2015 Projects – A Romjul Review

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.

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**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…

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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…

1PRACTICE

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.

3PRODUCE 

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).

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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.

However…

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…) – http://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.

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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…

 

The basic rules of coffee

It’s International Coffee Day, apparently. Ish.

No better day than to share some pictures of my Father’s Day present from the kids this year – a 90 minute Home Brew Course at Small Batch in Brighton, which I did a week or so ago.

It was terrific to get some basic rules in my head about what happens when you’re making coffee. How the bean is shattered by the grinder. The size of the lumps it shatters into. The length of time and the temperature you want to immerse those lumps for.

It was a cross between an engineering and a chemistry course. With much, much better coffee.

Highly recommended. Give it a go.

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Needless Things

We went to the rugby at the weekend. Samoa were playing the USA in a game at the Brighton AMEX stadium. Outside the ground, people in bright clothes were selling all sorts of things, including the thing you’ll see attached to this guy’s ear:

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It’s a radio that lets you listen to the commentary, or listen to the referee talking to the touch judges, players and TMO during the game.

It helps you understand more about what’s going on. Fair enough; it’s an interesting augmentation of the experience.

The guy had a phone that could have done that, though. Everyone in the crowd did. They could have made an app. Set up a locally hosted web server. Made it available through something like TuneIn. There are probably fifty different ways they could have streamed the audio to the devices we carry around with us anyway, and not needed to make or supply any other devices.

Except I suspect none of those ways would have let them charge £10 per person for doing so.

The economics of the physical object is still intrinsically understood by the vast majority of people – ‘oh, you made loads of things, but if I’m to own one of the unique things, I need to give you money‘.

There’s still something about ‘digital’ services that means people wouldn’t pay. ‘Oh, you’re doing that anyway, I’m not paying that. It should be free…‘.

But it’s produced by as much ‘physical’ labour. People who make it happen (who you can’t see). Devices and connections working hard (that you can’t touch).

Until we work out a way to sell the general principle of digital distribution of physical effort, we’ll face two problems.

Firstly, we’ll be unable to charge sustainably for things to keep them going.

Secondly, we’ll continue to make more physical things where we don’t need them, in order to make money.

How do we get over the atom problem?

Conceptual Strategy for Intranets

I know, that’s a rock and roll blog post title, eh?

A short video, explaining something that Chris, Mark and I worked on a while ago for a client, but that came back round again today when someone asked ‘any thoughts on setting up intranets?’. Rather than a long blog post, or a detailed email, I made a scratchy video…

…using the webcam/lamp stand thing I hacked together a while ago.

 

Metadesign For Murph, and How To Organise Your Library

Last Friday, I spoke at the final dConstruct conference in Brighton. dConstruct is a legendary conference, it was an honour to be invited to talk, and as a result I’ve spent most of the summer pulling together the ideas behind the talk. As a speaker, you’re meant to be ‘oh yes, all the talks I do are equally good’ and all that, but that felt like the best talk I’ve ever done. In a rubbish sporting metaphor, I left everything out there on the pitch, Brian…

The audio has been recorded, and I’ll share that/mix it with slides soon, but in the meantime I’ve written an annotated version for you to read:

Also, with the follow-up questions people asked about the ‘library’ part of the talk in particular (and creating a systems view of the world you work in), I’ve written a Medium piece on ‘How To Organise Your Library‘.
bookshelves
It’s a Tolkienesque appendix, perhaps – there’s no real need to read it to get the point of the story, but you might find something interesting or useful in there.
Anyway, thanks to the gang at Clearleft for the opportunity to grace the dConstruct stage, thanks to my fellow speakers who set my brain fizzing with new things, and thanks most of all to the audience, who were very kind about the talk in general and my ‘Russell Crowe as Jor-El‘ impersonation in particular…

A manifesto for leastmoderism

How can we do less? How can we have one client instead of ten? Work with five colleagues indeed of five hundred. Find customers who only want to buy once?

How can we have one car instead of two? Three bedrooms instead of five? Buy two, leave the third where it is?

How can we do this in a day and not a week? Write one sentence, say ten words, make one thing once?

How do we create the most value from doing the least we can?

More is less, more or less.

What is Metadesign?

In preparation for my dConstruct talk next month, I’ve been researching metadesign. I’ll start posting some relevant things up here over the next few weeks if you want to follow some of the background work that goes into the talk.

First up, a couple of talks by Prof. John Wood of Goldsmiths University, whose work centres on the need to ‘Redesign design’:

The more I’ve been diving into the Metadesigners open network that’s been set-up by Prof. Wood and the team at Goldsmiths, the more I realise that there’s perhaps a separation which can be made when it comes to Metadesign; there’s the what it is (in the sense that it’s a series of tools and approaches), and the why we need to think this way. I might try to pick that apart a bit more, and look at the other descriptions and work on Metadesign in order to clarify it a bit for others and myself.

 

Wearing Culture’s New Shoes

I’m wearing new shoes today. They’re made by Atheist Berlin. They feel like hot chocolate for the feet.

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Now, I’ve been following the Atheist story for a while, because I know David, Chief Atheist (is that a thing?) from when we did the IPA Excellence Diploma together some years ago (dates redacted to protect the aged). Indeed, it’s interesting to reflect on the number people from the IPA ExDip who’ve gone on to do their own thing; consultancies, accelerators, etc. The course clearly gives people a bit of motivation to do something differently.

But within that those who’ve made a thing. Making things is different from service industries. Not better or worse, just different. Another example would be Matt’s success with Two Fingers Brewing. I make some card things you might have seen. There are no doubt more examples from diploma alumni too. And there are definitely lots of examples of ex-agency people who start making things instead of selling other peoples’ things. But it’s not just a few agency folk leaving uninspiring surroundings to play around at ‘maker’ (although Murat’s post from 2013 still hits upon most of the reasons why that happens).

There’s a cacophony of forces driving more and more people to start making their own things. Some are positive; access to funding of some sort (grants, investors, crowd-funding), the ability to use the internet to learn new skills and find an audience at the right scale. Some are negative; lack of fulfilling work, high youth unemployment, cost of higher education.

They all add up to interesting times for existing companies. Take beer, for instance. The number of breweries operating in the UK in the last five years has tripled. Yet beer sales in the UK remained in a long-term decline until last year, when they managed a 1.5% annual increase. All in all, it adds up to more suppliers fighting over less sales, and more interesting suppliers stealing share from less interesting ones.

This summer has felt like what started as an expression thing for the creatively minded has started to become a business thing for a lot of people. The conversations I’ve been having and become aware of are less about how brands can support makers do their own thing, and more about ‘what happens when they start to make our thing?’

Our culture has a new pair of shoes, and it’s starting to test just how far it can walk in them.