Knowledge is faster than Mortar

I picked up a bag of coffee beans whilst we were on holiday, roasted by Skye Roastery and sold out of the Skye Farm Shop (“Local Produce for Local People”).  The coffee is especially interesting for me personally because I’ve been using coffee as a proxy for how MTPW>MPWT can play in even existing, seemingly saturated markets, but I was fascinated to find both the roastery and the shop on Skye, because it shows again just how quickly (and far) ideas can spread through culture.

Let’s think about two waves of coffee culture in the UK (and other countries too, but I know the UK best), assuming year zero as the time when coffee was either being a poor italian imitation in  restaurants or instant out of a jar in a cafe.

The first wave is the chains, which revolutionised the experience around buying coffee (Starbucks, Nero, Costa et al), though arguably their coffee isn’t that much better than what you could expect at the end of your meal in a decent restaurant.  But it wasn’t so much about the coffee as the thing that connected people, but the places they drank it in.  The second wave is the Artisan Coffee movement, where the quality, provenance, style, technique and other factors about the coffee itself very much is the thing the connects people.

The first wave has not reached Skye.  There are, as far as I can see, no coffee chain shops on Skye (the nearest Starbucks, for instance, is 113 miles away).  But, interestingly, the second wave has taken hold, and is evident in a lot of the places you can buy coffee, before the first has.

Interestingly, in a place where the second wave hits first, like Australia, it’s hard for first-wave style businesses to make inroads – “95 percent of the 6,500 cafes and coffee shops in Australia today are independently owned” according to the Slate article, despite Starbucks first having tried to extend into Australia in 2000.

It’s kind of simple when you think about the differences between the two.  The first wave needs things like:

– physical bricks & mortar stores
– a consolidated, consistent approach (or ‘brand’ if you will)
– centrally owned entities
– a minimum level of market size and opportunity in a certain location order to bother setting up there

The second wave, as evidenced by the Skye Roastery packaging, instead needs:

– the idea that there is one place things are done (the ‘roastery’ itself)
– the right cues that lots of other similar roasteries use as a brand (“Artisan”, Provenance notes, Black & White hand stamped labels)
– a loose affiliation of ‘people like us’ (the other shops who sell and serve the coffee)
– a much smaller, yet simultaneously less geographically specific market opportunity

The second wave coffee shops share an unoffical, decentralised brand.  Swedish wood counters, slate & chalk pricing boards, bearded folksy looking baristas.  It isn’t an official thing, there isn’t a formal checklist, it’s just people looking, thinking ‘I could do that’, and copying in their own way.  As a crude shorthand, knowledge is faster than mortar.

And not just the physical mortar of having to build and fit out locations.  The slow, leaden process of sticking organisations, brands and markets together in one place means that the first wave is always going to take longer to put together than the second wave. But they become bigger entities as a result, surely?

Whilst the first wave chains are invariably worth more money (and I’d guess a lot more), it’s very hard to judge how much the second wave is worth because, well, they’re all independent of each other.  Every time I find a long list of ‘independent coffee shops’ like this one, invariably it’s more notable for the omissions.

It’s invariably really hard to keep track of all of the independent coffee shops and roasteries (not forgetting the mail order coffee start-ups like Pact or Eight Point Nine).  In his chapter in Brand New Brand Thinking (2002) John Cronk talked about how Marketing was like yacht racing – there’s a start line, a finish line, but in-between you’d invariably postion yourselves by what the other yachts were doing, accoerding to who was finding a good line.  Yet by and large the instruments available to us are set up to look at other ‘yachts’.  How do you set yourself up to look at all the canoes, speedboats, jet-skis and other small nimble craft at the same time?

It’s largely impossible to set a value on what this market is worth, because of the speed with which they will set-up (and sometimes disappear again).  In some ways, the independents are to coffee what Anonymous is to politics.


(from Australian coffee shop ‘Anonymous‘)



They’re not one entity, there is no consistency, there is camaraderie and occasional fractious rifts between members (if indeed, membership is a thing that can be defined).  There are a loose set of cues that anyone can pick up and run with, yet it’s hard to fake – the community is pretty good on vetting anyone who doesn’t ‘fit’ – Tesco’s 49% ownership of Harris + Hoole, for instance, was jumped upon rather quickly, which will likely force it into competing with the first wave chains as a proposition, rather than a halfway house between the two.

What’s also interesting is how neither fits with the old model which they rail against.  You can’t vote for Anonymous, or form a coalition with them, or even sit down with the leadership and talk about doing things together.  Because they’re not built like that.  The old mechanisms don’t fit the new social structure.

Equally, if one of the established first wave chains decided that the second wave was worth investing in… where would they start?  Despite the success of the emergent second wave, there’s not an entity there to acquire, as such.  And even if Starbucks did buy one or two of the independents… what would they do with them?

As always, coffee is my chosen sector to use as a proxy for what might be at play in other sectors.  Something that caught my eye whilst thinking about this was the latest focus is on the falling sales for the big four supermarkets, and the implied answer from centralised measurement tools is that it’s being stolen away by the other challenger ‘yachts’.

Nowadays, we have to keep in mind that the money in peoples’ pockets isn’t just going to one of the other competitors on the research list.

Just because you can’t see it, or measure it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there, growing, and significant.


A review of 2013 projects – part 2

So then, following on from what Mr Howard may have called ‘the prologue‘… what did I learn from the three Smithery projects in 2013?

As with last year, here they are in the order I proposed them in, the original goal, what actually happened, and a grade.


1. The Sound of Smithery

In short: Investigate audio as a tool for fast turnaround of blogging ideas, or as ways to capture ‘in the moment pieces’ during projects.

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) (from original post) Sound recording has always fascinated me, from being in Gamages Model Train Club and the like, and I’m curious to find out if making media in this way is something that’s pretty niche (making, listening, sharing), or if it has broader possibilities for people and companies.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) Do a weekly “podcast” thing here on the blog, as a post, and see what people think, if people listen, and what they do as a result.



All in all, not too badly as a learning experience, but pretty terribly if we’re judging it by ‘do a weekly podcast’.  As a way to capture ideas for blogging, or even to capture ideas instead of blogging, a platform like Audiboo has proven itself to be pretty useful.

Record something into your phone, or through a microphone onto phone/tablet etc, and set it to not just automatically upload to the Audioboo site, but to cross-post into WordPress, Tumblr etc. It’s relatively quick and easy to do, and takes less worrying and editing than making videos. Doing them once, and live, seems to make it easier still.

For the first half of the year, I did quite a few that were just instead of (or to kick off) blog posts.  Andrew Sleigh at Lighthouse in Brighton referred to them as “Audiohunches”, which I liked a lot and so stuck – we talked about it here:

Occasionally, the audio post could be a marker for a blog post to be written, and I’d just expand on the audio after I’d though a bit more about it. Recording your voice (once you get past the weird self-conscious bit) is useful, as you sometimes discover what it is you think about things halfway through the sentence.

Then later on, I tried doing a series of daynotes for a week-long project at the Saïd Business School in Oxford, and again that proved to be useful, not just as a way of checking in on the project as we went, but listening back through the project afterwards to decide what to do (and not do) the second time we did it.

It’s worth noting that recently I’ve dropped off doing them.

I think I’ll do more again in 2014, and particularly for intensive projects to keep an update of what’s going on, but I don’t think it’ll ever turn into a weekly podcast thing. You never know, of course.

A word on technical stuff.  I tried a few different hardware setups to help the process.  Firstly, there’s a very simply trick Christian Payne taught me – get rid of the wind noise that affects the inbuilt microphone in your iPhone by simply using a standard microphone windshield, like this:

iPhone 5 & Microphone Shield

The built in iPhone mic is pretty good.  I did try a couple of other microphone things though.

Firstly, there was the Samson Meteor microphone, which I plugged into my iPad mini to do recordings (and more specifically interviews), as it gave a good 360 degree audio capture for more than one voice.  It’s got a very striking look too, which would possibly dissuade some folks.

Samson Meteor_Mic_straight_on-display

I have had a couple of issues now and again, but that’s mainly been an LED bulb that’s stopped working so I don’t know if it’s on or not.

But the Meteor has been pretty good, and certainly a better than the MicW i266 I’ve tried out too.  I really want this mic to be amazing, as it’s a small, pocket-sized wonder, but the one I’ve got puts out a significant amount of noise and records things really quietly.  I’ve sending it back to see if it’s faulty, and if I get one back that works better, I’ll post up a wee reappraisal.

MicW i266

All in all though, the audio experiments have been a relative success, without being anything magnificently groundbreaking.  A useful way to augment things, but never really going to be the thing itself, perhaps.

GRADE: a solid, if unspectacular, B


2. View From The Desk

In short: Use a quickly hacked together top-down webcam camera to create videos quickly and simply.

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) Because if I shoot more videos, and get into it, I’ll start to build up a better understanding of how small , inexpensive videos might be used in the future with the same regularity as written content and images might be now.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal) One video a week. Starting this week. With some time off for holidays and the like, let’s call it forty videos this year.



Well, once again the woolly doable goal remains unmet, but the project as a learning experience has been relatively useful.

I have done a few videos using the top-down camera hack (a webcam secured onto the end of an angle poise lamp frame with Sugru):

webcam stand

For instance, here’s the review I did for Mike Rohde’s Sketchnote Handbook:

But really that camera has been most useful as a second Skype camera for showing people various ideas on Artefact Cards – it presents a top-down view on the cards as I go through them, and has worked really well in working remotely with people.  It’s like having a plan view for your brain.

(If you use Artefact Cards, and want to have a go at making one, pop over here).

The camera I’ve made much more use of since buying it in August (which I’ve talked about before) is the tremendous Panasonic LX-7:

Panasonic Lumix LX7

Basically it’s a high end-compact camera, and it was reviews like this one that made me think that it might be a handier informal project camera to have around than a proper DSLR.

It’s meant that going through projects that I can quite quickly capture and edit together videos which are good *enough* (to the point of the previous post, nowadays it doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be up).

So for instance, around the Saïd Business School project, I could shoot things through with the LX7 as we went, then spent a few hours one morning pulling together a project video:

It was also delightful to discover the slow motion video abilities of the LX7, especially after Anne Hollowday (creator of the brilliant film series The Makers Of Things) had suggested I try that way of shooting… it works very well indeed with molten brass, as you’ll see:

Just shooting stuff without really knowing why seems to be a valuable thing too.  On another project, I happened to be down at Lighthouse when Honor gave a group we’d brought in a quick 20 minute private view of the brilliant Immaterials show from this year.

I’d had the LX7 for a week or two, and just happened to shoot some slow motion footage of Honor.  It occurred a couple of weeks after that it’d make a great accompaniment to an Audio post I’d put up after dConstruct:

So, have I made 40 videos this year?  No.  But I’ve made about 20, perhaps, some public and some for client projects, a few using the methods I intended, but more useful ones when I figured out what I could do better.

That’s the thing, though, I guess; there’s no point spending all of your resources (time+money) on setting up to start.  Just start.  Do one, see what the limitatations and problems you have are, then solve them when you do a second.

GRADE: a fairly respectable B+, with room for improvement


3. Capturing the BitTorrent for Artefact Cards

In short: Create a platform to capture various uses of Artefact Cards, for users to share.

WBB (Why Bloody Bother?) Because introducing people to a new way of working, then leaving them on their own to figure it out seems, well, a bit on a 20th Century way to do things.

WDG (Woolly, Doable Goal)  I have absolutely no idea… let’s call it “three ways in which people can put in and take out from the communal pot”.  That’s super-woolly, innit?



Super-woolly?  Thankfully, yes.  There is no ‘communal pot’ on the grand scale here, despite 2013 being the ‘year of the platform‘.  That’s the sort of thing that takes a lot more resource than I could commit this year.

However, rather than a public platform for doing this, there is a platform of sorts.  This year, I was lucky enough (and I’m still not sure how) to work with Adam Hoyle and Darrell Whitelaw on the Artefact app for iOS.

Hoyle & Whitelaw

I’ve also just decided that together, Adam and Darrell might be tech’s equivalent of The Persuaders.  But with better beards.  I’d watch that show.


Anyway, the app does one thing well – it’s an easy way to take pictures of the cards you create (or anything else  for that matter), store them on your phone, reorder them whenever you like, and export them as a PDF, presentation or series of pictures:

Artefact App

It’s worked really well as a companion piece for the cards (have a play for free here, if you haven’t already), but at the moment there’s no broad platform for sharing cards and decks between users, as the original goal would demand.

But then again, perhaps there doesn’t need to be.  After all, the primary purpose is to share ideas you’re working on with people you’re working on them with, and there are plenty of existing ways to do that (email, shared drives, Basecamp or whatever).  There are some things (in fact a lot of things) that don’t need that sort of social platform, perhaps.

But if I must judge on the basis of the original intention…

GRADE: C+, didn’t answer the set question


All in all, not a bad year.  Better grades than 2012 too.  The Daily Telegraph will write tomorrow that these exams are getting easier, no doubt…

What it has taught me after a second year of doing these projects, I get a lot out of them in various ways, but it’s really hard to set a meaningful goal.  There are too many variables.

Maybe for 2014 I should treat each project as immersion within a system, rather than a goal (as Neil talked about in a post earlier today).  And then judge success based on how deep in a given system I get to go.

I’ll think about that next week when I talk about the three projects for 2014.

A review of 2013 projects – part 1

Well, wouldn’t you know it, it’s time to review the three Smithery Projects for 2013; to explore audio by creating a regular podcast, to create 40 or so quick videos to explore new forms of sharing ideas, and to create a platform through which people could share Artefact Cards.

These aren’t, of course, client projects per se (though they proved to be very useful for such), but areas for exploration all centred around one theme, which in the case of 2013 was Media.

Let’s just look back on the premise, and then address the projects specifically in a second post (which I’ll put up shortly).


To set out my stall, I used the following three defining metaphors of media, and throughout 2013 and they proved very useful in harness together to frame ideas…

Media is the Connective Tissue of Society” – Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, 2010

Media is a Vehicle for Knowledge” – Cesar Hidalgo, MIT Media Lab, 2011

Now, nothing is all-digital any more than it’s all-physical.  Media is hybrid, just like buildings, devices, spaces, events etc.  Dan Hill, 2012


Taken together, they helped form a rough approximation in my head of what I was creating with various projects that I’d undertaken during the year, where I would think of media as:

Connective Objects
Transfer Knowledge
Time and Space

I talked about this at Playful in October 2013:

To paraphrase TS Eliot, “the past will be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past”.

There is no order; the only constant is the reordering.

All the media created around something (a project, a brand, an ideology) is in an unending state of interplay and interaction, so much so that it becomes of paramount importance to capture as much of what happens as ably as you can.

The point of this year’s projects were, of course, to start capturing things around projects in different ways – here’s how I laid it out in the setup in January:

“…as device storage gets bigger, broadband, wi-fi and mobile signal gets faster, and the costs gets lower, the capacity is there for richer forms of media to be shared with increasing regularity.

So I’ve been wondering if there’s going to be a new phase in the creation of audio & video by  people who’ve been taught that media doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be up.  You can worry about making it great later.”

Two things stick out here.

Firstly, by ‘richer forms of media’ (specifically video) I think we’ve seen a big shift this year into video – from Instagram Video as a response to Vine as a way to share quick videos through your mobile, to the news that 40% of YouTube traffic now comes from mobile devices.  People are watching, and creating, a lot more video all the time.

More and more great programmes and apps for doing this are emerging weekly; my personal recently favourite is Diptic Video, which lets you take videos from your phone, and mix them together in a fifteen second clip, over a song that you also pull from your phone… here’s a recent one I did in the middle of Helsinki:

All in all, there is a lot more media around, pushed by our innate creativity into the space the technological advancement continues to open up.

Secondly, by using the principle that it “doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be up”, we can work out what is appropriate afterwards by working off the inbuilt feedback loops of internet things.

We’re really good at being able to what’s working, and adjust.  Data is really useful as telemetry, rather than a predictive or creative force.  But we don’t get any of that goodness if we don’t get things out there, exposed to the wide world.

Not only is there a lot more media around, but we’re in a place where we do not, and perhaps cannot, know what is going to work (if in fact we ever did).  So we must set things free and see what happens.

Mike Krieger of Instagram had a delightful phrase for it a few years ago – “A day in the wild is worth a month of guessing”.

On that note, continue reading with Part 2, about how the three 2013 projects fared when let loose in the wild…


The Dayfilms Experiment – some rules and background

As part of the OSLP project ‘The Key To Leadership‘, I thought I’d see how quickly I could make films to document the process.  Can you shoot, edit, puiblish & edit in a single 24 hour period, so that it’s good enough to share online, but make it part of your work so you can get it done as you go.  Let’s call them dayfilms.

It harks back to part of the Smithery studio projects for the year, working with different kinds of media to tell stories.

I’m using my Lumix LX7 to shoot lots of high speed, informal shots, and combine that with audio captured with a Samson Meteor Mic and iPad mini.  I’m importing the film footage into the iPad on iOS7, cropping in the camera roll, stitching together with iMovie on the iPad, then adding the audio on underneath.

Here’s the first dayfilm, an interview with Thomas Forsyth, who’s working on the project with me.

Resolution Test – interview with Thomas Forsyth from Smithery on Vimeo.

Anytway, I thought it might be interesting to set myself a set of rules to work with for dayfilms.  Which might look like this (to be refined as I go):

1. It only counts if it’s from first shot to export in 24 hours.
2. It’s not the main thing you’re doing, but a recording of another part of your work
3. Distribution > Perfection

Let’s see how that pans out over the next few weeks.

How Our Work Might Work – my talk from Silicon Beach


That nice Dave Birss grabbed me before my talk, for a wee interview.  Though it would fit well here – covers basic ideas of the talks, making things, the new Artefact Boxes, and the Oxford Saïd Business School project…


A talk I gave at Silicon Beach 2013 in Bournemouth, about how the way in which brands, agencies and makers all might think about how they create the marketing for what it is they do.  Thanks to everyone down there for the brilliant reception, and especially Matt Desmier for inviting me.

Data, Telemetry & Whimsy

I saw this music device yesterday.  It has a 4 banks of 10 Perspex blocks, each bank representing a different musical element (drums, bass, vocals and so on), and the ten blocks within each being different samples from songs.

That white space in the middle recognises which block you’ve out down, and starts playing that sample.  You can move the sample around to change balance and volume.  It’s music creation by way of Kal-El’s Kryptonian crystals.

I stood and watched people for five minutes or so, listening to what they created, and seeing how they reacted to it.  It was a very quick cycle; intrigued, experimental, excited, going-through-the-motions, bored.

It’s a lovely piece of whimsy, a fun party thing.  But I can’t remember what it’s called, the morning after, even though I looked at the name and tried to force it into my head really quite hard.  But nope, gone.

However, it’s made me think about two things around data.

First of all, having lots of data to crunch and play with doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t space for new creative input.

The samples of the table were fixed, static, echoes of past creativity that you were allowed to play with, but not alter.  And there was no way to create your own sample (tapping on the table, sliding your finger across etc).

So you’re stuck in the same, repetitive loops of remixing someone else’s stuff.  No wonder people got bored.

It’s the same with marketing data; if you only use what’s on the table, and restrict yourself to that, then everybody’s going to get bored pretty quickly and walk away.

If you’re fixated on short term big data, you need to leave space for creative input and instinctive leaps, or you’ll never make anything new.

Secondly, the table shows how immediate and visceral data can be, but how quickly it loses importance and becomes irrelevant.

In the immediate past and present, the people generating and reacting to the data are captivated by it.  In that interesting loop of creating and perceiving simultaneously.

And in that moment, you could take any one of those individual blocks as a data point – for instance, what they were calling the bass line from Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.

(It ISN’T a bass line of course, but a semi-acoustic guitar set down an octave by an effect pedal.  They weren’t to know.)

You could analyse the immediate movements and reactions to that bass line across the table with great precision.  You could find out how many people used it, what they tended to use it with, the volume it would typically be set at, the eq balance, how long people used it for… and so on.  Getting data out is easy.

All that data that was generated could be used to create a pretty decent understanding of how that element was being used in that moment, and what perhaps might but done to make people use it more (suggestions of what to use it with, where to place it, etc).

But as you break out of the short term, people are going to turn away from that piece of whimsy, and disappear off to do something else.

Which means all that data you know about them from that session is irrelevant for them.  They have become subject to new, different, unseen stimulus that you’ll never be able to collect as data,so even if they come back to the table the next day, they’ll do different things and you’ll break your soul trying to use the data you do have to calculate why.

Perhaps data like this is only useful as telemetry – useful guidance in the short term around a thing to steer people.

If you are prepared to invest the time and effort and manpower into making data pay off in the short term, before people disappear off and the moment is lost, then it’s useful.

But if you’re just creating a piece of whimsy, where the aim is just to give people an interesting experience for a few minutes, then you might be better off spending less effort on working with the data around it, as pretty quickly the usefulness of the data will disappear.


If you haven’t already, why not follow this up with Mark Hancock’s piece on Big Data on the Guardian Professional site.

CONTAINER: Unleashed

I received my Artist’s proof of CONTAINER last week, the exploration of what form might look for the future of magazines curated, produced and edited by Tim Milne from ARTOMATIC.

I was delighted to be in the company of fellow contributors Accept & Proceed, James Bridle, Daniel Eatock, Malcolm Garrett, David Hieatt, Leila Johnson, Mother, Rebecca & Mike, Nic Roope & Violetta Boxhill.

Now, I’d been saying to Tim (for about two months) that I’d write a wee blog post about my contribution.  But I haven’t.  Instead, I’ve done a wee unboxing video. What was surprising to me was that even though I was part of the project, and knew roughly about everything else that was going in, how much more it made me think unpacking and holding everything for the first time.

(you can get CONTAINER here btw)


PS – there are undoubtedly people buying this who consider themselves ‘collectors’ of things… hoping that the early stage things they buy go up in value.  I think though we’re going to use ALL of the things at home somehow; I’ll post up what we do with each item perhaps.

Minimum Viable Presentation


We had the first Artefact meetup last week, which was great fun.  More on that over here.  But there will be more, that’s for sure.  Thanks to Helen & Mel at BBH for hosting, and the guys over at Carlsberg in Copenhagen for being the beer sponsors (and sending us some fine craft beer from the Jacobsen microbrewery).

At the end of the evening, Adam mentioned that he’d heard someone describe the app as “Minimum Viable Presentation”.  Which I think is brilliant.  I just wish I knew who it was who’d said it.

Anyway, get your MVP tool for iPhone over here, if you haven’t already –

And if you have it already, do be a dear and write us a review of it 🙂

Introducing The Artefact iPhone App

Yes, it’s been a little quiet on the blog of late – but with good reason.

A crack team of Adam Hoyle of Do Tank, Darrell Whitelaw of Siberia and myself (of making tea and random ideas) having been finishing off… the Artefact App for iPhone:



One of the things I’d picked up a lot when talking to users, or using the cards myself, is that there wasn’t an easy way to get the cards off the table or down from the wall, and into a computer or phone and sent to someone as a digital file of some form.

That’s the problem we set out to tackle, and I’m so so pleased with the result -it’s free to download and have a play with, with the advanced features being the very modest price of £2.49.

It’s not just for using with Artefact Cards, clearly – it works brilliantly for any sort of  working practice where you’re surrounded by piles of sticky-notes and flipcharts that need capturing.  Snap ’em, order ’em, and export as a presentation, PDF, or just the pictures.

It’s already been featured in the likes of PSFK, which is very nice.  If you know anyone else who might want to feature it, just send ’em my way.

Finally a wee postscript; working on it over the past few months with Adam (build) & Darrell (design & UI) who’re on opposite sides of the pond has been a brilliant, brilliant experience.   Basically because they’re both awesome people with a fondness for tea.  And very, very good at what they do.  Thank you, gents.

And you should see what we’re planning next for it…

Ta-ta then, happy playing.

What, you’re still here?