Artefact 234 – Your Letters

I sent out the latest edition of the Artefacts newsletter earlier this week, 3000+ words on a variety of things. Interestingly, various people got in touch with contributions, thoughts, questions, and more, but all via different platforms. There was no one place to share responses which other people might see and get something from too.

something something platform fragmentation…

Anyway, as a possible one-off, here’s the Artefacts Letter Page – a response to some of the correspondence which might be useful for others.

Nick writes

Having been in a set of Wardley Mapping sessions for the last couple of weeks – the point about the process of mapping being potentially of more value then the maps that come out of the process really hit home. 

The pointer to Jeet Kune Do was both useful and fascinating, and something I can mine for metaphors. If I wanted to go one level deeper than Wikipedia in understanding the thinking behind it, do you have any recommended books before I start asking around?

I’m no expert in Wardley Mapping, though the quote from Dr Roser Pujadas in the newsletter (“Mapping is a social practice of sensemaking that shifts from individual cognition to shared understanding”.) was taken from her talk at one of the Map Camp conferences (2019 I think..?).

And not long after that, I tried some for a client, rather than with a client, as circumstances dictated, and it didn’t take. I walked through the stages of the mapping, and implicit recommendations… yet would have been better to stick to just the latter.

Maybe maps in general, and Wardley Maps in particular, are an artefact of a much deeper, richer conversation between people in this wort of work context, and hopeless if you just show people the map afterwards.

Good question on the Jeet Kune Do stuff, I think most of my learning about it was just internet reading rather than specific books. I’ve found an old talk I gave in Norway here, where I’m talking about it specifically as an approach to learn from, and uses the famous ‘Be Water’ clip to illustrate the deeper idea.

But another reader has something related…

Andy writes…

I find myself wondering if (system) mapping is a zeitgeisty symptom of dominance and/or control issues (ergo also an acknowledgement of the increasing loss/lack of it in our late-stage civilisational entropy). Designers will presumably continue to make bigger, more complex maps to compensate?

Bruce Lee / methods and process fetishisation also reminds me of shuharu (follow/break/transcend the rules). A concept I think I’m adopting as the new Universal Theory of Everything (Pace Layers 2.0?)

Firstly, I agree in a roundabout way about some of the underpinning symptoms (dominance/control/existential dread etc). I also wonder if it’s in part because Designers (note the capital D) are furnished with the skill-sets and tools to, and the heart of make, make pretty visualisations of things. And the prettier something looks, the less people feel as if it’s an emerging invitation to question, rather than a final, declarative vision (and to be accepted or rejected wholesale).

Secondly, I love the shuhari and will fall down that rabbit hole a little more I think. On first glance, it makes me also think of the story of the apprentice / journeyman / guildmaster progress as told in The Craftsman by Richard Sennett; start just by copying the form (the rules), then travel to see how the rules are applied in different contexts, and then finally present to a local guild your own version of how the rules would be constituted in your own house.

Kirsten writes…

I was also intrigued by the idea of how frameworks come and go – that they have a lifespan and that no one has really come up with one for the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world we find ourselves in. A colleague and I have talked at length about how frameworks in these times might just be true artifacts – a snippet, a map, a place to take notes – but certainly not a way to make decisions when the minute after you fill in the framework, the world has changed.

Instead, we need tools to help us recognize the upcoming pivots we need to make. Take the decision….there are no wrong ones….and be watching for the signals that you need to adjust. How do we recognize these signals? What are the signals? Can we see them fast enough? Are we agile enough to change at the pace we need to? Can we make the initial decision fast enough and make the next one fast enough, etc?

A way, or even a ‘place’, to make these decisions, is maybe a good way to think about these artefacts/artifacts (choose whichever you wish, transatlantic friends). And then they can be discarded, as the decision is agreed. They’re more tools in that respect than maps, and support collective exploration and agreed direction. I’ve not used Cynefin nearly enough to properly understand it’s usefulness in different circumstances, but from what I do think I know is that it helps you see what sort of system you’re in, and what decision you might take next.

On finding those upcoming pivots and the like, one of the ways we’ve used Zenko Mapping as a framework in this case is to ask people to describe projects by identifying ‘5 key moments where a project changed’. Over time, you can start collecting these together across projects, and start to spot patterns around what needs to change and where.

Louis writes…

I completely agree on the triad-ness of Unsustainability, Sustainability, Regenerative. There’s lots of people looking to reach closed-loop production systems first, then regenerative. Regenerative is going to have a completely different manifestation/impact than a closed-loop system, which can at times feel like a material version of the minor efficiency gains cars are chasing.

This is my gut feeling too, though lots more reading and thinking to be done. Just ‘making a sustainable version of X’ does not naturally led to ‘making Y which replaces the extractive nature of X in the first place, PLUS starts to regenerate some of etc damage done’.

Mark writes…

I like the anti fragile and regenerative approach/idea. Are you aware of Frijof Capra and his Web of Life book?

I recently read it and what you wrote reminded me of the chaos and velocity of metabolism of cells and how that whole process is quite chaotic but also regenerative. I think this concept also links into entropy but I wouldn’t know how to combine all those ideas and make it fun and interactive in a workshop for a purpose.

I am not aware of The Web of Life, but it’s now added to the list. You pick up on a really good point too about how do you take these ideas, and embed them practically in formats (workshops, frameworks, even talks) that gives people more reason to do them than to not. I like to think that’s what I’m fairly good at after doing it for a while, but grappling something this complex is making me think very hard about it indeed.

I can’t believe there’s no butter

Well, not no butter. But certainly less than you’d expect. Another example of what producers are having to do in the face of ever-rising input costs.

The wrappers are probably long paid for in bulk. The boxes they’re packed into measured for the original dimensions. The size expectations of what a portion of butter looks like set in the minds of people.

“So what if we… worked out how to put only 75% of the butter in there?”

Deliberate Data Leaks

For the past five years or so, I’ve been taking photos at Gatwick Airport. No, not of planes taking off. Nothing as exciting as that.

Photos of the water refill machines.

I know. Exciting, right? It’s up there with my growing photo collection of crap hand dryers inspired by Dyson’s increasing terrible forays into the field. More on those another day, if you’re really unlucky.

What I’m really interested in with the water machines is the data. The small screen to the top right tells everyone how many disposable water bottles this machine ‘has saved’.

There are two machines I visit most often, and have a rough idea of how fast the ticker goes up. The one that’s been there longest is in the low hundreds of thousands. But as I mainly fly from Gatwick when I go anywhere, it’s been hard to know what *good* looks like.

Then I went to Heathrow this week, and saw this machine; possibly older, given the state of it, but it’s headed up over three million uses, which puts the Gatwick numbers in the shade.

If I was *really* interested enough, I guess I could write to both airports, perhaps, and ask if they track the data properly, and could send me it. It poses interesting questions about what’s behind the screen: does it save the data with a time stamp? Can an engineer download the historical data.

Is it, perhaps, even live – is someone sitting in the water machine company HQ watching all the data creep up?

I doubt it, to be honest, having worked with enough companies to understand what gets prioritised in shipping products and services.

Instead, I think this data is probably just leaked deliberately into public, inferring that good is being done, without really using the data to make sure good is done more regularly, at greater pace.

Imagine instead you* started analysing this data in the background, matching it up to flight patterns, country destinations, water bottle sales points in airports.

*Actually, not you. Some low level, narrow AI type thing that could make suggestions for you. Want to accelerate the rate of water bottle replacement? Here’s the first five things to do at your airport.

AI as a basic, low-level reckon-engine. I could get behind that.

Making space for the year

I didn’t feel ready to start this year. Instead, I decided it was time to redesign the home office.

Our work went longer into December than it would normally, yes, but there was something more to it than that. After twelve months that saw the return of work trips abroad, two weeks teaching in Barcelona, and an ongoing tentative, collective remaking of what work was now, I felt more inclined come January 3rd to reflect and shape the surroundings of Smithery.

And not in the piecemeal fashion that I’d done before.

Now, I have strong views on what a library is, which I’ve laid out before and discussed again recently. I’ve played with various iterations of a dual-desk structure. And so on, and so forth. But I’ve never sat back and designed a whole working space, from scratch.

Why now?

It’s probably fairly obvious; all the signals, wherever you work, point to a different future around gathering together to get things done. As a company we work with a number of clients on different projects concurrently. There used to be greater value in being in London more often, as clients who worked in the city were likely to be there most of the week.

Nowadays, there’s no density of presence across multiple clients – even if people are in of two or three days, it’s never the same ones – so our permanent desk presence at Makerversity has no real need to return. We’re still members, it’s the best environment I’ve worked in ever in London, and I pop in whenever I’m passing. But there’s no need for a percent base there.

Our home office then, more than ever, is the heart of Smithery – the nest, perhaps, if we want to go down The Poetics of Space route – and accordingly I felt it deserved much more attention.

It’s taken us a week. Which is admittedly longer than I’d hoped.

But to sit here writing (an admittedly self-indulgent) piece in this space feels… well, delightful.

What’s changed, then?

The room is now split in two; a working half, and a study half.

Only a few pieces of furniture are new, most are repurposed. The desk I’m sitting it is one we found in a closing down sale in the aftermath of 2008’s financial crisis (which feels kind of apt given what may be ahead). I find it a good reminder to invest in thing that last and can be open to reinvention. This has been a desk, a kitchen table, a dining area shelf, a kids table at New Year, and more besides.

I still subscribe to Austin Kleon’s idea of the digital desk and the physical desk; two separate spaces to work differently at. Behind me, there’s a smaller desk against the wall, with a board full of projects, ideas, sketches and more.

Colour wise, with wooden floors it would have been very easy to disappear down the slightly sterile greys and whites which still seem to dominate a lot of interiors. Instead, I wanted to pick out the colour in the things we owned already, and find a punchier way of bringing them together. Hence the teals, reds, oranges and so on, and leaning into natural wood surfaces wherever possible.

Then, once the hard work was done in redecorating, arranging took another couple of days. The thing that I think must dominate any thoughts of working space at home is probably what it’s going to look like on Zoom

Finding a way to make a wall work in real life, and yet still frame you well on a video, is something I’m still working on. But this is fairly good to be going on with, I think.

It’ll be interesting to see how the camera set up I’m using (Opal C1 currently) reacts to the different colour in the background, through different phases of the day and different weather conditions.

Finally, I feel we’re now into the final tweaks; putting up pictures, arranging objects and prompts.

My favourite thing I’ve started experimenting with is using a prism cube. By placing it in particular places on certain days, it catches the sun and cascades little assemblages of colour around the room. I wonder if I can make it pick out certain sections of the bookshelves on particular days of the year, like a mundane version of the Staff of Ra from Raiders of the Lost Ark?

I feel ready for 2023 now. Let’s get to work.

A bar without walls

Spotted in a barber shop last week. I won’t name names, as I’m not entirely sure how legal it would be…

During last summer, they opened up within strict COVID guidelines, as did the pub nearby. As with most pubs, the pub implemented a technology-powered table service system – just order where you are, and we’ll bring you your drink.

The folks at the pub and the barber shop know each other pretty well, and as with a lot of businesses were trying to help out friends where they could in difficult times.

So each barber chair last year was allocated a ‘table number’ from the nearby pub. You could order a drink whilst getting your hair cut, and they’d pop round with it.

They’ve stopped now, but what a lovely idea. It also reminded me of this from a recent train journey. No need to queue in the buffet carriage any more, just order at your seat and they’ll bring it to you in ten minutes.

The way we think about space and service will keep changing. Can central London bars and pubs operate differently, flexibly, more profitably, if licensing laws allowed bars to be wall-less? Could offices be less fixed, and breathe in and out based on needs, adding local rooms and desks as appropriate?

Cosmic Ordering on the High Street

From a London wander last week. Rather than letting shops look empty and dormant, a few management companies have put ups signs like these.

They promise a great and wondrous experience within, from a yet-unknown mystery occupant.

“Just imagine, in the future, this is what will be here…”

The Entropy of Insights

I was flipping through my Readwise highlights the other day, and came across this gem again. It’s the neatest wee description of entropy; moving “from rare configurations to common ones”.

Except from Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo

It started me thinking about a variety of projects from the last year, where I’ve been working with teams who benefit from taking a longer, more detailed look at information.

Side note: this has often meant building information systems in things like Airtable. I’ll no doubt wax lyrical about another day, but the short version is that:

  • My thinking around projects like these is now informed by the information as light, not liquid work from a couple of summers ago
  • No-code platforms like Airtable are beginning to give people a whole new way of seeing, without being hardcore data-viz specialists. It’s become the practical application of a theoretical philosophy

Back to the rare v common configurations.

Common insights are the ones that most people will come up with at a glance. The first three or four points that jump out to people when presented with common occurrences. Most businesses will be naturally configured to generate common insights, especially if people tend to be looking around at their own area of specialism.

Rare insights happen when combinations of information are put in front of people who don’t often see them. For instance, you give an existing team new information from a different part of the business. Or bring in a new team, give them existing information, and ask for a fresh perspective. How can we look at things differently?

I would reckon that this is a standard practice as a one-off; a business cycle inevitably has a phase where people are trying to see things in new ways.

But to the original point, entropy kicks in when that cycle ends. A business returns to a place where the insights are more likely to be common ones, rather than the rare type.

Are good (even great?) businesses more likely to be the ones continually committed to finding rare insights, acting upon the valuable ones so they become common, and all the while seeking the next rare ones?

How do these businesses fight insight entropy?

Watch Me Think (in real time)

This feels strange… I’m doing a talk, live, in person, to people. I vaguely remember people – legs, arms, faces, right? Wave their arms around when talking. Those folks.

It’s at Watch Me Think in London, on 13th October. There are a host of brilliant speakers I’m really looking forward to hearing. And it seems strange just to be typing these thoughts and thinking these words.

But please do come along – all profits are being donated to Commercial Break, who make job opportunities in the creative industries for young, working class talent.

What am I talking about?

Well, notionally, the below… I’m sure that’ll evolve as it gets closer.

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. Often, we use metaphors that suggest of information is liquid. Let’s have a brainstorm. We’re drowning in the detail. It’s backed up in the cloud. Data is the new oil

This means we’re often concerning ourselves with the containers in which it’s held, and the channels through which it flows, not about what information actually is at the moments where it is most useful.

We also, less often, refer to information as light, not liquid. Let’s pause for reflection. It was a glaring omission. Is this in scope? This is pure speculation. It suggests that information is fleeting, hard to perceive, and transitory, rather than solid, permanent and additive. And that might lead to some interesting principles for action…

10 Years Later: A Decade Of Smithery

Helen and I were standing in the kitchen this morning, talking about how today marked the official tenth birthday of Smithery, when we officially opened the doors to take on client work. “Ten years since you decided just to leave your job with an infant son to support” remarked Helen, in jest. I least, I think it was jest…

Of course, I’ve talked about that resigning process before of course, so let’s not dwell on that here. But I also said I’d write a wee thing on what we’ve learned over the last decade.

Perhaps it’ll offer thoughts and inspiration for others thinking about doing their own thing. I’ve tried to compose a little broadly applicable lesson at the end of each part.

If nothing else, it serves just to mark the occasion in some small way.

Connect & Expose

I’ve always been struck by how true and persistent the silos metaphor proves to be in large organisations. It was part of the galvanising experience that made me leave my previous job.

I realised that being smaller and nimbler, separated from larger structures, would allow teams to join up different parts of organisations. The basic model in my head for this hasn’t really changed over the years, and is sketched out below.

It’s also the model that helped me articulate what Making Things People Want > Making People Want Things meant on a practical level; where are the key intervention points within a company’s typical processes.

Overall, though, it’s predicated on the idea that silos won’t change. There are (often) very good reasons for keeping them in place, even if there are other very good reasons to get rid of them. And even if a company beyond a certain size does want to change them, it’d take so long to make it happen that the people trying it would leave and do something else.

Instead, Smithery set out to be tiny enough to link between silos, connect dots in different parts, and expose the gaps in between existing knowledge, abilities and structures. It’s like squeezing between the gaps in the silo wall.

Now, traditional consulting companies, of course, prefer the ‘Land & Expand‘ model; fill as many client silos as they can with their own specialists who *just so happen to be* the only people who can help. But that simply serves to increase a client’s problems, rather than identify and solve existing ones.

Instead, working in this ‘Connect & Expose‘ fashion for me is much more rewarding and stimulating. It increases the experience and understanding of a wide variety of fields and problems, and keeps us front and central on the work itself.

Lesson: Have a mental model of the terrain you operate in, and the perspectives that others hold of the same terrain. Remember that it’s easier to change perspective than terraform the terrain around you.

Antifragile by accident

Being small has also proved useful in another way.

It sometimes feels like I’ve spent the last ten years building a library, paid for by our project work on the side. Arguably, somewhere in there is the real work; connecting things from different disciplines, schools, minds, approaches and examples.

Not that I’ve read all of these books yet, mind; dip into Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s essay on the Antilibrary approach for more on that. But in short, the library is a living work in progress, not an ossified record of achievement.

Smithery Library, August 4th 2021

As Anne-Laure mentions, Antilibrary is a term used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan. For me, Taleb’s a good example of the internal struggle you can face when trying to separate specific ideas from their creators; from the pages of a book to the ephemera or twitter, I find myself unable to like him. But I find the ideas he writes about interesting to think through. His follow up book, Antifragile, is a good case in point. Here’s the key concept:

It’s fair to say that there’s been no shock like the last eighteen months have presented us with. And it turns out Smithery is antifragile by accident. Scaling back physical presence in London, working from the home office, connecting with the people we work with who’re doing the same. The nature of our business model came into its own.

And then, when projects paused or disappeared, we were really fortunate to be in a position not just to ride it out in a resilient manner, but to direct energy and focus back towards the real thinking work. Reading, researching, connecting and creating.

The ‘exposure to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors‘ has actually served to improve how we think, and what we’re able to do for clients moving forwards, because that energy had a place to go.

Lesson: Building something like this doesn’t have to be about the numbers; employee numbers, square feet, billings per annum etc. It’s about building the ability and agility to work in lots of different ways, in order to create different sorts of value, for both clients and yourself.

Wandering the Visual Fields

The work that’s come out of this period, the TENETS project, is a collection of ten tools to transform the way you think. What this has really helped with is abstracting what we do across the different project types we’ve worked on over the years.

The central concept is that information is more usefully thought of as light, not liquid. Individual pieces of information as pixels or particles 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 across fields like innovation, design and futures.

There’s a unifying factor in the tools and materials, and the way practitioners collect, connect and create from external information in order to achieve their goals, whether it’s as narrow as assembling the information for a user’s account page, or as broad as creating a vision of a possible future for a city.

Having this thought across our work has been really helpful, allowing us to remake the tools from one domain apply to another, wherever they happen to be most useful.

Lesson: Reflect upon ways of connecting all of your work, and do it regularly. Don’t rely on the existing names for things, because what you’re doing might not have a name yet. Understanding the in-between space helps you carry things from one place to another.

A Blacksmith’s Sign

Another key part of the Smithery journey, and one linked to that idea of continually recombinant pieces of information, has been Artefact Cards, a side project that’s lasted almost as long as Smithery itself.

For as long as I can remember though, I’ve informally described them to people as a little like a Blacksmith’s Sign.

When you happen across a blacksmith’s forge, hanging outside you’ll probably see a very ornate, intricate sign shaped in wrought-iron, a display of the craftsmanship you’ll find within. Yet mostly, people don’t walk in because they want a sign like that.

Photo: Brian Nelson

The blacksmith’s sign is a demonstration of the work and craft inside, an approach and an aptitude with materials that you want applied to your own problem.

And so it is with Artefact Cards. They’re a demonstration of an approach, a way of working with ideas and information in a way that generates connections, offers inspiration, provides enlightenment.

If anything, there’s part of me that thinks perhaps spending a little less time on them over the years might have been a more conventional thing to do; design them once, put them out, retire them at the end of the run.

But I really enjoy the community around them (they are a very social object). Because they are blank cards, just waiting for people to make their mark upon them, there’s an invitation to create. And the mechanics therefore underpin a broader community who want to experiment with their own card decks.

And perhaps crucially, the tinkering and experimenting on our own terms means we can do what we like, when we like. It’s another place to focus energy when it’s not going into client projects, to learn new things, and to find out what it means to make a useful thing.

Lesson: Make public experimentation a habit, inviting new perspectives through open innovation and community building. When you do side projects, have an idea in your head of what they’re for, where the value lies, and what sort of value it is.

Knowing what good looks like

Earlier this year, Katie Dreke and I were having a wee chat across many miles of ocean about a whole host of things, and I drew the model below as a way of thinking about where one might focus themselves and their efforts.

It’s a simple input/output way of thinking. There’s the ‘good it does me’; how much do you get from a some work, personally. Does it grow you?

Then this is mapped against the ‘good you can do’. This could be in terms of specific value, like providing a client with a valuable service in return for payment. Or it could be broader, like the time you spend campaigning for issues, or volunteering for a cause.

One aim is to be, overall, above the horizontal line. There can be some things you’re really good at, and people will pay you more each time to do them. Ideally, you’d want to be in the top right quadrant all the time. Doing work that does you good, whilst you do good.

But if you’re not getting anything from it (no current pleasure or future utility), then the further you’ll drift left. In a way, you can be trapped in the very top left of the map, if the money you’re paid for something is too much to step away despite what you’re really getting from it.

Meanwhile, you might get really excited like I do at learning new things, that might not help you do good immediately, but take a while to enter your toolkit. But it certainly does make you feel good.

Revisiting this today, I’ve realised there’s a useful mapping technique in here, because it helps you draw out a range of projects and activities in a way that helps you find balance. Here’s a quick sketch version as an example.

Even without this tool these past ten years, we’ve tried to keep a sense of what a good balance looks like for us. Projects we can both work on, just me, or working with others on. Balancing out investment in time to learn new things, versus taking projects where we see the opportunity to grow our own skills.

Lesson: Find a way to find a balance that does you good in a variety of ways. Long term and short term. Financially, intellectually and emotionally. Know what good looks like for you.

It’s all about the people

Finally, having thought through all of the above, I’ve realised again that more than anything, it’s been about the people we’re lucky enough to call friends, colleagues, clients, mentors and more.

In larger businesses, you don’t really get to choose to work with people who get you and vice versa. You are thrust together with different teams, turn up in client meetings with twenty new faces, all wrestling the mysterious process someone else has defined for you to follow as you plod along in whichever silo you’re allocated.

In a tiny business, everything is about who you connect with. Really connect with. Finding people to work with who you’re almost instantly at ease with lets you start pulling apart problems and exploring ideas in a way that makes the most of your collective energy.

Its been ten years, and this isn’t an Oscar speech, so I’m not even going to try to list out everyone who’s meant so much to Helen and I on this journey. Instead, we’ve been working on a wee thing that we’re going to send out in the post later this month.

But until that arrives; thank you, you awesome, brilliant people.

Here’s to the next ten years.

Mapping the territory – Design and Economics

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Simon Gough about a submission I’d made to host a talk at the first Design and Economics Unconference.

It was one of those things that had flown past my eyes, and I’d leapt at without *that* much thinking. Basically because I studied Economics at Uni, and feel that it’s informed my practice in various ways ever since.

So after a good session with Simon, I put together a little tour around some thoughts on a Miro Board, talked about that fairly briefly, then opened up a wee working session to try and map different micro and macro models across economics and design.

The film of the session is here:

And if you fancy a poke around the Miro Board, it’s open for viewing here.

Want to get involved? The Design and Economics Unconference started on Tuesday 13th April, and continues until Thursday 22nd – all the sessions are free, and you can sign up here

Design and Economics has been shaped by ideas, guidance and input from Mark Simpkins, Simon Gough, Paul Sternberg, Sally Brazier, Victoria Hands, Jim Coleman, Joanna Boehnert, Tanvi Yardi, Kas Moreno Madrigal, Leonardo Gentili and Zarida Zaman.