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…

 

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‘.
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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.

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.

 

dConstruct 2015: Metadesign For Murph

I’m thrilled and honoured to be talking at dConstruct this year. It’s one of the highlights of the year for me, and so many friends, that to be asked to speak there is… well, it’s a complex emotional melting pot, let’s say. It’s on Friday 11th September, and you can see all the details here.

The theme this year is Designing the Future. My talk is still in early prototype stage, of course. But you still have to have a rough idea what it might be, so it can go on websites and that. So here’s where I am at the moment… it’s gone pretty hard into using Interstellar as the main metaphor for how I think we need to address the theme… all thoughts on the film welcome in the comments section underneath….

 

METADESIGN FOR MURPH

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Cooper: “I thought they chose me. But they didn’t choose me, they chose her!”
TARS: “For what, Cooper?”
Cooper: “To save the world!”

If we’re going to talk about designing the future, let’s understand two things – who is doing the designing, and who is this future for, anyway?

Much of our cultural upbringing, from the pages of comics, to the Hollywood studios, repeatedly told us that we could step up and be the heroes. We’re programmed to feel that we’re the ones who will make the difference.

It’s time to look further than the end of our own egos, because there are problems coming we can’t find answers to, because we’re products of the system that created them.

Instead, whether we’re designers or clients, peers or parents, we must switch our attention to Metadesign; “nurturing the emergence of the previously unthinkable” in those around us, and those who will come after us.

It’s about ideas and environments, books and blocks, objects and systems, all examined through the contents and context of the most intriguing bedroom in sci-fi.

 

Delaminating Reality – a week at IED Barcelona

I spent last week teaching on the first week of the Innovation & Future Thinking summer course at the IED in Barcelona with Scott Smith.

You can listen to us talking about what transpired here on a little podcast we made there…

…and I thought I’d just throw up a few photos on here too, to give to you a flavour of it (the whole album is here on flickr).

Never have the Artefact Field Kits been so rigorously put through their paces… good luck to all the students and Scott in the final week as they prepare their projects to present.

We might well be doing another one in the winter now too, but if not, well, come to Barcelona to dance round the streets and find the future in the fragments of the present.

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This Week In Barcelona…

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Right now, I’m holed up in a lovely little AirBnB in Gràcia in Barcelona, a self-proclaimed ‘writers apartment’, which to be honest does live up to its claim. It’s a perfect spot for sitting and working on a few things, as the sounds of the streets bubble up through the wide bay windows, whilst hidden at the back of the flat is an oasis of air-conditioning in which to sleep.

I’m not here just to hang out, though.

Scott Smith invited me over to teach on the Innovation and Future Thinking summer course that he runs here at the IED. Thirty-one students are coming to learn about how to spot things in the world, and use them to start building up versions of the future from the fragments of the present.

Barcelona as a city is a perfect environment to do this; complex different types of economy and social behaviour, combined with an independent streak a mile wide, means that the city just tries to talk to you at every turn.

To make the most of this, we’re giving each of the students an Artefact Field Kit, which they can prowl the streets spotting and collecting the clues about what might happen in the future.

FW - open

Then we’ll be teaching them how to use these clues together in exploratory mapping using the cards, and recombine them in speculative acts of creation. As Scott put it last night when we were prepping, it means we could run this course sitting on the pavement somewhere, in the event of a sudden and seismic collapse in the infrastructure that takes the power grid down… I’m hoping it won’t come to that though.

We’ll try to post as much as we can up from the course, and share it on twitter using the #IEDFutures hashtag.

More as we have it, as they say…

PS Thanks to the guys at Flamingo in London for doing some game testing last week as part of the preparation for today