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.
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 Spaceroute – 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?
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?
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?
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…
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
I was honoured to give a talk on Zenko Mapping as part of this year’s virtual Word Information Architecture Day. Thanks to Mike and Mari for the invitation, and help in planning.
As per the last talk I gave, I made a film to do it, using some of the previous ideas I’d used in the last Zenko Mapping film, and crucially some new parts more relevant to the
You can watch it here:
Additionally, some resources for you if you were at the talk (or just interested after watching this)…
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. There was a copy or two on the Miro board as part of the event, but here it is here too.
Secondly, you might do this for a bit and think “well that’s interesting, but I need help applying it with my team”. Get in touch here, and we can 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.
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.
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