I was delighted to be asked to speak about Zenko Mapping at the Marketing Society’s Brave Get Together conference last month, especially given how many people are looking for new ways of working at the moment.
I put together a little film as an introduction to Zenko Mapping, a tool I’ve been developing for the last six years or so.
It’s a mapping tool which helps you to ‘do the next right thing’, whether when collaborating with others inside and outside of your organisation, or making decisions on where to go next. It makes your strategy and tactics visible.
Once you’ve watch the film, you may want to do one of three things.
Firstly, you might want to play around with the basic Zenko Mapping template, just to get a feel for how some of your own projects might play out.
Secondly, you might do this for a bit and think “well that’s interesting, but I need help applying it with my team”.
Give us a shout here, and we can totally help with that. We’ve been exploring different ways of using it with client for years, from running rapid orientation settings with teams, to designing custom versions for whole businesses to deploy.
Thirdly, I was also making an origami fox throughout the film, and so thought I’d share the instructions for that too so you can have a go.
There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
A because the gradients are spot on and draw your eye out of a hexagon into a cube. Solid yet transformative. But with refinement of colour distribution D makes my mind feel kaleidoscopic.
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 Thinkingcourse 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.
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.
Last week, after two days of teaching at the RCA with the Design Products gang, I also took part in a Future of Manufacturing edition of the School of Design’s evening lecture series. This involved three short talks and a panel with Asif Moghal from Autodesk, Gavin Munro from Full Grown and myself.
The below isn’t the script as such, just a (less sweary) exploration of the main points and some subsequent post-rationalisations. That said, it’s still written in the present tense, as it’s the sort of things that I wish I’d said (and might have said), but, like, said better. Ish.
My thanks go to Hannah Stewart at the RCA for the invitation, and to John Dodds for suggesting the pithy title of the talk…
The Oliver Twist
I’d like to talk about a problem in how people think about the things they make for people, and what we all might start doing to change that. I run Smithery, a Strategic Design Unit in London. In our interpretation, Strategic Design bridges disciplines and departments, roles and responsibilities; it is concerned with all of the factors around a thing, be they visible or invisible, and not just the thing itself.
Our practice is rooted in the philosophical stance that Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.
It should be noted that I have a somewhat strange background to be doing this work and talking here at the RCA. I went to university through the clearing system, when doing such a thing didn’t carry the financial disincentives that it does today. I’d originally wanted to study English, and did for a while, but ended up with a degree in Economics. In hindsight, I’m unable to tell you which demands a more applied use of fictional devices.
After university, I landed in market research, and spent a time unknowingly looking at what was the start in the decline of local newspapers. Then it working out how to replace the old paper posters on the underground with as many flashy, whizzy digital ones as possible. Then finally into media innovation for a seven year stretch.
This graph neatly shows my tenure in that area, starting at a time when social media was just a thing you did to get your friends along to see your band’s gigs. Then Friends Reunited was bought by a telly company, Myspace was bought by a newspaper company, and Facebook realised you can’t afford to be bought by anybody if you want to get on with your mission of destroying the fabric of democratic society as we know it connecting everyone on the planet.
The reason I got out was that it’s was really quite boring. As Jeffrey Hammerbacher pointed out back then, all of these great minds and technologies are being honed and pointed at making people click ads.
Maybe Jeff’s quote should now be updated to “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make agencies tell their clients that a pixel being on a screen for barely a second is probably enough to justify the expense of buying this shit”.
It’s not as catchy, but is arguably the only business model that Silicon Valley has managed to crack repeatedly, unless you count VC-backed Ponzi schemes pushing market-destroying services at a loss on the run-up to some ridiculous future IPO valuation.
Anyway, 2011 was a good time to get out of that.
Yet funnily enough, a lot of the companies who’ve spent all that time thinking about making people click boxes on tiny screens have started to expand their thinking away from just the screen and into things too.
The data monster needs more to feast on than the meagre scraps of information you’re feeding it now… how can Amazon launch an Alexa Advertising Network based on just knowing everything about some of the things you buy sometimes… it wants to know more…
So we’re now seeing the rise not of ‘product-as-a-service’ so much as ‘product-as-a-parasite’.
It comes into your home, or your office, plugged into your dashboard or splattered across your actual face, and (even when you’ve paid money for it) makes a living by sucking the data out of your daily routines and feeding it back to the central nervous system.
For example, take the Snap Spectacles – please, in fact, take them, because there are 300,000 pairs unsold, wasting in a warehouse somewhere. That little lot caused Snap to take a $40m write-down. But hey, that’s fine, it’s someone else’s money, right? That’s what investors are for.
The inherent gamble in products like this is that it might increase the number of users of the greater system (new users who’ve never used the old thing, but are attracted by the new product), or it might increase the amount of data you have from existing users. And if you’re very lucky, it might do both. More likely, it will do neither.
But where as digital product development is equally prone to failure (and perhaps more so), we can more easily bear the cost that this brings, both as the company trying something, and the wider society.
If a new digital thing doesn’t take off, then you’ve lost more human effort than anything else (and even then you could argue that when people are getting paid in the process, there’s some valuable economic activity happening somewhere). There’s no real long-term downside. But that’s not true if you have 300,000 plastic, metal, and rare-earth mineral things in a warehouse.
Another way of thinking about it is with economies of scale. In traditional manufacturing, if you just want to do one of something, it’s really, really expensive. Your cost per unit for the next comes down, and continues to do so for a good while – the next 300,000 after the first 300,000 look really cheap in comparison.
If you’re more used to scaling digital businesses, the curve you operate on might look a lot different. You can build something for the first ten users in a weekend with a friend, on computers you already own. Over time, you can increase design, functionality, hosting, and grow the user base as you go. If it gets bigger still, you rent some office space, grow the team, move on to better servers, redo the brand… the cost per user keeps going up, but only after you’re making enough money to pay that off and keep investing more of your money (or more likely your investors money) into feeling user growth.
Perhaps the problems start when a digitally-trained business are offered a cost curve like that of a traditional manufacturing business – at the point where things usually get more expensive per user, the manufactured items are getting cheaper! Cheaper, you say?! Let’s but an extra 300,000, I’m sure we’ll sell them.
The more shit products created by companies who haven’t really though this through, but just feel that it’s a useful route to growing their user base, then the more warehouses and dumps full of redundant waste future generations are going to have to deal with.
Designers are complicit in this. It’s the age of click-bait design, where, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get the lovely photo of the product you’ve designed for that start-up into Dezeen, and you can send it in an email to your Mum and say ‘look Mum, I designed that‘.
And then banner adverts for isometric chairs will follow your Mum around the internet for weeks afterwards, and she’ll wonder why.
But as a designer, you’ve got to own all of your product shots, not just the one you send to your parents.
But then you should really send your Mum this one too, where the thing you designed didn’t really fit into the existing systems people were already using, and it go a bit inconvenient. That’s on you.
Then there’s this one, where the people who were using the thing you made started abandoning it in the middle of towns and cities because… well, it wasn’t obvious or easy where they went, or there was no incentive, and then someone else had done it, so… yeah, that’s your product shot too.
Then there’s this doozy. That’s a repair man in Beijing wondering where he’s going to start repairing all of the bikes which have something wrong with them to get them back on the streets. He’d tell you that this is your product shot too.
Then, finally, comes the best product shot of all, because they had to use a drone to take it. That’s a sharing bike graveyard in Xiamen in China, where the whole ‘bike-sharing start-up’ craze has reached the point where you have 1.5m sharing bikes in Shanghai, which is three times bigger than London which manages with 11,000 Santander bikes.
In short, if companies continue to make physical products with a start-up. digital first mentality, then we will drown in this stuff.
What we need to do is find a way of persuading people to want not more, but less. Making Things People Want, yes, but where the ‘thing’ in that idea is a concept of responsible sustainable existence, rather than simply the accumulation of MOAR THINGZ.
I’ve been thinking about the term leastmodernism since a talk I gave at dConstruct in 2015 – how do we fuse together than spirit of modernism, the wide-scale, far-reaching transformation of the world, but centred around the idea that it’s about what you’ve not done, what you’ve chosen to leave out, the repairs you enable… what are the repeatable patterns and expectations we can build into a wide variety or products, services and systems so that the expectation of less becomes a habit?
After the five-year celebratory extravagances of last year’s festive Three Spirits project, we over at Smithery decided that we’re keeping the basic form of those three trees and expanding it into our annual Christmas present to Smithery clients. This year, we’ve made two things from it. First of all, there’s a special Christmas Coffee blend produced in collaboration with Lindfield Coffee Works. Then there’s a screen-printed card that Helen created, setting up a mini printing press in our kitchen for a couple of days. These all went out a week and a half ago, in plenty time for people to receive and enjoy the coffee on their Christmas holidays.
We hope you all enjoy your time with friends and family too, and wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the fortune and fun you can wish for in 2018.
We’ve recently been working with the Emerging Technologies team at The Royal Society, for a conference they put on for their Fellowship.
The purpose of the conference was twofold; to introduce the fellowship to a set of different tools from the ‘futures’ toolkit, and then use those tools to explore which areas of technological focus the Fellowship believed should be of highest priority for The Royal Society in the coming years.
Our specific role was to take four broad scenarios for the UK in 2030, as developed by the Emerging Technologies team, and solidify that in some speculative design work which would give the Fellowship prompts to examine each of the four scenarios, work out what was happening in that specific future, and begin to describe the implications these futures would have on science in the UK.
Here’s how we went about defining an approach, putting together an awesome team comprising Scott Smith of Changeist, Thomas Forsyth, Stanley James Press,School 21 and Helen and myself from Smithery, and then delivered it through a new clandestine national facility; The Time Capsule Retrieval Service.
So, why time capsules?
When thinking about the context, we first of all thought about the participants at the conference. The Fellowship of The Royal Society are by definition the leading scientific minds of the age, pioneering breakthroughs in specific fields through both academic and commercial environments.
In short, if there are to be significant scientific and technological breakthroughs that impact our lives in 2030, in all likelihood the Fellowship are working on them now.
Which means you enter a tricky dilemma when it comes to speculative design; how do you avoid trying to out-science the scientists? Anything you put in front of a group such as this will be immediately subject to a natural level of scrutiny that keenly-honed expert minds will bring to bear.
Our proposal was to switch the emphasis in the speculative design away from representing the ‘ground-breaking’ technologies of 2030, and examine the social impacts that particular technologies may have. What would life be like for people in these particular scenarios? If only they could show us…
Which is where the time capsules come in.
For over a hundred years, communities have been marking important events by gathering together a series of artefacts in a robust container, and burying them in the ground, securing them in foundations and walls, or even designing special crypts to hold them. If you’re of a certain generation, the versions that come to mind most might be from the BBC children’s show Blue Peter, who buried a succession of capsules on their show.
All time capsules have a common message at their heart – “hello there, people from another time… this is who we are”. Imagine if a series of time capsules put in the ground in 2030 didn’t go forwards in time for future generations, but came backwards, so we could see what’s in store.
And so, The Time Capsule Retrieval Service was born:
Using the British Library’s guide to making a time capsule, we set boundaries for how the capsules themselves would be created by the groups in 2030. We simplified a little, to give ourselves some cleaner design constraints:
Get a strong, non-corrodible airtight container made from stainless steel/tough plastic
Use things like paper, non-PVC plastics, wood, devices without power, wrapped separately
Avoid plants, animals, insects, rubber, and batteries – all can give off corrosive substances
Place the time capsule in a cool, dry location (e.g. building foundations)
In order to think about what groups of children would be likely to put in a time capsule, we worked with the pupils and staff at School 21 in Stratford. I recently met Debbie Penglis from the school at a conference, and had subsequently had a tour from her around the school to learn more about their unique approach to education. In particular, I was very excited about the Project Based Learning approach, which feels to me like the sort of education that will really help bring out the best in a lot of people. They were a natural partner to work with on a project like this.
Alongside the Emerging Technologies team from The Royal Society, and the staff at School 21, we ran a workshop with a group of 13 year olds in two halves.
Firstly, what would the pupils put into a time capsule today to represent what life was like for them? Then, once we’d introduced the four scenarios, what could they imagine that a class of 13 year olds in 2030 would put in their time capsules?
The exercise gave us a whole raft of inspiration for the sorts of things that groups of children (and more broadly the communities they live in) would include when it came to communicating who they were through a series of objects.
With all this material to work from, it was then time to create the time capsules for each of the four scenarios.
To do this, we needed to define a clear situation for each of the time capsules, writing a story about the exact “who, where, what and why” that we could keep coming back to.
This additional layer of story was injected to help us get from broad, world-sized scenario to a more human scale environment in which we could imagine—then manifest—everyday objects that might exist in each future.
We set each time capsule in a different town, and wrote a short story of the events in that place that led to the creation of their time capsule. I’m not going to reproduce them here (for reasons I’ll explain shortly) but the summary banners from the event are pictured below.
Each narrative then acted as a bond between the different objects we would go about creating.
We developed a long list of roughly twenty-five objects for each capsule, pulling on the lists created with School21 plus our other time capsule research, and set the goal of selecting the six most viable objects for each capsule to get across all the core emergent technologies in each scenario.
Of course, doing this much design so quickly was always going to be a challenge; not only do you need a team that can flit between styles and approaches in creating the objects, they also need to continually test the believability of each item. Scott, Emily, Thomas, Helen and myself found ourselves constantly testing each other on the credibility of each item as they developed.
The hardest part, perhaps, was how to do ‘plausible’ design; an underfunded school in the future is not going to have beautifully designed templates, so how do you design something that looks like it’s been put together by an in-house team, but is well designed enough to get the points across in the conference.
Finally, the last part of the task was to introduce these capsules at the conference, the third of three exercises on the first day, and after the Fellows had been introduced to the broader scenarios to set the scene for where these time capsules had travelled back from.
The broad delight when people started digging in was wonderful to hear – I was playing a floating role in the background, though in the end didn’t need to really help at all, the objects seemed to speak for themselves.
Perhaps what made it work so well was that we didn’t give the participants the full narrative structure (the stories I mentioned before). In each time capsule, just as you’d find in a real one, there’s a letter from the people who’ve put it together (this one, for example, by one of our in-house junior designers):
After reading the letters, the participants had to find and make connections of their own. By freeing the objects from the whole story, the time capsules themselves a platform for lots of different potential futures.
I’ve been thinking about it graphically like this; to start with, the narrative was about keeping the objects cohesive as a set, bound into one structure:
Whereas by taking that narrative away, it meant the Fellowship from The Royal Society who opened the capsules were asked to fill the gaps between the objects with their own ideas and experience.
Each capsule contained objects that were open to interpretation, and it was the interpretations we were seeking in the first place. If these were potential futures for people in the UK, then what might be the factors that take us there, and which emerging technologies must the UK focus on as a result.
But the themes that emerged from different teams opening the same capsule were different, and I have no doubt you’d continue to get more interpretations with different groups of people if you reran the exercise.
“Lossy futures — be they artifacts, simple scenarios, wireframes of speculation, rich prompts, brief vignettes or some other material object — give us the scaffolding and ask or allow us to determine the details ourselves. In doing so, they transmit the critical data, the minimum viable future, and give us the opportunity to fill in the gaps we think are important to understanding, or have a dialogue around what these gaps may mean.”
Once people discovered that this was ‘the game’ they were being invited to play, it meant that they got even more creative with their interpretations, pulling out angles and information we hadn’t yet thought about.
Throughout the process, I kept thinking back to the work we shared in 2014 around “Flow Engines”, and how the time capsules are a very useful example of how to take that idea and put it into practice.
The ‘high consequences‘ at the start comes from the unveiling of the capsule itself, and the simple instruction; we want you to tell us what’s going in in this future, and how we will come to get there.
The ‘rich environment‘ is then created by the mix of different objects, the need for complex puzzle solving, and the various layers of information that reveal themselves as people investigate items for a second or third time.
Then, finally, there’s ‘embodiment‘. The last task for each group was to take the items, and create a map around them of the emerging technologies and the implications they would have on our future.
All in all, we’re delighted to have worked on the project with a great team at The Royal Society, who were very up for pushing the boundaries of what we could and couldn’t do.
Thanks also to Provenance, for allowing us to sneak in little Easter egg on the packaging for The Maidstone Saveloy (100% NuPro cricket protein sausage folks… well, it’s better for you than the typical mystery meat).
Thank you also to Curtis James, who took a beautiful set of inventory photos for us.
It’s also the very first Smithery project that (to the point of a ‘family business‘ I talked about last year) all four of us in the Willshire household have made something for. So thanks to the junior design team for their contributions.
And thanks again to Scott at Changeist, Thomas Forsyth, Stanley James Press and School 21, for making it one of our favourite Smithery projects yet. Who knows, maybe we’ll repeat the experience with some other organisations who’ll call upon the service of the Time Capsule Retrieval Service.
Contact us here if you know of anyone, and we’ll be sure to pass the message on…
I was very excited to be invited to Oslo to give the final keynote of the Webdagene conference. It’s one of my favourite cities, and the speaker line-up was immense too – you should check out all of the talks.
My talk was an updated version of the Metastrategy idea, with cleaner entry points into the theory, and an extended practical back-end. Please enjoy, and as always questions, additions and thoughts in the comments below are most welcome.
Every year, we set three internal projects for Smithery; things we want to work on that will improve our own practice, be fun to explore, and originally to occupy a little downtime too. As perhaps evidenced by the performance on last year’s projects (see 2015 project write-up), we seem to have a bit less time nowadays to purposefully muck about.
Firstly, some of that is down to workload; we’re working on more complex, nuanced, interesting problems for clients. They’re more compelling to get readily lost in, to wander through and wonder about. We’re doing the sort of projects I started Smithery for.
Secondly, a lot of the things we do as part of projects nowadays perhaps take the place of the more makery stuff we used centre some personal projects around. Adopting various things into our approach, like the principles from Seymour Papert’s Constructionism, means that more often than not we have ‘a thing’ in the middle of the table to facilitate discussion, design and direction. We make things all the time.
And perhaps thirdly, the internal projects have served as useful proof-of-concepts, and in pointing to them (and subsequent clients things) we are asked to do more things like those. Getting paid actual money for things you really like to do anyway is always nice.
I talked a while ago about ‘The Blacksmith’s Sign’; a beautiful wrought iron sign that hangs from a post, an ornate piece of communication about the type of work done within. People would see the sign, and think ‘ah, there’s someone who could help me with X…’ and another client was secured. The client didn’t want a sign, of course. They wanted the skills that created that sign. In some way, that’s what some of the Smithery internal projects have been about, wittingly or not…
In the light of all this, we’ve been thinking a lot over the holidays about the right internal projects this year, and how after four years they might change focus a bit, beyond just thinking of ourselves.
‘Internal projects’ seems a little small. We have decided we want to be a little more ambitious in how we make the projects as useful as possible beyond our own walls. Stealing an idea from Charles & Ray Eames, how do we use the projects to deliver “the best for the most for the least”; to create really useful outputs from the projects, which can offer greater value for more people, making the very best use of the resources we have available.
With all that in mind, here’s our three for 2016.
There’s a What, a How and a Where…
1. WHAT – Strategic Design Unit
What is Smithery? Ah, the perennial question. The original answer was long and uncertain, as proved by the thing I must’ve written when asked by Campaign on leaving PHD:
“…called Smithery, the business will look to work with clients on brand and service innovation, community initiatives, crowdsourcing projects and marketing and media strategy.”
About a year in, and after I’d reflected on the actual work I was doing, it become “an innovation studio” (after a German magazine called PAGE called it that). Formulating “Make Things People Want > Making People Want Things” helped explain what it was about.
What about now though? Smithery has always been centred around innovation; an inheritance of the previous role I’d had for five years, a comfortable legitimacy.
But increasingly, looking at the work we’ve done over the last twelve months, that’s not the right definition anymore.
It’s harder to see what I thought innovation was looking at how it’s used everywhere now. As a term, innovation is at risk of being meaninglessly overused and abused. In too many cases, it just means ’slightly better than useful’, or ‘the things we do to hide the day job’. It is hard to discern what it is someone’s actually talking about when using the word. It is a fat, unhelpful descriptor, just like digital became before it. I find myself having to go through layers of conversation with people when they say ‘innovation’ to find out what they actually mean…
Which is partly what the system we’ve developed around our practice is a reaction to, I think.
Rooted in the gearbox idea from Smithery 3.0 in 2014 (around Stewart Brand’s shearing layers), the system uses four complementary realms, and in particular their relationship to each other, to help us define what sort of job we’re actually looking at. Or at the very least, helps state the question that everyone at the start of the project thinks we’re trying to answer (it usually changes, but that’s another story).
None of the realms are described as ‘innovation’, of course, and you can’t describe everything we do as innovation, either in our own understanding of it or that of others. So if Smithery isn’t an innovation studio, what is it?
DMATH is a terrific read, and in reading Dan’s post about it, which started from Dan’s talk at the first Laptops & Looms, which itself was an important experience for me, as I found myself at it barely a month into starting Smithery at Toby & Russell’s invitation.
L&L – Read Adrian’s take on what it was, if you don’t know, which is a) great and b) links to lots of other reactions to it, as all good rabbit holes should.
But it’s only in reading DMATH again, in context of the last eighteen months of work, that I’ve started to appreciate what Dan is really getting at, from a practitioner’s perspective, when talking about Strategic Design.
Rather than trying to design specific solutions, and ones constrained by the same silos that create previous failing ones at that, Strategic Design bridges disciplines and departments within the organisation as currently exists, and seeks to change the cultural, political and social factors which prevent necessary change; the hidden things, the ‘dark matter’ the title refers to.
Another thing I’ve been reading (for the first time) is John Harwood’s The Interface, an exploration of the seminal IBM Design programme led by Eliot Noyes (who brought in Charles & Ray Eames, Paul Rand, etc), which transformed the business starting in the late fifties. What you realise from reading the stories back is just how much the politics and the social structures that Noyes & Thomas Watson Jr (his client, and new IBM CEO) navigated their way through were part of the design project.
I could keep going in, but in this first week of January though, I’m very aware that there’s a lot more to research, and this is just the setting out of our stall. What other examples and takes on Strategic Design should we appraise ourselves of? This one? These folks? Does it really match up to the system we have? It does feel, on the surface, like what we’ve been working on with Smithery (somewhat unknowingly to an extent):
Exhibit A: We’re working with an innovation team from one end of the business, as well as the sales team from the other end. Rather than waiting three years for innovation to hit the front line and change the organisation, we’re helping them create and deploy the ideas and constructs immediately to make a difference for their customers. Building conceptual and functional platforms and methods upon which they create things together. It’s a long, investigative journey of researching, prototyping, talking and observing. Developing a feel for the rhythm of the organisation, things we can see, things we can’t. What results is a field kit, a box full of the future, in many different iterations, that the sales team can use with clients to scope out problems together.
Exhibit B: We were asked to put together a ‘War Game’ for a global strategy team last autumn. They were bringing together the thirty strategic leaders from across the globe, who don’t see each other that often. The brief time they have together is valuable. Traditionally, ‘War Games’ are long extrapolations of one scenario. And it’s a rational thing for global strategy teams to ask for. No one gets fired for asking for a war game. But in rooting around in what the problem actually was, they wanted their people to become better at reacting to unforeseen circumstances. So instead of running a long game of ‘Risk, one long, exhaustive scenario, we designed a card game, more ‘Poker’ (multiple, recombinant, rapid scenarios). Instead of one scenario, we build 21 in three hours. But we only build half the deck; half are blank, for the client teams to create their own additional and variations in the future. In a sense, rather than just create a fully formed thing for one experience in the business, we made a half-formed thing they would take back home with them, and create their own experiences with.
In both these cases, of course, it wasn’t just us. We pull together ‘units’, small specialist teams to work on these things, according to the task. Sometimes individuals, sometimes wee groups of people from other companies. But importantly, I think, people from the inside of the client teams too. It’s less about building units for people, but building the units including people.
So the WHAT project is this: What Is A Strategic Design Unit?
WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) – In these first fresh weeks of 2016, inhabiting a new way of seeing what we do is something to test out. Then with further reading and reflection, we’ll be experimenting and investigating what it takes to be a “Strategic Design Unit”.
WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Working out what Strategic Design means for us, how we describe ‘strategic design units’ helpfully for others, and creating an artefact of our investigations (writing a guide on how we get on to publish, a white paper, or something). The best articulation we can create, available to develop and build on through creative commons, that asks the least from others and ourselves in order to take the most from it.
2. HOW – Universal Agility Map
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sketched the thing below in the last year. Using the same axes of ‘people’ and ‘things’ as the system above, it’s nine-box variant for appraising what you should do next on a project basis. If the four box system model is the what, then this is the how.
Very simply, you start projects in the bottom left, work quickly with a small team, then work out what to do next; Improve or Share. Go out to the right to share with more people, taking what you’ve got into qualitative, then quantitative ways of testing what you’ve made, before you spend all your resources making it better. Go up to improve, and make a better version of what it is you’ve come up with as a team.
As a simple instruction, ‘improve or share’ shares a lot from modern, iterative working, but there’s some additional things in there too.
For one, it’s non-judgemental. There is no right and wrong in the approach. Instead, it simple demands that you ask yourself, as truthfully as you can, what the most appropriate thing to do is. For another, it allows you to perceive the empty spaces in the process, and think about where else you might have taken the project, had you chosen to go there.
There’s more detail on what this method is here, but in short it’s about using a design process that isn’t wedded to time. Time doesn’t sit on the X axis of the two-dimensional model, so therefore the emphasis is not simply on moving from left to right. It’s like a self-directed version of snakes and ladders for projects.
The more we’ve used it ourselves, and talked about it to other people, the more it seems useful in situations as a way for other people to think about the way they work.
We think it might be a UniversalAgility Map.
The idea that it’s a map, specifically, came from an afternoon we spent hanging out with Ella Saltmarshe and Tim Milne, reflecting on a project each of us had done and mapping the out across the grid, plotting points according to the action we’d taken at each stage (improve/share).
Then the best bit, which was Ella’s idea for the session, was to then think about how it felt at each stage of the project, and to map those feelings on too. We got to some really interesting ways of describing the territory through this.
For instance, if you only keep improving something, without sharing it with others, it gets harder to share it eventually and take all the feedback on board at once. It’s like a mountain range that’s easier to cross when you’re further south in the foothills, but the further north you go, the higher and colder it becomes to make it over the mountains.
If you only talk about and get input and data about a project, on the other hand, and never use any of that to make significant steps on, you get lost in ‘the forests of constant chatter’… you never get anywhere as you’re lost in the reactions of what you get from external sources.
All of this is something we want to work on more this year, and make something that people can take for themselves and use as a way of improving their own working process.
The HOW project is this: How Do You Use The Universal Agility Map?
WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) – We’ve found it really useful. We think other people will find it really useful. How we communicate the value we’ve found in that will be a good challenge for us (we’ve spent a year on it, surely it doesn’t take that long to learn), and beneficial for others.
WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Work out a way to teach it to people. Then teach it in person, at places where I teach already, like IED Barcleona & Google Squared, and in new places too. And, just maybe, create an artefact of the method too, so that people can teach themselves. Our friend Tina does a wonderful range of maps already, we should talk to her…
3. WHERE – Perpetual Spatial Ranges
The book I recommended most to people last year was Prototype, edited by Louis Valentine. It features a cornucopia of different takes on what prototypes are, written by practitioners in quite different spheres. It’s from 2010, rather than being from last year, but when I stumbled across it, I loved it from the off.
One of the ideas I kept coming back to was from an essay called ‘Prototypes as a Central Vein For Knowledge Development‘ by Pieter Jan Stappers, in which he references ideas created during a PhD by dutch designer Ianus Keller.
Keller proposed that there could be ways to set up working environments for people engaged in prototyping which bring together what they are working on immediately in their hands, what is close to them on the table, and what they see in the environment in line-of-sight.
“The bodily interactions in design activities can be divided into three spatial ranges, each serving different cognitive functions” as the essay puts it.
The simple idea of the ‘spatial ranges’ gripped me, partly because of the Artefact Cards work over the last few years (which starts at the precision range, then stretches into the layout range), but partly because I’ve always been fascinated at exploring the spaces we all work in (effectively and not).
The Atmosphere range is one I personally think we at Smithery should concentrate this year on understanding more, and linking back to the other ranges. We’ve also been working these last six months on a fascinating ‘Future Of The Workplace’ project with a client, which we should be able to say a lot more about soon, I hope.
It’s not just a way to think about the way people work when in particular set-ups (like Keller was exploring with ways of prototyping) but in every moment we work. Do we always pull things in from the precision, layout and atmosphere ranges when working, knowingly or not?
Do we work in what we might call ‘Perpetual Spatial Ranges‘, three circles around us we should be much more mindful of? By considering these ranges, and understanding how they relate to each other, and what makes for good working practice for ourselves and teams, can we learn how to adjust and align the ranges, like a dance of working practice?
When you start thinking about it in this way, you realise that in most work environments, the design of the spatial ranges aren’t that aligned. Team leaders, facilities managers, IT Departments, the board’s latest attempt at interior design… the number of different people taking unilateral decisions about the ranges soon stacks up, and perhaps damages or impedes the work people are being asked to do.
So what to do about this, then? Well, we have, by chance, some projects lined up this year which have a lot to do with the realms in which teams work. How to design environments which are most conducive to the sort of work you want people to more readily and easily produce. We might also explore our own working environment more, and set up an experiment of working practice that plays on these ideas.
Finally, then, the Where project is this: Where can you see Perpetual Spatial Ranges at work?
WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) – From the 2014 work based on the Stewart Brand shearing layers, it’s been really apparent that the spaces in which people work are part of the domain of trying to solve the problems we’re asked to. This is the year to get to grips with that properly.
WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Find a place to show people what we mean by Perpetual Spatial Ranges, whether it’s a place we work in, or someone else works in, or one we’ve designed for someone else for a specific purpose. Then, perhaps, run a tour of the space…?
There we go then. That should keep us busy, but hopefully in a way that creates more value for more people. We’ll see at the end of the year in the wrap-up.
It’s that time of year again; a review of the annual Smithery projects, as laid out here, and then start thinking about next year’s projects.
**As a very early tangent, I realise why I’ve been pondering this in the days after Christmas, and before New Year – I love Lauren Laverne at the best of times, but in particular this week as in this piece she draws attention to the Norwegian term Romjul –
“Romjul is the Norwegian word for the last week of the year. It has a name and its own specific set of activities and traditions, which help make the most of the holidays, but also bring a bit of balance and recalibration to the last few days of the year. There’s eating, obviously, and a fair bit of staying in, creating a cosy nest. It’s a peaceful time to hang out with family and friends, but it’s also traditional to get outside and take walks, and to spend some time reflecting on the year that has passed and what comes next.”
…sorry, worth sharing I thought. Back to the matter in hand…
The Smithery projects have always been set up as something slightly apart from the client work, internal things I wanted to do that benefits how we work, that clients would ultimately benefit from indirectly. Last year was the first time there were two of us writing them (Fraser and I), but given Fraser’s halfway up a mountain at the moment, you’ll have to make do with me writing this review.
The projects last year were an alliterative little bunch; Practice, Play & Produce. Each had their own specific intro (follow those links), and of course their own objectives.
To quickly recap…
1 – PRACTICE
WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) – The aim of this project is to establish a shared language of practice for Smithery. As the work expands in scope, and the studio grows, having a common way to approach complex problems seems mandatory.
WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) – Define the axes properly, identify what Smithery offers in each quadrant, and write something on each of the 25 sub-sections to help orientate different types of work.
2 – PLAY
WBB – “Playing With Ideas” works when designing workshops, one-off experiences, and so on. But it feels like there’s scope to go further, to set up systems and games people can use themselves to be more productive…
WDG – Work up three general versions of this so that other people can pick them up and use them without us being there to scaffold them into it. And make a version of one of them to sell to folks, either crowd-funded or direct.
3 – PRODUCE
WBB – “If you don’t make anything yourself you’ll never make anything of yourself” now this might not be 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 – 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.
So then… how did we do?
I’m going to address them in reverse order, and give them a score out of ten.
Produce was always going to be the most fulfilling to do, and hardest to achieve. One reason, perhaps, is that it’s harder to slot in the making of things in between client projects; it takes a mental shift sometimes to find the space to make a thing.
Another is, as Alex wrote in her excellent review of the Good Night Lamp year, making is waiting. When you’re making physical things which need some sort of scale, this is especially true. For instance, you design a version of something, then send it off… and wait days to see the prototype. It’s not like more digital forms of making, where you can form a more instant test-and-learn approach as you see the results of every change and tweak. And it’s also not like pure craft, where you’re making a one-off piece (a pot, let’s say), and you feel and see every shift in the material as you go.
Finally, of course, there’s Artefact Cards – we already have a ready-made (sic) production arm (albeit now a separate company), which we’ve been creating new products and things for all year. Sometimes it’s for Artefact Cards, sometimes collaborations, sometimes for Smithery client work (which I’ll blog about separately, next year, when I can).
In hindsight… does this count, or not? Should we have been making different things? Or is it a useful platform upon which to make things to explore things with people.
I kinda feel that if we were to count all the useful, provocative things we used the cards for this year, we’d pass the criteria as set for the project with flying colours. There’s been at least twelve. Part of the discovery of this year was just how deep the whole card thing goes, which I talked about at Adaptive Lab’s Pi People event in September:
But there’s no point going soft on ourselves; this wasn’t the goal, as Fraser wrote about it back in January. To pass, we’d have needed much more non-card production, I think. So I’m going to state that it’s a 4/10 for PRODUCE.
Next up, PLAY. I was about to fail us on this, totally, but then I read the description again…
“Playing With Ideas” works when designing workshops, one-off experiences, and so on. But it feels like there’s scope to go further, to set up systems and games people can use themselves to be more productive…
And thought back to something that happened after my dConstruct talk (below)…
John Ellison at Clearleft took one of the games I mentioned in the talk, Popular Thing For Broken Thing, and wrote a brilliant description of the game as they put it into practice on a project – you should pop over here and give it a read.
That game, and others, we’ve played at workshops this year in a very diverse mix of places, from Barclays Capital to Google Squared to the Museums Association. All the games have one thing in common, perhaps; they’re not terribly hard to remember how to run. And if you get it wrong, then hey, that’s a new version.
In this sense, it’s all about what you leave behind, rather than what you bring. Giving people useful games to play with each other means, I think, they can be more productive when you’re not there. They’re also more likely to play the thing again, if it’s a fun, productive thing to do. It’s been a very useful way to create value this year for other people to take away.
When I read the WDG again, it says ‘Work up three general versions of this so that other people can pick them up and use them without us being there to scaffold them into it. And make a version of one of them to sell to folks, either crowd-funded or direct.’. We didn’t do that at all. Hmmm.
In the strictest terms, we’ve failed. PLAY gets a 1/10. In hindsight, the aims are wrong, and I’m much happier as a result.
Finally then, PRACTICE…
We started the year with a vague notion that the card you see at the top, those cartesian coordinates of ‘people’ and ‘things’, was a way to describe… well, everything we did. The very point of Smithery, when founded 4+ years ago, was to stretch right across organisations in order to solve the problems that really needed solving, not just iterate in domains long-past their sell-by date.
In this model, I think we’ve found it. It’s been tremendously useful and production on a weekly, if not daily basis, as a way to think about the type of project we’re shaping with clients, what stage things are at, what actions are most viable next.
There’s an extended post on the thinking behind it here, too (though I’ve stopped referring to it as the ‘Axes of Praxis’, a joke that lost its shine at some point…) – https://smithery.com/making/a-sonic-screwdriver-for-thinking/
What’s come out of it most usefully, I think, is the ability to clearly state what Smithery does (beyond ‘Making Things People Want > Making People Wants Things’), and why, and therefore what we would do at any given point for a client.
These four interrelated areas we think about are Design, Strategy, Prototype and Culture.
Prototypes are small things we do with small groups of people. When the thing we make together needs advancing, and the thing-thing is more important that the people-thing, we shift into Design. When we find that the wider organisation needs to shift in order to make the future successful, and the people-thing is more important than the thing-thing, we shift into Culture. And finally, when thinking about all of the people, and all of the things, we are operating at the Strategy level.
Then there’s a nine-box grid version too, which details out a project as it progresses, which makes for a really useful design process where time isn’t used on the X axis… I talked about that at UX London:
Overall, this PRACTICE section of the projects has been a real success – although I never did write 25 pieces about it.
For that slip, let’s go 8/10 for PRACTICE.
There we have it then, the 2015 projects in review, and just in time for Hogmanay too. We’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year, and see you in a few days, when we’ll talk about the 2016 projects and the year ahead…