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The Michel Thomas iPhone app: behind the scenes

Project Kendrick is in the world! As Matt Webb mentioned before, it’s a new iPhone app for language learning we produced with our friends at Hodder Education, and is the latest addition to a best-selling range of language learning products called the Michel Thomas Method.

Michel Thomas was a celebrity linguist with an amazing life story. Escaping from concentration camps during the Second World War; tortured by the Gestapo; teacher of celebrities such as Doris Day, Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand — it even says his “last known identity” was that of Michel Thomas. Awesome. What a brief to work with. I’ll come back to him in a sec. Here’s a little clip of the finished app in action:

The mighty Nick Ludlam and I brewed it up together, with direction, input and advice from the rest of the BERG crew. And I’d like to tell you a little about the behind-the-scenes stuff — the craft of making and thinking — that went into it.


Nick and I began the main building work late last year. As you can imagine, we had a brilliant brief to work with. Schulze, Webb and Jones presented us with a huge swathe of thinking. The big-picture strategic vision; the sites, situations and contexts these apps could find themselves in (“can we make this as useful for 30 seconds on the bus as it would be for 30 minutes of concentrated listening at home?”); even little napkin sketches of UI details. All gourmet brainfood. Now all we had to do was get it into the world.

The Learning Room: beautiful, ambient, immersive

One of the first things that struck us (and probably you, if you’ve ever tried one of the CD box sets) was Michel Thomas’ voice. It’s utterly captivating, and can feel quite hypnotic at times. Have a listen again, without the visuals:

Immediately, we all agreed that whatever user interface we came up with would have to complement — even celebrate — this listening and learning experience without getting in the way. The idea of a ‘Learning Room’ quickly emerged — somewhere ambient, immersive, and hypnotic, where you could concentrate for substantial lengths of time without getting bored or distracted. And of course it would have to be a pleasure to use. Matt Jones came up with a cracker of a challenge by asking us to “Make The Best Pause Button In The World.” Brilliant.

Here, I was doing some drawing while listening to Michel Thomas’ voice for the very first time. Looking back, this one pretty much laid the foundations for the next few months’ work.

Michel Thomas iPhone app - early sketching

Look at the notes. KITT from Knight Rider immediately came to mind. A talking play/pause button. Products as People, I guess. And it’s interesting that those little geometric doodles started to happen straight away as well. I imagine there’s a really primal link between hearing sound and seeing patterns, and this was probably something I hoped we would touch on later.

Immediately after the first drawing, I put together a little animated sketch of how the Best Pause Button In The World might work.

The main goal here was for me to do just enough to describe the idea, so that Nick could take it and iterate it in code. He’d then show me what he’d built; I’d do drawings or further animations on top of it, and so on and so on. It’s a fantastic way of working. Before long, you start finishing each others’ sentences. Both of us were able to forget about distinguishing between design and code, and just get on with thinking through making together. It’s brilliant when that happens.

Then we tried this. A kind of pastoral landscape with a floating, talking pause button. And speech bubbles. Too much.

Michel Thomas iPhone app - early sketching

And then an idea about using generated bokeh effects and imperceptible zoom effect that never reaches a climax. Too strange.

Here, we were exploring how to use animation and interactivity in a small portion of the screen (to save precious processing power), and make it seem to be operating in a bigger space than it actually was.

Michel Thomas iPhone app - Learning Room sketching

Originally, we wanted to use a pond-like rippling effect (that one below on the left), but it turns out drawing transparent, overlapping filled circles, as well as streaming audio and animating the pause button, took too much juice. The little blue flower at bottom right was the first step toward the final design.

Michel Thomas iPhone app - Learning Room sketching

Here we developed the little blue flower, adding texture and depth to give it a bit of tactility.

Michel Thomas iPhone app - Learning Room sketching

And here’s how you draw a procedural petal.

Michel Thomas iPhone app - Learning Room sketching - petal math

The pause state was really important to get right too. Here you can see us getting a bit too Bang & Olufsen before dialling it back to something more approachable, shiny and Apple-y.

Michel Thomas iPhone app - Learning Room sketching

Michel Thomas iPhone app - Learning Room development

And of course this is where we ended up:

Materials and tuning

Every so often we’d catch ourselves talking solemnly and straight-faced about some detail involved in building the Learning Room. Then we’d take a step back. “Dude. It’s a talking flower. How the hell did we end up here?” Looking back, there’s no real process or rationale I could outline. It’s a product of many things — our personalities, references to things we like; doodling; tinkering; sketching; prototyping and so on. But, overall, it was born from the material itself.

How much CPU did we have left after streaming audio and making the pause button animate in response to Michel Thomas voice? Not much, it turns out. We spent a lunch hour thinking and drawing, came up with thirty-odd ideas, tried a few of them out, and the flower ended up sticking around, for a few reasons: Nick could draw it procedurally in code; animate it efficiently at a decent frame rate; the symmetrical, primal pattern looked striking; the visuals adapt to different languages; the flower scales down to icon size nicely, and most of all, using it feels completely unique, yet strangely appropriate. Our friends from Hodder were closely involved right the way through, and ultimately, it was their faith in this design-led approach that allowed us to get these ideas into the world and into your hand.

Overall, I’d say the whole UI — from the Learning Room, to the Store, to the Flashcards — went through five or six complete iterations before we settled on something that felt simple and smooth enough for a release. Then, we tuned, tuned and tuned. Matt Jones has talked about Disney’s idea of plussing before, and again I don’t think it’s possible to describe it as a discrete thing. It just seems to happen when you really get a feel for the material (or rather immaterial) you’re working with. You develop a laser-like focus on ‘rightness’, and devote yourself to getting rid of anything that doesn’t make the experience as delightful as possible.

It’s been a brilliant product to work on, and hopefully it’ll help more people discover the strange, hypnotic magic of the Michel Thomas Method. Why not give it a try? – we’d love to know what you think of it.

Week 255

It’s been a while since we’ve done a weeknote.

Deadlines, exhaustion, seismic events both real and psychic have conspired against us, but still – very remiss of us. We’ll try and resume normal service as soon as possible.

Busy times, a full studio, a lot on deck. Week 255. Off we go.

The week started with some nice recognition of Mag+ from Apple: there’s an in-depth look at the project we called El Morro in the iPad section of their website.

El Morro continues – the team are working on improving the reading experience, adding some extra capabilities to the platform, and most importantly perhaps – ensuring that the toolkit and knowledge necessary to create Mag+ is transferred to where it belongs in the editorial teams.

As the ashcloud subsided, face-to-face around a whiteboard replaced skype calls as few of our friends from Bonnier came over from Stockholm for a really useful day of workshops to that end, and as I type Mark P. from their US team is sat with the guys working away.

Jack and myself had an interesting chat with magazine art-director-and-enthusiast extraordinaire Jeremy Leslie over breakfast on Wednesday – hearing his feedback on the challenges and opportunities of Mag+ and digital magazines in general was awesome.

Ashdown is coming on leaps and bounds since going into Alpha, with Tom and Matt B. heroically-cranking through the phase we’ve started to call ‘tuning’ in the studio.

We don’t really have a fixed process at BERG, but we have approaches that we use and evolve. We’ve talked about the phase we tend to call ‘material exploration‘ before – and in fact Tom has written in depth about that in association with Ashdown, but ‘tuning’ is where I guess the instincts you’ve acquired for the territory and the material throughout the project really serve. It’s about taking the time once the core features and functionality are working to try and make the elements sing in harmony and shine them up best as time allows.

The first product from Ashdown is being tuned now, and I think the team have made something really gorgeous. Alongside the visuals and the interactions – the voice of the product is being tuned too. We’ve been joined today by Giles Turnbull who we worked with a lot on matters of tone and writing while I was at Dopplr, and he’s helping with that. Nice to have him in the studio today.

Back to ‘tuning’ – there’s an element of Disney’s ‘plussing‘ there, and trying to inject delight where you can – but the word ‘tuning’ just seems to fit better for us. It might be about removing things as much as ‘plussing’. When you find the signal, making sure that you are removing anything that impedes it, and do everything you can to amplify it.

Other projects.

Kendrick’s time for tuning has passed, and fingers-crossed it will shortly be in the world. Nick’s been shepherding that process in part this week. Trumbull’s design is progressing nicely – but a resource hiccup has put things back a little bit. I’ve been working to resolve that with Kari and Matt W this week, and, again – fingers crossed – we have a solution.

Jack had a great production engineering meeting on Availabot (remember that?) which left him grinning, and there are a couple other of our own projects, including Weminuche, which are starting to walk rather than crawl which is really satisfying to see.

As I started to scribble down what to put in this weeknote, it was mid-afternoon on Friday. It’s a long weekend here in the UK – we have a holiday on Monday.

The studio was waving goodbye to Webb, who had to leave a little early to go and buy shoes before travelling to an event this weekend. Everyone looked a little disturbed to be left in the studio as he went – a situation we’re not used to, and is usually quite the reverse.

The last few weeks have been crazy-busy for all of us, but especially him. He’s held the BERG helicarrier together through some extreme turbulence recently and seen that it’s still delivered, and I’m very glad we’re back in a rhythm that allows him to go and buy shoes.

After all – you make the road by walking.

Happy Friday from week 255.

Week 249

I’m writing these notes late. Really it’s week 250 already — we had our All Hands at noon. Opening it I said “it’s week 250. Halfway through!” I don’t know what made me say that. We’ll see!

I’m on the Central Line on my way to White City for a consultancy gig with the BBC. For a day a week, I’m helping write a short design roadmap.

A minute ago I was reading a book that friend-of-BERG (and friend-of-mine) Mark Hall sent me in the post, and for which I realise now I never thanked him. Thank you, Mark! It’s Beyond the hundred meridian by Wallace Stegner, and the section I’ve just finished is about John Wesley Powell’s epic journey down the Colorado River through canyon after canyon.

In the narrative I encounter names that make my heart flutter. Kanab! This is also the name of a project about which we are currently in negotiation. Escalante! This is also the name of the era of the studio before the current one, which is called Scenario 4.

You may remember that I give names to periods of time of the studio. It helps us understand what what we’re doing now fits into bigger things, and is not the same as what came before or what we will after. Also it adds Mythic Resonance.

I would say we are no longer in Scenario 4. That was the period of somewhat uncontrolled growth we’ve been in for these past two months. I think we’re through the worst of it. We’ve figured out how to ride that particular crocodile. There’s a lot broken (our contracts are a shambles; we need better ways of recording expenses; we need to figure out how to bring more discipline to our own projects). But knowing what’s broken is 50% of making fixes. So: we’re coming out the other side of Scenario 4. It didn’t kill us, at least not outright. What next?

There’s a feeling of high potential. An impatience for projects to go public and for whatever they cause to be caused. A knowledge that something will happen. Projects on the verge of coming in, and with them a new set of abilities, and room. But there’s an alienness to all of this. An unfamiliarity with scale, but an excited trepidation.

In the back of my mind I’ve been calling it Jupiter Space.

There’s a bit in the film 2001 where the ship Discovery has made its long voyage across the solar system, from Earth space across deep space and into Jupiter space, and it’s just there. The ship is the same as during the journey, maybe a bit battered. Nothing’s happened yet. But there’s Jupiter, lofty and looming, reminding you where you are. A long way from home. Who knows where you’ve got to, but you’ve gotten there. Holy shit, Jupiter.

If you were standing on Ganymede, Jupiter would hang in the sky about four palms-widths wide, holding your hands at arm’s length. The Moon, from Earth, is a thumbs-width.

So that’s what it feels like and that’s what I see, in my mind’s eye. We built a ship, we took a journey, holy shit there’s an enormous gas giant right there out the window, what now? Who knows, let’s figure it out. Jupiter Space.

(We worked on El Morro all week 249. Nick, Lei and I went to Stockholm at the weekend. Intense deadlines swoop down every three days and knock us sideways. Kendrick was stalled because testing threw up data problems, and because our client was checking legal. Ashdown has produced enough to start building out the product itself, I hope, but its progress is still making me a little nervous. Service+ is producing a little more documentation to get final sign-off. Weminuche is assembling questions to start a proof of concept stage. Kari made super tasty cupcakes today. I’m feeling a bit spaced out. We’ve all been working too hard for too many weeks. But it’s worth it.)

Week 247

I’m at home with a glass of red wine at my new desk. I’m writing these notes late. It’s already week 248.

Jack and Matt J were in Berlin briefly last week, on a media design consultancy gig. I’ll quote from The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan/Quentin Fiore (1967) for a second:

The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electronic circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. … When these ratios change, men change.

Media is both our environments and that which mediates us. Our cinema and our glasses.

Cinema… books, television, radio, circus, salons, telegraph and telephone: our media used to be hard to invent. They came along once a generation. But now what we call “new media” is really ten thousand new media. The question for a newspaper moving to new media, I mean really moving to new media, is not how to build a CMS blah blah delivery platform blah blah for the whatever. It’s what you want the equaliser settings to be, for social interaction, for immersion, for gameplay, highbrow/lowbrow, predilection to truth, emotional resonance, etc. We don’t just publish, we get to invent the medium into which we publish.

Super fun.

Also this time last week I got a pretty down-to-earth reminder about product innovation. Product innovation has its own path.

We’ve been having a tough time with Ashdown. That’s not fair. It has been a perfect response to the brief (our own brief) to present and contextualise information well. But it hasn’t become a product. I felt that most keenly when I presented the current private version to a Very Important Person about three weeks ago. And in that presentation, I had to do most of the talking. If you need to narrate a thing, it’s not a product.

A product tells you what to do. It fills you with motivation — you want to use it, and you know what you’ll get. And when you don’t get exactly that, you’ll be tickled and delighted. (If it’s a good product; frustrated otherwise.) A product markets itself. It can be described so people can tell other people about it. It has a voice, and an opinion about how the world should be. You know where its value is… and what the value exchange is. Inside an organisation, teams can rally behind a product. A product has meaning, and goals. Products can succeed. Or fail. Products tell you, the designer, how they should grow.

So with Ashdown we’ve had data and an area and a design direction… but no product (we’re intending to make a suite of products). And Matt Brown, who is leading the project day to day, has now found the product. It’s taken all kinds of approaches to get there. Tom Loosemore has been part of crits. Tom A has been making experiments with generative journalism. We’ve tried big wireframes and little sketches.

But on Monday last week Matt managed to crack it. We now have a single line motto for the product. We have a tone. And we have a map of the site where we can see what the user motivation is at every page. Clicking through will feel like a good joke being told. It has rhythm. And everything unfolds from there.

If you looked at the sketches, who knows whether you’d be able to tell that something’s changed. But I can tell you now that the week before I wasn’t sure what we were making, and in week 237 – with Matt’s page of post-it notes and pen drawings – I feel totally confident that it’s cracked. It’s a product now, it’ll tell us what it wants to be.

But it’s humbling, to get there only now, and to be honest none of this “product innovation” chatter counts until we also execute and get to market. So let’s see what happens this week, and I want for us to work much better at cracking the product thing (and continuing to crack it — product focus in a project has to be maintained every week, every week) in future work.

Oh there’s a bunch more to say.

Kendrick is making its way to launch. I wrote a short teaser blog post about it a few days ago, based on one of Matt B’s icons.

El Morro is halfway through. It’s the biggest project we’ve done, and it lasts only a little under two months. I can sketch out seven distinct parts. They meet like dominos. It’s like building a bridge from the middle. Last week and this week the various components started linking up.

Most of what I do now is have 20 minute chats with people designing and building various parts of El Morro. The chats are easy because the team is incredible. People want to know how to build their particular bit, so they grab the relevant other people and make decisions. If there’s a need for clarification or knowledge of the ultimate client ambitions, that’s when I get pulled in for one of those 20 minute chats.

What else.

Kari is producing, weekly, summaries of what everyone is up to this week and next, and a per-project status, in a sentence or three. These are invaluable. Also she’s moving to two days a week, and spending the extra day project managing some new product development. We’re terrible at letting NPD slip, and my hope is that it’ll really happen with some of our established client process applied to it.

I’m learning a lot about my own process, talking Kari through what I believe is needed. Project initiation docs, briefing packs, milestones… all of this sounded like so much hot air until I saw I bumped up against what it was all helping with. I mean, when you know what you have to write down at the beginning of a project to help a team work together and keep on time and on budget and to allow room for the design to blossom and find the way, what else do you call it but a project initiation document?

I’m talking about process, which is a sure sign that I should wrap up and head to bed.

What I noted down to talk about in week 247 were a few old lessons I’d been relearning. What products are, how I use project management. I wanted also to say a few words about tuning and about documentation. I haven’t got t those.

But really when I think back over last week I think about how strange everything feels. I’m not used to the scale. I’m not used to the systems in these sketches. I mean roughly, but not fully. I’m watching a team of 8 bring a thing to life and I’ve no idea how it works, the path from individual action, I mean the tap of the finger that types the curly bracket, that somehow manifests and becomes the breathtaking beauty and correctness that I want to see, I mean how does that even occur; do you need to be dreaming of heaven while you type a subroutine because I doubt it, yet if not that, if that’s not the way beauty happens in software, then what? We plan projects we have full confidence in but there’s a moment because we’ve never done this project before at 3am where you wake up and go, Hang on, really? (And if we all didn’t do that, I’d be worried, so ok.)

So there’s an opposite of deja vu which is in action all the time, a feeling that, whatever it is, it should be familiar, but it’s not at all, and for me this strangeness creates both a risk aversion and then an overcompensating overconfidence, and I alternate between then, ultimately averaging out but only after talking and sketching a lot with Jack and Matt, and what’s left is a residual strangeness to the whole world. Gosh the walls are white. Gosh the sky is blue. Gosh it’s 2010 and here we are, this is the studio we create and this is the work we do, and aren’t we lucky, we work hard and the work is good, and maybe those adjectives are a good a way as any to sum up week 247: Strange. Lucky. Hard. Good.

A flower is a thing that flows

I wanted to show you one of Matt Brown’s super pretty icons for the project codenamed Kendrick, which he and Nick Ludlam have been magicking up. Kendrick is for learning German.

(Or Spanish, or Italian, or French…)

It’s almost cooked!

Week 246

Projects progress. There are many people working on El Morro, which has become a number of streams; Ashdown is finding its identity as a marketable product; Kendrick is closing in on launch; Trumbull has a product description and a design/development timeline; Service+ is wrapping up; and there’s some short consultancy in Germany next week.

Processes are being developed. Weekly updates for individuals and projects are put on the wall where everyone can see them. Projects are better accounted. I’m seeing gaps where processes would make life easier (induction; briefing docs; rolling project reports). Standard employee and supplier contracts are being drafted.

New work is coming in. The options continue to get more exciting, and allow for bootstrapping new parts of the business in ways that are only just beginning to come into view.

This is what metamorphosis feels like.

But we’re all working too hard and, though exhilarating – and, for the time being, worthwhile – the tiredness is showing. For myself, I can see important questions I’m not giving enough consideration, tasks that need doing, and opportunities I’m letting slip. This weekend I’ve felt like a zombie. I haven’t managed to get the work done I need to get done. It’s only 9pm on Sunday and I’ll go to bed shortly.

Any other week, the week just gone was so incredible I’d be wide-eyed and bouncing off the walls.

To the studio as a whole, what can I say? The work we’re doing – you’re doing – is beautiful, intricate, and unique. It’s a joy to be part of, and to see this team meshing so well: I look and I listen, and I see people taking responsibility, bringing things to life, working together, and so flawlessly. And I recognise that here, in the middle of things, it’s a lot and it’s rushed and it’s tiring. I don’t know what I can say about that. Other than, I guess, it’s on my mind, it has my attention, I want to figure it out. I’m proud of you and I’m proud of the work. I’m going to speak for Jack and Matt J too here: we recognise and appreciate it.

Week 244

It’s Saturday and I’m at my kitchen table with a cup of tea. I enjoy working Saturdays so long as they’re optional. So far I’ve sketched the latest rev of an XML specification, drawn a cartoon of a workflow and written a commentary on it, replied to a few emails (though I’m still way behind), and checked the accounts.

My attention this week has been dominated by El Morro. It’s larger than we’re used to both technically and with regard to personnel, so the usual processes need to be re-invented. For instance, we need to be more formal with documenting issues, working decisions, and goals. In terms of people: Jack and Timo are in New York, and next week Jack and Matt J will be in San Francisco. Nick is wrapping Kendrick soon to move onto El Morro, Tom’s attention is going to be divided from Ashdown, and we’re extremely pleased to have two new team members for this project. James Darling starts Thursday, and Phil Gyford is with us again for the next two weeks to help springboard. As Campbell finishes with Service+, he’ll also join the team. And we’re still looking for an iPhone developer. We’re based in London, working alongside teams in Stockholm, San Francisco, and New York.

It’s complex. But we thought carefully and planned tightly before taking it on, so it’s doable. You have to trust your boots. It’s the possibility of collateral damage that I feel the need to de-risk.

For instance: Kendrick is drawing, beautifully, to a close (over the next month), and the last week has seen a new focus and a kind of “coming into focus” for Ashdown. Matt B, Tom and Nick have their hands full with both, but with the attention of principals so divided, I’m concerned that studio attention might drift too. So that’s a way that processes break during growth: our old ways of managing projects aren’t as effective anymore, and we need to find new methods. A kind of growing up. I’ve got a few ideas, but I plan to open the discussion with the team on Monday.

Hang on, let me get a glass of water.


It’s like the accounts. The shift to a new system and my financial projections worked for maybe two months, and now growth means they’re broken again. Jack asked me on Monday night last week some questions I couldn’t answer. So on Tuesday I put together new templates for analysing per-project profit and loss, and creating per-project budgets that feed into an overall studio budget. It’s finer grained than I had before, and it’ll create new jobs for Kari, but necessary and fascinating. Imagine building a boat while you’re standing on it. One minute you’re building fishing rods and oars, the next you’re creating a rota to monitor for driftwood, and the next month you’re figuring out how to feed the R&D group you’ve delegated to invent radar.

A minute only ever lasts a minute. Hard work and efficiency only gets you so far. What you put in the minute has to adapt.

Now my mind turns to what growth is for. That’s been the subject of several conversations recently because Scenario 4 is hard, and we all need to know it means something. Well we’ve always had a product business in mind: beautiful, inventive, popular products for the home, ones that make solid our design and technical beliefs, that make the everyday more joyful and humane. Products that couldn’t come from anyone but us. So there’s that. And previously I’d been focused on building the right team with the right expertise and capacities for such a moonshot. But we’re there almost there. The studio is a machine humming and waiting for just such a challenge to take on together. And so now my mind is turning to bootstrapping in a less abstract way, and using the time these current projects buy as the means to plan more direct steps.

Ha! I’m listening to iTunes on shuffle, and a track from A Momentary Lapse in Reason by Pink Floyd has come on. This was playing when I got my first modem in 1994, and went online from my own computer for the first time. That is half my life away.

Let me wrap up.

It’s a big moment for us when friends who have worked on a particular project decide to join us on an ongoing basis, whether it’s for a couple of months or for much longer. When somebody is part of the studio and contributing to any and all projects, that means they become part of the creative life of BERG. They contribute to – and have taken personal responsibility for – its culture, its creative direction, its work, and its instincts.

At the drinks we hosted on Wednesday, celebrating Deep Blue’s victory over Garry Kasparov in 1996, I didn’t do my usual “talk nonsense for 5 minutes,” but instead called out the people who make up BERG, here in Scenario 4 and week 244.

So I want to do the same right now, because it’s a huge deal that we’re all in the same room together, doing this thing together, and saying it out loud to you here is the best way I can think of to show how I feel that.

Jack Schulze! Matt Jones! Tom Armitage! Matt Brown! Nick Ludlam! Kari Stewart! Campbell Orme!

What a team!

Week 242

Tuesday was super incredible. Kari’s been studio manager for three whole days (she works one day a week), and she’s already running payroll. She’s an incredible cultural fit, I’m really pleased.

Also Tuesday I was surrounded by conversations about different projects. Kendrick! Ashdown! Bonnier! The studio can tip from total silence to conversations bubbling about multiple projects. It’s a joy to sit here and hear Nick figuring out some element of hypnotic ambient iPhone interfaces, Tom and Matt B chewing over Ashdown, sketching and prototyping, and an ad hoc crit bouncing between Campbell’s computer and the whiteboard, reviewing and drawing. Trying to conjure up the feeling of it now, all I can see is the mid afternoon tropical storm in a rainforest, intense and noisy, blood heat, it fills you brim full and overfilling, verdant and electric. And then suddenly it subsides and there’s a humid air with crystal clarity, and the invisible and deafening sound of insects.

I don’t care if you don’t understand. It’s awesome to be in the room.

And then the rest of the week, wow, what can I say. Great meetings with great opportunities. But more than that, the pipeline is good. Two small projects that have emerged over the last few weeks are both going ahead. Two huge ones moved excitingly closer. And two other huge ones are tantalisingly close to landing. We’ll have to choose between them, which is tragic, but there are worse problems to have. But we’ll have to be careful. Some projects are all-consuming, and if we grow much more then that’s maybe too fast — we’d risk our culture. So, you know, jigsaw the projects, make sure we don’t grow/shrink/grow/shrink but maintain core teams, that sort of thing.

This bit of bringing work in is hard. Fortunately Jack and Matt J do it really well.

So you know I came into the studio the other weekend and did planning, scenarios and strategies? It was so I’d be prepped for quick decisions if a bunch of these things came off. And happily, I feel prepped. It turns out we live in scenario 4.

And so this is maybe a good a time as any to declare an end to the era we’re in at the moment, the one that started back in August 2009 at the birth of BERG, the one we’ve called the Escalante. Goodbye! It’s been great!

We’re not at cruising altitude, but we’re the right animal now to keep climbing. The past couple of weeks have been focused more on execution than positioning. Super good. We’re having the right conversations with friends and clients, the foundations have been laid, blah blah blah. It was funny — on Tuesday I brought my old 2006 sketchbook in the studio. I’d dug it out to read the first business plan I wrote for Schulze & Webb, from September 2006 when we started taking it seriously as an enterprise. I’d divided the plan into short, medium and long term, and thought about what would characterise our work, our clients, and what we’d need to do to get there. And you know what? We’re just about lifting into the “long term” section of that plan. Not bad.

So yeah, to speak at least for me and Jack and Matt J, we’re exhausted, have had nights this week not sleeping because everything is happening at once, a beautiful nightmare as Jack said, it’s riding the crocodile, it’s an emotional roller-coaster, or rather emotional pinball, whew – the future doesn’t arrive gradually but in giant sloppy waves, in/out/in/out another rhythm, deep blue water then bare wet sand, smacking you and washing through you, then pulling you under and out before rolling in and over again, a Pacific rip-curl that punches you and takes your breath away – and goodness I hope it all really comes off because there are some terrific projects out there and we might just get to be part of them.

Hello life in Scenario 4.

Week 241

Nik, one of the builders, was in this morning smoothing out some of the plastering work here at the new studio, and Robbie, the electrician, came in to move the light-switches around. He also swapped the florescent tubes out for much brighter, bluer ones. The old ones were yellow, like the 1970s.

Our 10am all-hands today was a full house. We all stood up in the meeting room because there aren’t enough chairs. We have some more chairs on order, but the ones we prefer are industrial workshop chairs with anti-static wheels and they’ll take 2-3 weeks to arrive. They’re not too pricey and they’re super good on your lower back. Kari ordered four this afternoon.

In the all-hands: Nick, Tom, Matt B, Kari, Jack, Matt J, me.

Let’s do a pretty detailed weeknote today, I’ve got time.

Kendrick: Nick is implementing custom controls so we can have a beta iPhone app polished and in the hands of the client as soon as. Matt B is supporting there, with designs and assets.

Ashdown: Tom is working on data, performance and infrastructure. Matt B is wireframing the entire beta site on the wall. It’s good to have that, it’s a mix between a map and a goal. But it’s something we can collaboratively chew over and sketch on. That’s the best pattern Jack and I picked up during consultancy, actually from one of our clients: always put something on the table, no matter how half-formed the concept, and then it’s perfectly okay to critique it and pull it to bits… but only if you can replace it with something better. It’s a strategy that means you’re always left with a working concept, and not something about which you know everything that’s wrong but nothing that’s right.

Service+, for Bonnier, is bursting into life since Jack and Matt J got back from San Francisco at the weekend. Matt briefed us in the all-hands this morning, and it was great for everyone to see the project shape, design ideas and timelines. I’d like to do that for all big new projects. Chris H is working with us on this, and Campbell will be for a month too. I’m looking forward to having him sit with us in the studio.

Trumbull is a new project that started yesterday: this week Matt J and I have a series of workshops defining a product. It’s supposed to be Web and mobile, with a good eye to how it’ll work with telly, but all our favourite ideas so far are about taking it offline, mainly onto bits of paper. After this week we’ll schedule about two months of design and development. We’re not yet clear what that that’ll be — that’s the point of the invention workshops.

A smattering of other things that came up this morning: Tom is supplying data to Nicolàs for data-mining; Jack is commissioning furniture and writing a Product Description Specification for Availabot (I write that in caps because it’s a Very Serious Document); Jack is going to Copenhagen Friday to teach; we’ve got creds on a big project code-named Logan today, and three or four other major ones also pipelined for meetings and proposals; Matt J, Jack and I are going out for a long breakfast meeting tomorrow morning.

The three of us used to go out on Wednesday afternoons for what we called Design Direction sessions. Really they were ways to get to know each other better, in the new working relationship we were figuring out. But the sessions stopped as we got busier.

Without the two of them in the studio last week, I was reminded what weird multiplier network effects happen in a studio like this. We feed off each other so much — ideas emerge in sparks during conversations that roll around the room. So we need to communicate better. We’ll talk about big projects, the strategy, the shared values, and hey, the things we don’t do so well: sharing information internally about self-initiated projects; knowing our dreams and aspirations. Chewing the fat together to work better together. It’s easy for two people for find time to talk about these things, but three rarely happens by coincidence.

So I’ve put a long session in the calendar for tomorrow, and then a long breakfast every Wednesday for the next few months.

Processes and visibility are coming along well. The new accounting software will really help with individual project P&Ls, which we really need, and Kari and I did a whole lot of the work in moving to Xero today. The client projects pipeline is on the wall behind me, as is a month by month calendar till end June which shows studio activity each week (by project stage). We’re also using OmniPlan to make a Gantt chart of all projects, and who’s involved in each stage (with percentages).

A lot of these I did on Saturday. Jack phoned me on Friday night and I couldn’t get to sleep for thinking about capacity and possibilities. I came into the studio in the morning and did built scenarios from the ground up, looking at the risks and opportunities in each, and roughing out strategies. Tools for thinking.

It sounds dull, but these print-outs are the first step towards Here & Theres for the studio’s two major resource constraints, the ones I mentioned way back in week 221: cashflow and attention. We need a studio-wide literacy and knowledge of the landscape of both of these, to best be able to navigate.

For my own part, I’m looking forward to caring about attention and cashflow less… or at least Kari and these processes meaning I don’t need to obsess about them day to day. It’s true I get a kick out of operations management (which is what this part of my job is), but that’s not my vocation, and the kick I get is just my OCD speaking.

As to what I do care about, it’s the gestalt: happiness, growth, and direction, and not how I do it but how we do it, together. I’m not sure I’m terribly good at it yet (it requires a level of self-awareness that I’ve yet to develop), and in fact I slip an awful lot, but maybe it’s because I find it so hard that I find it so fulfilling.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on and what I’m thinking about in week 241. You’ll pick up from my cadence today that it feels nicely business-as-usual and manageable. Not too exuberant, not too beaten up. That’s good, it means there are clear skies.

Week 240

A brand new studio, but it feels really quiet. Nick is on holiday for the week. Matt Jones was in New York participating in the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium earlier this week, which focussed on “city as platform.” He’s currently in San Francisco with Jack, who is also on the road, working with Bonnier and Kicker on the next stage of Mag+. That’ll start ramping up more for us next week. Jack was in the studio on Monday putting up shelves. There’s a lot to do to settle into a new space, but wow it’s such a treat. I feel like I can stretch out here. There’s three times the space, it’s warmer, and it’s bright.

Tom is in the studio this week. He’s working on Ashdown, our UK schools project with Channel 4/4iP. He’s been extracting grades from tens of thousands of school inspections so we can start displaying a measure of pupil well-being, among other things.

Matt B is also here, sitting a couple of desks to my right, just outside the room we call “New Statham” (don’t even ask). He’s working on Kendrick, and the idea there is to learn from our on-phone prototype to completely map out the every screen and final visual designs of the beta version of the app. (Kendrick is a collection of iPhone apps for language learning, and the core team on that is Nick and Matt.) There are some features we’re leaving out of the beta – such as the first-run experience – but otherwise it’s about beauty and polish. It’s looking lovely, but there’s a risk of some screens being a bit too polished in a Bang & Olufsen stand-offish kind of way. More popular and approachable, with maximum beauty!

And it was Kari Stewart’s first day as studio manager on Tuesday! She’s making an enormous difference already. There’s a lot of admin she’s picking up, and the big thing we’re tackling together is how to a. provide a view of capacity and activity of the studio coming up; and, b. track projects so that we can build up a record of how we’ve done on each — frankly how much each project costs.

So I’m wanting to focus on project accounting and management accounts in the next couple of months. Are long consultancy jobs really profitable, given they mean principals are out of the studio and unavailable for even ambient involvement in other projects during that time? Are we good at estimating? It’s a concern of mine that, as BERG grows and the number of concurrent projects increases, we could accidentally paint ourselves into a cash-flow corner. Management accounts are about building ways to make these things visible. The financial accounts, projections, weekly catch-ups and ad hoc notes have previously been more than enough… but not so much now, and definitely not in another 3 months. There’s one or two larger projects I want in, so we need to de-risk growth.

My sister works at a medium-sized civil engineering firm, and they grade their projects (A, B, or C) in three ways: how profitable it was; how easy the client was to work with and how much they enjoyed the project; its strategic importance. I’d like to be able to do something similar.

And how can all of this be done with the minimum of overhead, and without distorting or risking what is a super pleasant working environment? I’m not keen on rules or explicit processes. I believe this kind of structure has to be thought of ecologically — how can it be included such that supporting it is still the easiest way to work, and that it naturally encourages good decisions without being an imposition, in the ecology of the studio itself?

A simple example, previously, has been putting the new work pipeline on the wall, and updating it every week. I’ve not pasted it up in the new studio yet, and that’s a problem. But just its presence kept us thinking about keeping the pipeline healthy and moving. So that’s the sort of thing I mean. But this is potentially a lot more heavy-weight, so I need to move with consideration.

I’m still learning what kind of tools are good for these needs, and really still figuring out what our needs are. But that’s the big picture of what Kari and I will be working on, in addition to the day-to-day studio life-support systems. Given that, I’m really curious to know what other people use for planning and tracking, so I’ve been asking around, and spotting other people’s work practices is one of the reasons I like reading weeknotes. Your own comments and thoughts are very welcome!

So that’s my week, in a nut-shell. I’ve been able to be much more involved with Tom and Ashdown, and Matt B and Kendrick, and I’ve really enjoyed that, and there’s a whole bunch of meetings and talking on the phone. I get to show off the new space and recent work, so it’s all good stuff.

Week 239

It’s the first week back of the new year and it’s taken me until Friday night to write this post. We have begun the new year both in a new studio, and in medias res.

Sorry, that’s kind of fancy. I mean we are in the midst of things.

Straight away.

Ashdown hit alpha before Christmas and we’ve learnt a load. So Matt Brown is working on combining our learnings with the research Georgina Voss did, and figuring out the information architecture for the beta (which we hope will be public, and we’ll be building this over the next couple of months).

And Kendrick, while we all had a software build with which to teach ourselves Italian over the Christmas break, Nick Ludlam’s piled right back into development, and Matt B has come right back into designs for the next milestone.

You’ll have seen Matt’s name there twice. He is busy. It’s unfortunate that so much falls on him the first two weeks of 2010, but it seems unavoidable and so we scheduled this fortnight pretty carefully this time last month. Fortunately he’s more than up to it.

Matt Jones and Jack are in San Francisco with Bonnier next week. This week Jack has been putting together our bit of the new studio (shelves! Coat hooks!), and Matt has been working with Bonnier and following up exciting new possibilities with exciting new possible clients. There’s a lot that backs up when the studio closes for two weeks.

Tom Armitage has been incorporating Ben Griffith’s work on Ashdown, and building up robustness for the site ahead of the beta.

I’m ticking over. Chipping in on games ideas for Kendrick. Meeting and going over both detail and Ashdown strategy with Dan Heaf and Tom Loosemore, our investors from 4iP. Working with Darq to get our IT infrastructure back up. Book-keeping. I prepped the accounts for this last quarter’s VAT return in record time, so I can work on that with Kari Stewart, our new studio manager who starts on Tuesday.

But mainly I’m concerned that everyone is happy. The first week back after new year is tough. It’s like dropping suddenly onto a bike halfway up a hill and you just need to right away change down a gear and grit your teeth, push hard and keep pushing, or into a spaceship that is already going at a quarter light-speed through the asteroid belt. Like, there’s no ramping up. Projects are underway. Negotiations are on-going. We’re owed a lot and we owe a lot, fortunately more the former than the latter. There you are.

Monday was enthusiastic. Wolfish!

Wednesday evening, for me at least, well I was knackered. It felt like a Friday.

Hello 2010. And now it is Friday.

So we’re right back in the middle of things, blinking and startled, sharing a brand new studio with our best, most talented friends, and when one of us says phew there’s a need to acknowledge that and say yes, there it is, good work fella, now let’s change down and dig in.



Change down, and dig in.

Week 237

Officially we’re closed this week. But on Monday we packed up the old studio, and yesterday Tom, Matt B, Tom Taylor (from RIG) and I moved all our collective stuff 100 yards down the road and piled it up in the new place.

I ache!

But it feels great. Imagine that in a Tony the Tiger voice. Grrreat!

I’m popping down there later so the locksmith can do the windows. And once all the odds and ends are finished between Christmas and New Year, I’ll pop down again and straighten out some desks so we have a running start on the 4th.

So yes, we’re closed next week too. I won’t write anything for week 238.

I just had a look back at our work from 2009. Chronologically:

  • Shownar, a telly and radio guide based on data-mining the social Web for buzz (BBC). Shownar was a successful prototype, and its technology and ideas will be integrated into in 2010.
  • The Incidental, a map and guide to the Milan furniture fair, printed nightly and updated from the social Web (with Fromnowon, the British Council, and Åbäke). The Incidental was also published at the London Design Festival and I’m sure it’ll be back.
  • Here & There, maps of Manhattan projected in plan and from street level simultaneously, our first product and sold online. It was a great success for us.
  • Nearness and Immaterials, short film explorations of RFID and connection without touching (Touch project). These films have each had over 100,000 views.
  • Mag+ interaction design and video on the future of digital magazines. The video established the reading experience as central, has had 200,000 views in just under a week, and received fantastic write-ups from the NY Times, Guardian, Engadget, Gizmodo, All Things Digitial, Wired, Core77, Creative Review and many more.

Ashdown and Kendrick, both projects on this scale, are well underway, and there are three workshop/invention gigs over 2009 I haven’t mentioned, with another two just starting up. There are two or three self-initiated projects which haven’t yet seen the light of day.

Then there’s the rebrand from Schulze & Webb, two studio moves including this one, and general growth and everything that comes with it — the Dayeujin and the Escalante.

Also we’re having fun.

This is going to sound weird: it feels like we’d done more.

Growing takes a ton of energy. If you grow and want people to be as happy as when you were smaller, able to focus on the work yet have that work continuously improve, and have the studio benefit from that growth too… well, developing everything from cultural values to patterns for workshop proposals to financial projections takes effort to get going. Scaling is hard.

There’s a little more growth I want to do in the early part of the year, and one more ingredient to throw into the mix, then I want to turn some of that growth energy into basic work and studio energy.

But enough about that.

On the whole, a good 2009.

That feels like an awesome thing to be able to say. A good 2009!


A short advertisement: if you’re looking for a New Year resolution, and you have a small company or work freelance, consider keeping weeknotes! Bryan Boyer aggregates several at and it’s an awesome learning experience reading how other people work. Personally I find reflecting each week helps me and helps the studio, and clients and friends seem to like them. There’s something about the regularity that surfaces things that otherwise wouldn’t come up. The form is like a click track. Anyway. You should do it, and let me know if you do.

Advert over.

See you on the other side!

Week 236

I started writing this yesterday, waiting for an appointment at the bank. Forms to sign. The business specialist was double-booked — I had to wait and wasn’t in a good temper about it. Bad karma: I double-booked myself later, and didn’t realise I was supposed to be meeting Ben about cybernetics. When he phoned me, I was in a meeting about Kendrick with Nick and Matt Brown. We were sketching out the next rev of the UI. Actually, Nick and Matt were sketching. I was asking questions. Do you think this screen should transition into the learning room? Is that inconsistent with the quick play functionality?

I’m now writing with a mug of tea before heading to a meeting across town. I have a 10,000 lux Lumie lamp next to my kitchen table. It’s the spectrum and brightness of the noon desert sun.

We’re having an eventful last week before Christmas!

Our cooperation with Bonnier R&D is public: the Mag+ concept video shows a digital magazine that prioritises the reading experience. A video prototype like this is an establishing shot and it’s done its job. 79,000 views on Vimeo in a day (now 102k), and some astoundingly flattering write-ups. I’m proud of the team, their design, research, instincts, and aesthetics.

It’s four hours later.

Matt Jones and I had an early meeting near Waterloo – getting experienced advice about a possible major project – and then we came back to a very packed studio. Matt Brown, Tom Armitage and Nick Ludlam were all in. We’ll be sharing the Ashdown alpha with some friends and family and Tom is busy wrapping up development on that. He’s building a kind of fruit machine for data exploration. And Nick is rounding off a build of Kendrick today that we can install on our iPhones and use over the holidays. That’ll help enormously with the next round of design.

That’s three people. Our friends Andy Huntington and Tom Taylor were in too, working on their own things and hanging out. So with me and Matt back, and then Ben Griffiths popping in to deliver the gobs and gobs of data he’s been scraping (very elegantly! I’m impressed), well, it was pretty full of life. Crowded.

It’s our last day in this studio. We all got presents yesterday. On Tuesday we’re moving into the new place which we’re sharing with RIG. I can’t wait. Here’s a pic. It’s a great space, and you couldn’t want for a better firm or a better group of folks to share with. RIG are the folks behind Newspaper Club, one of our favourite things going on right now. This is going to be good. Energy feeds off energy.

I, on the other hand, feed off food. It’s lunchtime.

It’s two hours later.

Good lunch, and good meeting. Heading off a potential soft spot in the team first quarter next year.

I swung by the new studio on the way back. The builders are running a little behind schedule but we’re still on for Tuesday.

Gimme Shelter is on the stereo. I remember it from the soundtrack to Wild Palms (Oliver Stone/Bruce Wagner/1993). Wild Palms is about telly and holograms and is set in Los Angeles in 2007. In 1993 that felt impossibly future.

Other news this week: Shownar has reached the end of its life, at least in this incarnation. It’ll be rolled out across in various ways in the early part of 2010. It’s sad to see it go. This time last year we were tendering for the project. The docs were submitted just before Christmas, and we won the project just before the new year. At the time, the company was me and Schulze.

How far we’ve come!

And we’ve not reached cruising altitude yet. We’re not quite at the second act. Not quite. Give me a few more weeks.

It was a pleasure last night to see so many friends at the pub for impromptu work drinks. If you were there, thanks for coming! Standing outside in the snow with Matt Jones, drinking hot rum and looking back over the first few months of BERG, that’s what it’s all about. What a ride. What a ride.

Week 235

Schulze is on holiday. Matt Jones is with Bonnier R&D in San Francisco, delivering the films the team produced for this stage, and kicking off the next. The films are gorgeous and spot on. Tom is bringing Ashdown to life (we’ll have a friends+family alpha for the end of next week).

I am on the bounce.

Matt Brown’s design work on Kendrick and Ashdown is beautiful, inventive, and human. Nick prepped me for the Kendrick client meeting on Thursday with an iPhone app demo build that got confirmations in all the right places, and excitement in a number of surprising ones. Ben Griffiths is scraping colossal amounts of education data. Georgina’s research into UK education is insightful and the report she delivers next week will be super useful. Benjamin’s cybernetics research is beginning to illuminate the links between a vast cast of characters. The building work continues.

And Kari Stewart is joining us as Studio Manager! She starts in January. This is excellent.

When a studio is really working, people and ideas feed off one another. Code or design will reveal an opportunity or a problem. An idea will be floated. Someone will take it, reference something they know (an unusual style of photography; a rare game format from the 1980s; the nature of time and space), spin it and throw it back. Ideas fold and stretch. And then, somehow, something simple and to the point will appear, and that’ll be the new direction. It doesn’t matter what people are working on, everyone has something to add. There is a kind of multiplier effect, the more people are in flow, in the studio.

What I try to concentrate on is enabling this studio-wide flow. When it’s working well I’m buoyant, exuberant.

What blocks it? Concerns about direction, time, support or money; overwork; unhappiness; lack of confidence in the work; lack of openness to critique.

How can it be steered? Enthusiasm and passion, examples and influences, shared values.

What do we value? That which is: Popular. Inventive. Beautiful.

Week 234

The building work on the new studio started Monday. There are walls going up. Earlier today Schulze chose where the new plug sockets go. I understand the internal glazing is going to look wonderful.

Things are underway.

Let me speak about that for a minute.

There’s a time, in projects, where you’re in the middle. You can see neither horizon. Last year, when I was running a lot, I used to hate running along canals. Time passed but I would have no sense of momentum. Nothing changed; bridges would take hours to arrive. Space was not being consumed.

In our Tuesday 10am round-up, I tried to put my finger on it. “There’s nothing in crunch,” I said, but that wasn’t right — Schulze is doing pretty much nothing but closing this phase of our prototyping with Bonnier, ahead of his travelling next week, and Matt Jones is spending a good deal of time with him too.

The crunch is pretty intense. We just postponed this evening’s Christmas dinner because three people need to work. Even with five remaining it would feel both lonely and, knowing other people were up against it, somewhat mean. We’ll re-arrange. I admit, it’s disappointing.

But as Kendrick finds its feet, and Ashdown uncloaks, and builders build, and pitches are pitched, one crunch is now only part of the mix.

So it’s the whole studio that is underway, and it has been for a few weeks. You don’t notice the forest till you’re in it. Our three main projects have pace. Business development has pace. Closing has pace. The general business of the studio has pace. And this is a different way of working. It’s not struggling to warm our limbs up or to build up momentum, it’s a new kind of feeling, a new kind of push. To maintain.

The hazard here is a kind of fatigue. I don’t mean tiredness. We’re alert, happy and joking, and working hard. The studio is a joy to be in. Little victories twice a day!

I mean there is a risk of a fatigue that manifests as a kind of loss of mindfulness. There are effects. When the studio rhythm is threatened, it is now harder to meet that disruption with welcoming equanimity… and we have to, because change is good. And it is harder to focus on longer-term, hard graft, self-initiated projects, because that, in a way, devalues the hard work and the great thump-thump-thump rhythm of what keeps the studio running. In a funny way it becomes as hard to see the big picture as when you’re right at the beginning of a start-up and living week by week.

This is a new kind of challenge, a different kind of mountain to the one we’ve scaled over the last quarter. I’m paying attention to it.

Maybe I’m projecting: It’s raining hard outside, I’m still behind on things and still tired from being ill last week, we’re in the run-down with Christmas with lots to do, I’m disappointed about not going out for dinner tonight with the guys, the studio has never been simultaneously so entertaining and productive, and everything is blossoming. It is tumultuous. Yet I feel impatient for the future, I want to show you things. There are things I want to add.

And, as Matt Jones has just pointed out, there is apocalyptic post rock with very long titles on the stereo, and that can’t help but contribute.

I mention all this here because this is life in week 234, and if you recognise what I’m talking about then I would welcome your comments.

Week 233

I’m currently at home with a stack of decongestants and a swimming head. Being ill at a time the studio is running at capacity is decided not what’s needed, but I’ve been out of sorts for weeks, so it’s time to fix it with Albos oil, no going out, and a stack of books. I’ve just finished reading Where wizards stay up late and next is either Founders at work or The Pixar Touch. These last two are because I’m curious about what sort of company BERG is. I mean, we have values and ambitions – some tacit, some known, and some being worked out – but what sort of beast would we like to be? What are the qualities of successful studios? Where are the well-trodden paths? I’m curious about Pixar, because their work is inventive, beautiful and popular, and because of how highly they value creative processes. Also because they were a technology company and production house for nine years, and then leapt to storytelling and Toy Story. So: reading.

Meanwhile, back in the closing weeks of 2009, we’re running three multi-month projects: Ashdown, Kendrick, and this stage of our work with Bonnier. Each will have public output over the coming two or three months. Very public in some cases. It was busy early this week and I moved from my desk to the sofa. In the room were, in clockwise order from my normal desk: Nick Ludlam (who has joined us for a couple months to work on iPhone development in Kendrick. He’s startlingly talented, and we love having him here); Tom Armitage (writing, deep deep data diving, and bringing Ashdown to life); Matt Jones (design direction, business development and a little travelling this week); Matt Brown (who has a cosy nest of monitors and graphics tablets, out of which comes beautiful, clever visuals and a startlingly broad selection of music); and Jack Schulze (who is in and out filming a lot of the time). Elsewhere: Georgina Voss continues her research around UK education, Benjamin Manktelow continues his into cybernetics, and we’re working with two other designers pretty much full time too. The studio is pretty crowded and there’s no room for meetings, so I’m pleased that the builders start work Monday on partitioning the new studio space. That should take three weeks, during which time we have some sweet pitches and maybe some workshops. And of course, this week, there’s been the usual mix of risks, exciting prospects, project flutters, and surprises.

On surprises: I tell you, there is nothing, nothing that makes me happier than when someone says “hey, look at this,” and they’ve made something incredible. It must be happening twice a day at the moment, and it makes my heart sing.

It’s good, the studio humming along like this. The work is good, the pipeline is being kept healthy and moving, and admin is under control. But as I said, we are at capacity, and that has its consequences. We aren’t able to spend enough time on our own projects and when one of us is running at a little less than 100% – like me, this week – we’ll feel it. I know I’m behind on proposals and important conversations, by several weeks in some cases, and while I should be able to catch up, it should never have happened. Even the small things: there have been some great comments on the blog recently, about business strategy even, and I wanted to address them — but ran out of time this week. We have no burst capacity… I, personally, have no burst capacity. That means strategic growth (as opposed to organic growth) is put at risk.

So I’m also giving thought to how we can be more efficient and relaxed with the same level of output. Can proposals and sales be more routinised? What else? Why do some innocuous tasks suddenly feel like a Big Deal and become hard to do? How can well-being and happiness be maintained? Maybe we should print out more pictures.

I’m too cryptic. Let’s bring this down to earth. It’s a lovely, productive studio full of lovely, productive people. I bought some new brown shoes on Tuesday. And if you’d like something to read before you wind up the week, may I direct your attention towards our first guest editorial on this blog, by our friend and inspiration Megan Prelinger, and we are extremely proud to have her contribute on design, technology, and mid-century Modern: Another Science Fiction: An Intersection of Art and Technology in the Early Space Race. Wonderful.

Week 232

Let me get the business plate-spinning out of the way. Yesterday we completed the year-end accounts, which I first mentioned here in week 218. On the face of it, 2008/09 wasn’t much better than 2007/08 — revenue was up, but margins were down. But look closer: July to December 2008 was flat. Even stevens. January through June 2009 made up for it, and at the same time the company reconfigured for growth (Tom and Matt J both started; Shownar launched and with it came our focus on media design), the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. You can see a shift from high-burn short consultancy by principals to multiple, simultaneous longer projects with teams, and our wage bill shoots up too. The decreased margins have paid for increased available attention, which has been parlayed into the building of internal expertise, cash-flow, and room to experiment and invest. We’ll need that.

Also recently and this week: Accounts for Ashdown set up and first VAT return submitted (it’s a separate company for funding purposes), and I’m enjoying Xero which is just as quirky as MYOB but more modern; two office manager interviews, and very hopeful about one of those; some consultancy with the BBC on the Shownar transition on Thursday; couple of contracts to chase (Kendrick will start Monday); talking with the architects about options and clarifications with builders.

Matt Jones is out the office for the rest of the week, at the RCA for the Design Interactions brief, in Stockholm with Bonnier, and speaking at CAT London. Jack Schulze is out of the office all week, in Oslo with AHO for workshops and with Touch, and in Stockholm with Bonnier.

Ashdown will be announced imminently. Matt Brown has been designing for the alpha last week and this, prettiness and thoughtfulness are coming through. Tom is breathing code into some of the designs, and beginning to answer some deep questions about the nature of the data. The data Ashdown deals with is not easily modelled or poured into structured databases. It’s messy and must be interrogated with code that starts broken and gradually gets more sophisticated. We’ve taken to calling this kaizen, the discipline of continuous small improvements. What we’re doing isn’t hard in that we need genius insights, it’s hard in the sense it will take 3 months of baby steps to get there. Kaizen. At the moment everything is broken. Next month it won’t be broken quite so much. Let’s go.

Meanwhile: Georgina Voss has begun her research into UK education, and Benjamin Manktelow is swimming in cybernetics.

I think I should spend some time this week visualising company activity and team capacity.

Week 231

We are joined this week by Matthew Irvine Brown! Check out his portfolio. He’s primarily working on design for Ashdown, and possibly on Kendrick. That makes five of us in the room now, and our first meeting with the Ashdown team all together was fantastic: great energy. I’m beginning to see the path from design aspirations to product.

Tom Armitage is occupied with Ashdown this week, deep into scraping data. He’s editing a short article the blog this week too, by Georgina Voss, updating us about her ethnography on Silicon Roundabout. Matt Jones is on Ashdown, helping with the Bonnier project, following up a little biz dev, and is today at the RCA as part of his ongoing involvement in the Design Interactions brief on the future of manners.

Schulze is working with a little team on interaction design and video evidencing for Bonnier. Then he’s off to New York for a meeting or two and to speak at the Idea Conference. Schulze is away in Stockholm and maybe Oslo next week too, and it’s always tricky to have one of us away: it’s quite a delicate design sense we’re developing between us all here, and it’s one that’s fostered by working together, co-located, constantly pitching in, debating, sketching and sharing. That’s what makes it a studio I suppose. And it’s something I’d like to protect, especially in these early days, but there’s a balance to be struck. Travelling also means fresh eyes and new perspectives.

I’m liaising with builders to get quotes for the conversion of the new studio space, with accountants to answer queries on the year end and move to better book-keeping software, and researchers for: Ashdown; Silicon Roundabout; cybernetics. There are two contracts to chase and two proposals to complete. I know I say this every three months or so, but I’m busier and more productive than I’ve ever been. Last week we hosted drinks for our friends, in honour of Laika, and I got to say a few words about beginnings in general (and science fiction, of course). It’s exciting.

Oh, and there’s some new basic stuff on this site: new projects and a new talk.

I want to say something about these weekly updates, which I have now tagged ‘weeknotes’ at the inspiration of Bryan Boyer who also writes weekly updates. Kicker Studio summarise their weekly activity; Six to Start are occasional diarists; and our friends at Stamen this week posted about their first week at their new HQ. I love these.

An active blog is like a green activity light in instant messaging. For those of us who aren’t habitual bloggers, week notes help the process become regular. But more than that, companies are so often opaque. I write here whatever’s going on and whatever’s on my mind, and make connections I didn’t expect with readers I didn’t know I had. Little doors open to empathy. Running a small company is both hard and the best thing in the world. These week notes act as a kind of diary of reflections for me – I find writing them personally helpful – but they also trigger conversations with friends in similar situations about what they’ve seen before and what they’ve learned. I’d love for more companies and studios like us to keep week notes. I learn a lot, both writing and reading them, and it satisfies my nosiness as to what’s actually going on.

Week 230

Last week’s financial modelling resulted in a graph of the company’s invoices and cash receipts back to July 2007. I can read my feelings off it month by month: there’s an early year of maintaining one big consultancy gig per quarter coupled with a single long running project. Good. I can read a year ago, November 2008, the beginning of the time I called the Dayuejin – the Great Leap Forward – when we decided to begin to grow. The following six months are spiky: there’s a month of cash followed by a month of drought and hunting for work, and the pattern repeats. Looking at the chart I can remember the inclines and angles of the lines in my legs. It feels like hiking.

It’s satisfying to see this present epoch, the Escalante, made literal in grey and blue. In July 2009 the oscillations finish and we’re at base-camp of a steady climb. The climb won’t last forever, maybe until February next year: at that point I’m aiming for the company to be turning over nicely; cash, business development, work, R&D, exploitation, marketing, growth all running steadily, at comfortable capacity, and together, without stuttering or misfiring. It’s that operational foundation that enables products. New product development and client services live hand in hand: in expertise, ideas, attention and freedom. So I have my eye on what it will mean to achieve the Escalante – and what comes afterwards – and I’m working on building the right structures and bringing in the right projects to make that happen.

That’s the big picture. Weminuche is a big part of what happens post Escalante. And the new studio. And the people. And, and, and. But from here to there…

I guess we’re a product design company, whether it’s for Web, mobile, print, networks or consumer electronics. “Product” for us means something which you can attach marketing messages to, that has a business model in it, that has goals and success criteria, that you can rally a team behind, that is coherent to the consumer… services, content, community and experience are immaterials that we work with, intrinsically, but frankly: if you can’t say what it is in a sentence and you can’t sell it, why should we make it or why should anyone else pay us to make it? We like to make products designed to be part of social lives and part of society.

Now as part of the invention process there are weird and often gorgeous experiments and explorations. But I’m pleased to be able to say that the Here & There maps did well commercially, in addition to coming out of a long-running research project, and the collaborations with Touch succeeded in the marketplace of attention. You gotta get to market to know whether what you’re doing is any good.

I don’t know, maybe I’m being unnecessarily dogmatic, but the idea of “product” is a thread that runs through a lot of our work, and I’m trying to think through and unpack what we really mean by that.

Anyway. The projects we’re working on right now – primarily Ashdown and consulting with Bonnier – have to be considered as products (with service layers! Living in our social groups!), and executed with inventiveness and beauty and popularity.

And the two projects I mentioned at the end of week 229, they have to be about inventiveness and beauty and popularity too. A quick update on those: it was a great Friday last week. We have codenames for both now. I’ve commented on a draft of the contract for Walnut. And on Kendrick we’ve agreed budgets and the engagement fee, and we’re waiting to see the contract and PO. Massively exciting.

I should say what we’re up to this week…

Schulze and Matt are working with Bonnier at the beginning of this week. Schulze will move onto organising builders for the new studio, and planning how we invest in the development of two products of our own. He’s also working on pitching Weminuche, and helping with Ashdown.

Matt Jones will focus on Ashdown. It’s an Ashdown week in the studio: everyone has something to do. I’m going to rustle up some meetings, Tom is building scrapers for data and making more visualisations, and Matt is leading the design effort. Matt Brown, previously Lead Interaction Designer at, is joining us to work on this (and other things) for a few months, and he’s starting next Monday: it’s super exciting and a big moment for us, and we’re prepping the ground so he can get off to a flying start.

Three Matts. This is going to be confusing.

Tom’s also writing for the website this week. We need to keep an eye on general marketing because of how busy we’re going to be on projects for the next couple months. If the website’s not growing, that’ll bite us come February.

I’m on contracts, pitches, interviewing, and bedding down the new operations infrastructure we now need. For instance: we have an intranet. The long ascent of the Escalante always comes back to the moment by moment. If it’s true, that behind the mountains there are mountains, then you shouldn’t climb only for the view, but for the climb itself. Make every step satisfying.