I went to our local high street today in Haywards Heath. I had an errand to run; my watch battery ran out two weeks into lockdown, and I wanted to get it fixed at the independent jeweller (hey, kids, support local businesses where you can).
Knowing I’d have an hour or so to wait, I took my camera (and mask), and looked around at what a high street looks like when its trying to reopen in the age of COVID-19.
The graphic designers of Britain have certainly been busy.
And individually, they’ve no doubt interpreted the prevention strategy of each individual shop or organisation as best they can, to communicate to shoppers what is expected of them, and what staff are doing in return.
But together, as an experienced the extraneous cognitive load on the working memory of shoppers is certainly substantial. As you move from shop to shop, you would find yourself navigating through slightly different interpretations of the broad rules. Sometimes it’s 2 metres, sometimes it’s 2 metres if you can. Some places, only one person per household. In others, one person per household plus one child.
It doesn’t help that a lot of the instructions are in full brand regalia, and so it takes a second or two to locate where the information is.
All in all, it feels exhausting, through the inconsistency.
Perhaps now is not the time for freedom of expression. If the powers-that-be want high streets to function for shoppers, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to have centralised production and distribution for communicating how to shop. Consistent posters, stickers, floor graphics, window vinyls and so on; same colours, shapes, instructions.
Perhaps in the age of COVID-19, the high street needs traffic signs, not billboards.
There’s a giant tadpole in our pond, the amphibian Jaws of suburban Sussex.
I started wondering if it had just had a head start out the frogspawn, and so did some research. In a way, it probably has had a leap ahead, but from last year, not this. It turns out that if the conditions aren’t right to turn into a frog (too much competition for food, weather, etc), some tadpoles just stay as tadpoles during the winter. Waiting, feeding, growing. Then when the spring conditions come round again, they’re first out the gate, and become bigger than average frogs.
This is perhaps a year to live in the pond, and become a stronger frog when spring comes around again.
“The venture, led by London-based architects Wilson Owens Owens, provides a unique focal point when fans arrive and delivers a recognisable starting point for their experience at the world’s largest dedicated rugby stadium.”
So say England Rugby, on their site, about the new Twickenham entrance gates.
In reality, it turns out they’ve tried to send as many people past this ‘focal point’ as they can, and it takes twice as long to get in. Well done, architects.
It seems somewhat fitting that it’s the tenth anniversary of The Do Lectures this weekend; it was there at their fifth iteration I met Fraser Hamilton, and tomorrow is his last day at Smithery.
For five years we’ve worked together, at first with Fraser on an internship, then freelance, then full-time. He’s been a vital companion on the continuing Smithery journey, as it productively picks its way through the sunny uplands towards whatever peaks we next spot on the horizon. At this point in that journey though, there’s a path into a year or two of specialism beckoning, so Fraser’s joining our friends at Adaptive Lab as a service designer…
…I was about to type ‘we’re glad he’s going to a really good home”, but that just sounds like he’s a puppy who’s been mithering the designer furniture, so I’ll leave that there…
Every day working with Fraser has been a pleasure. I’ve never worked with someone before who’s so eager to learn and stretch themselves, to combine their talents they’ve developed over the years with things the’ve never even tried before, to ask good questions that they know need to be asked even if they feel uncomfortable doing so, and to be such thoroughly good company in any situation.
Fraser, you will go far. See you on the mountain paths, my friend.
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.
I did a wee talk at the fabulous IAM 2016 conference in Barcelona. In it’s second year, and conceived and run by Andres & Lucy of Wabisabi Lab, it’s the kind of weird experimental conference that London was great at a few years back, but seems less so, now, I think? Something something gentrification something something.
(actually, maybe that’s another blog post for another day – the lack of joy in NeuLondon, in all forms of work and play)
I spoke about Metamechanics, and working out how the internet works. Or, indeed, not, because that isn’t the point.
There will be a video some time soon I believe, and at the time, I did a simultaneous Periscope of it (but ‘you had to be there’ as they say, given how Periscope streams expire after 24 hours or something…)
….but until then here are the slides, and two pics Scott sent me afterwards where it looks like I’m showing people who big the internet a) was and b) is now.
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…