharpie, which is pretty much every time he writes.


Initially we grouped his handwriting in to two categories (one with gaps and one without gaps) however upon seeing them both we decided to just go ahead with the gap font.

The main problem we had though is what happened when we had to edit John’s handwriting in order to make it available in digital format. It seemed to lose some of is rough edges and, dare I say it, looked more like Comic Sans’s upper case, older cousin (which is definitely not what we were aiming for).

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

After a fair bit of fiddling about on Photoshop I realized that even if I didn’t change them to vectors before uploading them to the site we were using, the site itself automatically changed each letter into a vector, and that is where the problem lies.

So our next step (when I return from my holiday) is to trace the letters individually in order to maintain the roughness from John’s handwriting, which is really what we want. And this way it will be a handwritten handwriting font, which certainly has a nice ring to it.

So as much as I would love to say: ladies and gentlemen without further a due I give you the first version of the Axminster font, unfortunately we are all going to have to wait a wee bit longer.