Fidelity, Non-linearity, and the Double Diamond

I’d recently shared the Design Council’s new Systemic Design Framework work, including a wholesale upgrade for the Double Diamond model that’s well worth your time.

Mathieu asked in response where he could ‘find your views on the Double Diamond‘, and I don’t really have them all in one place… it’s largely scattered through talks, teaching etc.

I didn’t really have one thing to point to, but it keeps popping up.

For instance, it was a major part of Alastair Somerville’s talk at last month’s Design and Economics Unconference. In the discussion part afterwards, we were talking about the lack of ‘negative space’ around the Double Diamond – and I still have a doodle from that on my desk.

And today, I was reading something and the word ‘fidelity’ set my memory running. There was something I had written once about fidelity, maybe in relation to Zenko Mapping, but I couldn’t find it on the site. Which turned out to be because I’d written for Mind The Product back in 2015.

So I’ve republished it below; in part because no doubt I’ll go looking for it again one day, but also it maybe points to the underlying critique of all design models that masquerade as a fixed, followable process.

Perhaps old models are a form of mental asbestos. People didn’t really understand the implications of putting them in originally, but fast forward a few decades and they become problematic to remove.

That shouldn’t stop you trying though. I’ve just started reading Adam Grant’s Think Again (thanks to Brad Berens for the tip), which captures that sentiment nicely…

As promised, then, that original post…


Want to improve your Design process? Question your fidelity.

Originally publish on Mind The Product, March 2015.

I was sitting in a cafe in Brighton a few months ago, having breakfast with Andy from Clearleft. We were talking about I thing I was working on, and I’d used the word ‘fidelity’ to describe how close a project was ‘to the real world’ specifically in terms of people, rather than products.

We talked for a while about what fidelity typically meant in general design and usability circles, and a a result, I went away to think some more. Chats with Andy usually work out like that.

It turns out that fidelity is a tricky word. It comes from the same etymological well as faithfulness and loyalty, and the broader concept of fealty. We talk about it in terms of our behaviour; how faithful (or otherwise) we are to partners, friends, practices, ideals.

In this respect, the object comes first, and our fidelity to the object is judged from that point onwards. We look backwards. When we use the term fidelity to anthropomorphise other things, we see again that it is a concept that’s used to compare what we have in front of us to what happened before.

For instance, fidelity in audio is about how closely the sound we’re hearing compares to the sound and the point of recording. High fidelity, or “hi-fi”, was so great because it sounded like you were actually there. And in scientific disciplines, fidelity in modelling refers to how well the simulation reproduces the state and behaviour of the real world object (which has existed for millennia perhaps).

Yet, because of the nature of the design process, when we use the word ‘fidelity’ to describe how close we’re getting to a final product, we are using it not to compare to what we have seen in a known past, but to something we imagine in an estimated future.

When we describe a “low-fidelity prototype” for instance, we’re not comparing it to something in the past, but something still quite far away in the future.

We are not comparing, we are guessing. Of course, these may be very good guesses, based on sound practice and great experience, but they are guesses nonetheless. It may be because of the way we view time as part of the design process.

There are three useful examples of design processes highlighted in the Sketching User Experiences Workbook (Buxton, Greenberg et al). I shan’t dive into the detail of each of the models, but have a look at what unites the three…

Paul Laseau, 1980
Stuart Pugh, 1990
Buxton et al, 2012

It’s time. Time is used as a tool to tell us what we should be doing, and when. These three design models (and many more besides) all move along an X axis, left to right, from the beginning of the project to the end, as if the process itself is as predictable as a written sentence. This might have a big implication that we perhaps might be better doing without.

When the model you use is locked onto a time axis, there is not much room for other dimensions, especially if you’re only working in 2 dimensional models.

Typically, the other axis in all of the models above is being used for ‘activity’; what are we going to do when. A time-based model has a presumption of good practice, that you will regularly put things of front of people to test, in different ways to validate different things.

That’s not always the case though. With clients who work in a different system, or even when circumstances get the better of you, good disciplined practice can slip, as activity just starts to mean “we must get to the end bit of the model”.

What’s the solution? Well, what follows isn’t perfect, but it’s a useful start. It’s something we’ve been working with for the last few months, and it’s a broad tool for thinking, of which this is just one application (you can read some background here).

It’s a model which uses two different facets of ‘activity’ in order to help remember that we always have one of two choices; Improve or Share.

Along the horizontal axis, we have ‘people’, and up the vertical axis, we have ‘things’. For us, fidelity is all about the people axis; how close is this to the real world? That’s the future point, when the product is out in front of lots of people, being used often, at scale.

If you want to increase fidelity, then you show whatever you have to more people.

Which leaves the vertical axis, things, to be all about resolution. Resolution is a much more technical description of what we have in front of us, used across many different fields to description the detailed specifications of what the thing involves. It’s been much more useful when you’re using that language around the thing you’re working on.

That’s the territory the model describes, but how do we use it?

Take the familiar mechanics of Low, Medium, High. If we had a time-based axis from left to right, they’d line up in their familiar form, chronologically. In this model though, we can use Low, Medium and High to describe both Fidelity and Resolution. Rather than a three-step process, we can create a nine box grid.

Notionally, Low sits bottom left, Medium in the middle, and High is top right. But they’re now more like places to visits, rather than territories to cross. We’ve been thinking of each axis in the following ways to determine the sort of activity we do.

People

Low Fidelity – very simply, the people in the room, the project team. It’s as far
away from the real world as you can get, and you should always remember
that.

Medium Fidelity – sharing your ideas qualitatively. Face to face user research,
talking to people in different parts of the business, talking to experts.

High Fidelity – sharing your ideas quantitatively. Everything from the tried
and tested trick of putting up one web page about a product and buying
search ads for it, to in depth quantitative research to test a specific hypothesis
at scale.

Things

Low Resolution – working on pens and Artefact Cards, LEGO and plasticine,
Stickers on Boxes; anything that create fast physical space to create a
representation of an idea

Medium Resolution – working on surface detail to create simulations and
wireframes of things, but not anything that actually works yet

High Resolution – building out the back end, both from a technological and
business perspective; how is it going to work, and how is it going to make
money to be sustainable?

We always start bottom left, small teams of people working in physical
materials to create rough representations. Then the crucial part of using the
model kicks in; you have to choose what to do next. Are you going to take
those representations, and put them down in front of people for qualitative
feedback? If so, then you should share. Alternatively, are you going to take
the ideas away, spruce them up a little, sweat the thinking a bit, perhaps?
Then that’s fine too, you’re talking about improving.

At every stage on the journey through the process, you stop and ask
“should we share, or should we improve?”.

By stripping out time from being one of the axes, we introduce a
sophistication which informs the process at every step. But time hasn’t been
lost from the model altogether. Instead, it becomes a more passive data
source, as you draw out your process across the territory.

For example, below we can imagine two different journeys across the model:

The red journey has a lot of early stage test and learn; make things, show
them to people, rinse and repeat. The blue journey perhaps takes the first set
of concepts, tests them with people to pick one, builds a wireframe, tests it
quantitatively, and gets ready to ship.

The red journey is long, the blue journey is short. But they’re different
projects, there’s no law that says they should be the same length of time…
unless, of course, your process demands it.

So far, this model has proved very useful both conceptually and in live
projects, but we’d love to hear what you think. How do you think about
fidelity? Do you see an enforced sense of time in a design process as a
hinderance, or a benefit to keep things moving? Can you see projects you
have worked on (or are currently) fitting into this model?

Think of information as light, not liquid.

In the recent Zenko Mapping video, I talked briefly about a new idea, a lens through which to see the world; we should focus on thinking of information as light, not liquid.

It’s the fundamental philosophy at the heart of this year’s TENETS project, and will no doubt form the basis of Smithery’s work moving forwards. I’ll share more at length in the new year, but the thought of ending 2020 with ‘a clear vision’ is too good a pun to pass up…

Below you’ll find the relevant excerpt from the longer film, followed by some extended thoughts from the project so far.

Information is everywhere

The language we use to describe our work is more important than we might think. Whether we realise it or not, it forms and shapes our actions, especially when it comes to the use of metaphors. I’ve been thinking about this with particular regards to information.

This reflection started back in January. I was asked to give a talk about the different ways of seeing the world I’ve created over the last 12 or so years. Looking back, it was very apparent that all of my work was about ‘information’ in one way or another (arguably, perhaps, everybody’s is).

For instance, think about the information shared in workshops and classrooms, shaping new products, living inside services, informing strategy work, rolling down a production line, creating understanding in niche communities and broader societies. Despite different sources, characteristics, uses and so on, might all that information have similar qualities?

What if there was a consistent way of thinking about information that would offer ways to apply things learned in one domain to another?

After all, information is ‘the distinctions that make a difference’ (see Dennett), a collection of things that stimulates action in all of these situations; from the inputs gathered for an innovation workshop to the profile screen inside an app.

Information as liquid

When you look at frequently used metaphors in speech and text, it becomes clear that information is often described as if it were a liquid. Here are a just a few examples, from an extended project glossary:

  • Let’s have a brainstorm.
  • We’re drowning in the detail.
  • It’s backed up in the cloud.
  • Data is the new oil.
  • Our thinking is a bit stagnant.
  • We’re going against the tide.
  • It’s a stream of consciousness

No doubt you’ve often heard or used phrases like these. Whilst they refer to different activities, they all employ the same metaphorical base; information is comparable to a liquid, a resource for us to store or direct depending on our needs.

Yet it is perhaps not helpful to imagine information as an homogenous liquid, a pool into which we plunge, a tank we seek to fill, a tidal wave from which we must protect ourselves.

Too often the language used to think about information defaults to this idea of it. And the metaphors we use matter more than you might think.

Metaphors matter

Now, from one angle, you might perceive that the metaphors we use to describe information as unimportant. Surely people don’t believe that information is a liquid, pourable from one vessel to another?

Well, they don’t need to believe such a thing for it to behave as if it did. As Lakoff and Johnson describe, in their seminal work on metaphors;

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays central role in defining our everyday realities.

Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Basically, we need metaphors to help us work together, as they are ‘defining our everyday realities’.

Therefore, not just any old metaphor will do in order to create alignment. Our concepts about our work, and the metaphors we use to describe it, will structure how we see tasks, projects, goals, cooperation, competition and more.

Knowingly or unknowingly, our language defines our plans and actions, setting our priorities for how we look to make progress.

Which means if we think and speak of information as if it were liquid, our actions will reflect this.

Imagine our task is to ‘prevent news leaking out’. We’ll look for holes, and ways to mend them.

What if we’re asked to ‘cascade information down through the organisation’? We may readily imagine the ‘water’ channels and structures that help us do that.

And if we’re told ‘data is the new oil’? Our immediate thoughts turn to how to secure it at source, and make money from putting it in a barrel.

From light to liquid

If we rely simply on the metaphors of ‘information as liquid’, we only concern ourselves with the containers in which it’s held, and the channels through which it flows. Which means we’re not thinking about what information actually is at the moments where it is most useful and important.

Information is useful because of the differences we find in it, and the decisions it helps us make.

Separate pieces of information come together to help us focus, gain new perspectives, or fire our imaginations.

Therefore, the nature of this assembled information is not that of a homogeneous liquid melted together forever. All the contributing pieces can be taken apart and paired with other information to form another view, or even just reassembled to look like something else.

With this in mind, it is potentially very beneficial to employ a metaphor for information which readily works with this aspect of its nature. We want our actions and behaviours to be driven by what we actually want to achieve.

Information as light

Consider, then, thinking of information as light. Individual particles or pixels coming together to form a view, a glimpse, a perspective… something to inform the mind of those perceiving it.

The language we already use on a daily basis helps us see how often we do employ this metaphor anyway; once again, a selection from the glossary:

  • We need some clarity.
  • What’s the outlook?
  • It just dawned on me
  • She brought a fresh perspective.
  • Let’s pause for reflection.
  • It was a glaring omission.
  • Is this in scope?
  • This is pure speculation.
  • It was a real lightbulb moment.

If we shift our thinking as information as the light, not liquid, we can begin to question every piece of information we see, understanding its true nature; it is fleeting, hard to perceive, and transitory, rather than solid, permanent and additive.

Additionally, we can start to depict the processes by which information flows through everything, from the individual to the organisation level, and map out where we might intervene to improve our processes.

Casting a critical eye

Following this line of thought, every particle of information can be split out into constituent parts to help you understand more about it.

Whether it’s a slide in a presentation, a quote in a review section, an article in a newspaper, a link in a tweet, ask yourself a series of critical questions about its composition. Where do this come from? Who set conditions for its collection? Why was it created? How was it created? When was it formed?

The more you can reorient yourself to this way of describing information, the better you can interrogate the world.

Each new piece of information is not just another drop from the well of knowledge, but rather a glimpse of an uncertain vista, and one for you to compare to other things you’ve seen. Critical thinking is critical viewing.

What comes next?

This idea, that we should think more of information as light, not liquid, forms the basis of the TENETS project (“Ten Tools To Transform How You Think“). The tools are a wide variety of things, from group thought-experiments to system-view frameworks.

Overall, they simply help people, teams and organisations interrogate how they use information. That can be in forming strategy, creating new environments for innovation, creative problem solving, designing products and services, and more besides. Do get in touch if that sounds interesting for you.

‘The Infinite Anvil’ – a representation of all the tools, from which we can shape an infinite number of new tools.

Yet perhaps what matters most about this thinking right now, in the midst of COVID-19, is that none of us is seeing the world as we used to.

For organisations used to bringing people together in large containers, great big offices where the intent (or the interpretation) was that ideas sloshed around, mixed together and produced the forward momentum that pushed the business forward.

If you think of information as liquid, you’re probably still trying to recreate the containers and channels.

Think of it as light, however, and suddenly the actions you take become focussed on bringing the right view to the right people at the right time.

Assemblage Space for Service Blueprints

Yesterday I gave a talk on how some of the futures thinking from TENETS, specifically the Assemblage Space tool, might help teams move from current state to future state blueprints for Service Design. It was the talk I’d written yesterday’s Visual Fields post for.

It was hosted by the fantastic SDN Dallas Team (thanks guys), and the good news is that they recorded the whole shebang, including the Q&A at the end.

So grab a flask of coffee and dive in.

In addition, I’ve made the Miro board I used public access, so you can follow along there whilst listening to augment the experience. I’d be interested to hear from you if you do that, just to understand if it helps in communicating the ideas.

Finally, some folks asked about the FUTREP and How To Future cards at the end (and the forthcoming dice) – as always, the physical thinking tools side of things are over at artefactshop.com

Visual Fields

I’m giving an online talk shortly. In an hour and half from now, to be precise.

As always, as I get closer to a talk the more ideas come to light, as the particles of information collide with each other, shedding new light on things. Sometimes, when giving talks to a room of folk, you might manage to get something in, a new slide, or a just a quick aside. You don’t want to break the linear narrative.

In these interesting times however, I’ve been experimenting with using a Miro board instead of a slide deck, and exploring ideas and thinking as more of a wander with wonders; offering some paths to turn down, some places to stop and look at, or some directions that male it clear that this path is not for today.

A wander, with some wonders.

It means that I’ve managed to get one of those wonders in talk, but I’ve taken to here to quickly write about it first to see what I actually I think about it.

It’s about the similarities and differences between the disciplines of innovation, design and futures.

(The talk itself is on the subject of futures, to a service design network audience, so finding connections between these areas seemed important)

It’s a topic I’ve been wondering about for a while, perhaps more from a craft perspective than any other. Why do these disciplines often feel so blurry at the edges, and fall into each other (for better or worse)?

There’s definitely something about the tools and materials, and the way practitioners collect, connect and create from external information in order to achieve their goals.

The central idea which is reflected through the TENETS project I’ve been working on (Information is light, not liquid) helps support this.

Think of individual pieces of information as pixels or particles which come together to form an image, but can be reordered into a large number of alternatives views too. The information you collect, the way you recombine and order, and finally the way you show the results, is something that exists in different ways in innovation, design and futures work.

I was trying to find a suitable label, and perhaps metaphor, for those three disciplines. I’ve settled on Visual Fields.

Innovation, Design, Futures: Visual Fields

That first image, with the overlapping areas, was by Harry Moss Traquair in 1938. It shows you different spatial arrays which can be seen by the eye when it is fixed in one position. What you can see clearly in front of you, and what’s still ‘visible’ but perhaps unknown as it sits to the edge. It feels fitting to think of the messy overlaps between three disciplines.

Then I was talking this through with Scott Smith earlier, and he mentioned spiders eyes. So I went looking online again, and found this…

Spiders usually have eight eyes: two very large front eyes to get a clear, colour image and judge distance, and extra side eyes to detect when something is moving.”

Again, a nice juxtaposition for different disciplines; sometimes you’re very focussed on the thing in front of you, sometimes you want to get a sense of what’s moving in the wider environment around you.

Finally, the camera array on a modern smartphone comes with a range of different lens and sensors; here represented by Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro, with it’s telephoto, wide, ultra wide lenses and LIDAR scanner.

Rather than having one sensor to force all reality through, a sensing array of different disciplines should act as a complementary set of capabilities.

These three Visual Fields (and there are more, perhaps) represent ways of seeing the world, collecting the information from it, processing it, and creating the stimulus for certain actions.

What needs further thought in this encapsulation is what happens when you try and cross the inputs of one discipline into the outputs of another.

That’s for another day though, when I’m not half and hour away from giving a talk. Wish me luck.

Letting a little light in

There is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

First of all, thank you to everyone who’s said nice things about this new website. And more crucially, perhaps, to those with more suggestions on how to make it clearer still. Thankfully, the design is built for iteration, and so all suggestions, improvements and comments are welcome.

The purpose behind redesigning the site is to create a space that naturally helps expand on the ideas that I’ve been pulling together over the last few months.

To do that requires more writing, talking, making and sharing. Making sure there are cracks for the light to get in. The crucial lesson then is that rather than trying to perfect things in isolation, I want to keep finding new places to talk and explore the topics with folk.

It was really useful, in this regard, that Jess and Phil at Subsector invited me to be their guest on a Subsector Short, a (supposedy) five minute discussion slot on a particular topic. I chose to see what would happen if I tried a crunchy, straightforward description of the idea that information is light, not liquid, the first of the TENET tools.

Jess listening, Phil drinking tea, me looking at something else it would seem.

Already it’s generated some great thoughts elsewhere about the concept, and how it butts up against other conventions in interesting ways.

I’ve also put together a Miro board to walk people around the thinking. I’m gradually pulling examples and projects into as a way of developing a relevant narrative in conversation with guests.

It is a little like being a tour guide around your own head, so I’m experimenting with quick introductions and then leaving folk to wander through at their own leisure over subsequent days.

Another work in progress – a Miro Map around the tools

Over time, it may be something I can just open up for everyone, if there is enough DIY guide material in there that helps people follow a rough route.

Finally, as I’ve been writing about topics, ideas naturally occur to me on how to visualise them.

For instance, one of the tools, Kaleidoscopes, is based on some work called Flow Engines which I talked about way back in 2014, at things like Brilliant Noise’s Dots Conference, and the Happy Startup Summercamp.

It evolved into the Smithery logo too, a glanceable glyph to continually prompt a way of setting up productive working practices.

Original ‘flow engine’ diagram, and the Smithery Logo it inspired

What evolved in combination with the new thinking was a need to accentuate the visual aspects of work more – especially relevant when thinking about when planning and running workshops remotely. How do you make sure people see the elements being ‘brought to the table’ and make connections they otherwise wouldn’t have?

The Kaleidoscope metaphor was a natural fit here, as a way of reminding people that no matter how creative the output, the inputs can be quite delightfully mechanical. You need to put all the materials together in such a way that participants can simply twist the devices themselves to see new possibilities. A simple bit of After Effects helps bring that to life, I think.

(And it also gave me the chance to make a GIF of a classic moment from High-Rise…)

If you fancy a tour of the board, do let me know, I’m really interested in the opportunities people can see for the tools for teams in a wide variety of different work. More soon.

Traffic Signs, Not Billboards

I went to our local high street today in Haywards Heath. I had an errand to run; my watch battery ran out two weeks into lockdown, and I wanted to get it fixed at the independent jeweller (hey, kids, support local businesses where you can).

Knowing I’d have an hour or so to wait, I took my camera (and mask), and looked around at what a high street looks like when its trying to reopen in the age of COVID-19.

The graphic designers of Britain have certainly been busy.

And individually, they’ve no doubt interpreted the prevention strategy of each individual shop or organisation as best they can, to communicate to shoppers what is expected of them, and what staff are doing in return.

But together, as an experienced the extraneous cognitive load on the working memory of shoppers is certainly substantial. As you move from shop to shop, you would find yourself navigating through slightly different interpretations of the broad rules. Sometimes it’s 2 metres, sometimes it’s 2 metres if you can. Some places, only one person per household. In others, one person per household plus one child.

It doesn’t help that a lot of the instructions are in full brand regalia, and so it takes a second or two to locate where the information is.

All in all, it feels exhausting, through the inconsistency.

Perhaps now is not the time for freedom of expression. If the powers-that-be want high streets to function for shoppers, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to have centralised production and distribution for communicating how to shop. Consistent posters, stickers, floor graphics, window vinyls and so on; same colours, shapes, instructions.

Perhaps in the age of COVID-19, the high street needs traffic signs, not billboards.

Oh yeah, and more masks, people.

The full set of pictures is here, if you want them.

Playing the hand you’re dealt

I’ve been thinking a lot about Assemblage. It’s been prompted by Anab’s inclusion of it in her More-Than-Human-Politics manifesto, pointedly positioned against Systems (“Assemblages are diverse, indeterminate and precarious… Acknowledging the entanglements without the desire to have the ‘full overview’”).

It also took me back to some of the thinking I originally did around Artefact Cards specifically, and more recently working with information particles generally, and a few other conversations and pieces I’ve been working on in the background.

This week, I started playing with a short explanation, which felt worth sharing:


An assemblage is like being dealt a hand of cards for the first time, in a game you don’t know the rules for.

You have these five cards in your hand, of a mix of suits and numbers, and you have to work out what to play, and how to do it. When the time comes, you play some cards as best you can, but you lose that first hand. Yet you saw what was going on, and figure that you might have a better chance at working out the overall game come the next hand.

Except when you are dealt your new hand, it contains a new suit you’ve never seen before, and a number that you didn’t know existed. You’re not sure what the new suit means (is it more senior than other suits? Equal?), and from what you know of numbers, you try and establish where this one might fit in a ranking. Additionally, the previous work you put in to trying to establish the rules of the game is now potentially of lower value, though it’s hard to let go of answers you think you’ve worked out.

You play, and of course you lose that hand as well. But again you learn more about how to sort through the cards you’re likely to be holding in the next round.

So when the third hand arrives, containing another unfamiliar suit, moderately taxing algebra, a postcard from a relative, and some cheese and pineapple on a stick, you’re at least a bit more prepared for the possibility that different things will turn up that don’t fit in with your expectations.

Thinking in systems asks that you work out the rules of the game.

Thinking in assemblages helps you become better at playing the hand you’re actually dealt.


Postscript: There’s a lot of diverse and interesting debate and discussion around what Systems Thinking actually is, of course, but I’m blithely operating under the following rule of thumb for now – “If you mean constantly moving and changing things, maybe you shouldn’t use the word ‘system’?”

What does good thinking look like?

Earlier this week, I posted up the four images above on a twitter poll and on instagram, and asked the simple questions; A, B, C or D? No context, just that – of the four images, which would you choose. I’d said I’d explain a bit about it, but first though, what were the results?

Twitter folks go for D, then A:

Instagram folks are kinda similar, though it’s a much smaller sample size. The reactions, when people sent some additional thoughts, are also really interesting, but in particular I’m going to draw attention to Richard‘s comment here:

The real extremes in the test are A and D, to my mind.

The former is a solid, simple structure that’s trying to do one thing. All the colours are aligned, all the gradients are consistently directed. As Fraser said in his response, “a designer’s designer would say A“.

The latter, D, has a whole lot of things going on.

At first, it just feels a bit like random chaos, especially in context with the others. But then as you scan it a bit more, looking more closely, or holding it at arms length, it starts revealing different things. Richard’s idea about it making the mind feel ‘kaleidoscopic’ is bang on, I think.

Beyond playing with delights of isometric shapes and gradient effects though, I did promise to explain a bit more about what it’s for though.

Last year, various streams of work and teaching the Innovation & Future Thinking course at IED in Barcelona made me start wondering about revisiting the underlying tools and frameworks of Smithery’s work (Strategy, Prototyping, Culture, Design, Innovation… etc), and how all of those things connect. The last time I’d done this was back in 2014, when a month of blogging every day produced a set of theories and practices which formed the backbone of the following five years’ work.

Back in January, in ‘the before’, I gave a talk called “A Blacksmith Makes Their Own Tools“, which set the seeds of the reading and reflection on our work so far since starting in 2011. Then these past couple of months have provided a brilliant opportunity to get torn into that work properly, and start to shape a few early parts of the new work, of which the images are part.

What I’d been working on was a graphic representation of a basic information process, from sensing what’s out there in the world, through to the actions people take as a result. It pulls on a few pre-existing models already (Boyd’s OODA loops, some of Boisot’s information space) as well as some other reading I’ve been doing, and it’s not finished as yet. As a basic general framework, it’s a fairly useful starting point for me at the moment, and would already serve as a useful tool in asking questions of clients or students (Where do we get information from? How do we process it? What filters can we identify that prevent some information getting it?) in order to identify intervention points and practices to deploy.

I’m not going to dwell on it a lot now, but come back instead to the “A versus D” thing from above, as to which best represents the ‘in here’ part of the model. In short, what does the processing of information look like internally, be it as an individual (the things in your head) or an organisation (the knowledge we hold)?

Now, if I’d framed a question around this (perhaps ‘which of these represents thinking?’ or something similar), and presented people with the four images, I would imagine the answers would be very different. We are aware of the unstructured nature of our own minds as much as we are of the information and knowledge that resides inside the organisations we populate.

I would argue though in this context, the neatness and perfection of A is likely not what we’re looking for in these terms; the Sisyphean task of organising all our ideas and workflows into perfect order, I think, will remain forever beyond the grasp of people. Which opens up the question; if striving for perfection in structure is a futile goal, then what should we be aiming for instead? What does good thinking look like?

Anyway, that’s the next couple of months of thinking and writing sorted – pursuing the above and the themes obliquely sketched out below. I’ll be sharing more as soon as it is ready (and maybe an additional post on why it’s not following the same process as a month’s worth of blogging from the last time). Thanks to everyone who played along with the picture experiment.

A blacksmith makes their own tools

This week, I gave a talk (with a little bit of workshopping) as part of the third module of IPA Excellence Diploma. This was a course I did back in 2007/8, and without doing it, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do now, and definitely wouldn’t be thinking about things in the way I do.

It’s never a substitute, but people have asked if I’d be sharing the slides, so here you go. Just imagine that when you get to the ones that make no sense, I am in front of you saying something really profound. Ignore that pesky internal voice of yours that questions that how likely that would be, and just go with it…

It was an honour to be invited back by Amelia and Sera from The Fawnbrake Collective, who have taken over and reimagine dates course for the 2020s. Yet it feels like a gift, because being asked to reflect on 12 years of making / thinking and spot patterns in your own process has given me a view of my own work I’d never have seen otherwise. We alway look at the mountains ahead, rather than the hills behind.

The title of course comes from Dan Dennett’s 2013 book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, and quite clearly I’m still a sucker for anything that extends the blacksmith metaphor…

How many bags do you think that is?

I’ve noticed that there’s a fascinating little exchange at the end of the Ocado process. After you’ve received all your shopping, the delivery driver will ask ‘have you got any bags to return?’. It’s the bag recycle scheme they’ve been doing for a few years, where they give you 5p for every bag you give them back. After you hand them the pile, they ask ‘how bags do you think that is?’. You then say a number – you might know, or like us you might guess.

‘About 12?’ I offered today. “Ok, I’ll call it 20” said the driver, and off they went.

And it’s not just one or two drivers in particular that rounds up the number in this manner, but all of them. It’s so consistent, in fact, that today I started to wonder if it was designed as an exchange, as part of the service.

Because it’s such a simple, generous idea, to leave a customer at the end of the interaction feeling like the representative in the company has just given them something back.

It’s not really about the amount, the 40p extra refund. It’s the gesture that makes it work. And the fact that it’s a gesture from a person, rather than a discount figure that appears on an app, powered by an unseen algorithm. In comparison to other service companies who send people to your door, that projection of autonomy in the job is interesting.

During Natalie Kane’s presentation on the IED Innovation and Future Thinking course last month (yes, I will write something up, promise), she showed the class this, the Amazon warehouse picker wearable. It’s the antithesis of autonomy in a job – it is telling you what, where, when, and how, and your only job is simply to comply.

What struck me as the class was discussing it was that, yes, this is a wearable, but not in the way that you think. It’s not a person wearing a device, it’s an algorithm wearing a person.

Yet if the Ocado ‘how many bags?’ exchange is ‘designed’ and instructional in some way, then it’s merely just the allusion of autonomy. Is this worse in some ways?