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Week 359

Okay so week 359 is a bit mad.

We take it in turns to write weeknotes (there’s a rota on the wall), but I wasn’t around for All Hands this week. Matt Jones kept the following notes and emailed them to me afterwards.


Wolf 359 is an awesome star!

It's also where the stand against the Borg takes place.

MW - visits from the taiwanese and swedish. sales meetings. dealing with studio stuff

SP - sales and new project set-ups, capacity planning. LP publications.

VOC - working up proposals, case-studies, target list of consumer products companies, proposition development

NL - bridge code to get claiming working under the new crypto scheme with james, documentation of apis. more cleverness under the hood

AH - going to slovenia, LP production ready boards, bridge production

AB - chuska wrap-up, working on LP 

JD - working on realising the service design of LP with denise and nick, a lot of whiteboarding

DW - publications stuff for LP, packaging with alex, sales and proposals

HR - a mountain of scanning, making sure everyone gets paid, helping simon with his studio dashboard spreadsheets

AJ - LP packaging - deadline this week... wrapping up chuska...

MJ - working on sales, helping alex with wrapping up chuska and doing some work on sinawava

JS - ???

Thanks Matt!

So here’s what’s occupying my head this week…

1. I’ve been to a bunch of brilliantly exciting client meetings this week. One of the things that seems to have changed in how we approach projects, in 2012, is that there’s more collaboration with clients earlier in their initial process of developing the brief. We get to poke at much more why the project is happening, and what it’s meant to achieve, and we get to feed in what we find super interesting right now, and our intuitions. So I’ve spent a good amount of time every day this week very enthusiastic about this, setting up brilliant briefs, feeling expansive with ideas and possibilities.

Then for some reason there have been lots of meetings with interesting people this week: a trade delegation from Taiwan, organised by UKTI and hosted by ustwo; a group of executives from the Bonnier Group on a training day; more with individuals. These are good opportunities to speak out loud about projects and about BERG, and I find that talking is an act of recall, improvisation, and renewing of mental tracks during which valuable thinking happens.

Alongside that, to be honest, I’m having a pretty heavy week, dealing with some of that kind of stuff where (a) the best person in the company to deal with it is me, and (b) it’s tiring to think about.

Switching rapidly between conversations that delight me and mental work that grinds me down has its own particular effect: to be fully involved in each activity, the feelings appropriate to the other activity have to be contained or suspended for the moment, and it’s that continual packing/unpacking/repacking that creates a novel kind of tiredness, a kind that I can only describe as – I don’t know whether this word exists outside the UK – radgy.

Which means I’m having to watch myself. If I look at something and I don’t like it, is that a real opinion or am I just a bit annoyed at everything? If I think somebody is agitated about something, are they actually or is it my own agitation I’m seeing?

It’s good to be aware of this I suppose, but phew, turbulence is tiring.

2. Here’s the thing. If you asked me to sum up the mood of the studio this week, I’d say frazzled and radgy. Is that because it’s me that’s frazzled and radgy and so I’m seeing it where it doesn’t exist and focusing on it where it does? Or is it because everyone’s tired at once, certain streams of Little Printer are coming to a head and that’s pressured, a couple of recent projects might have been recently or might be currently in the middle of their “lost in the fog” phase (which often happens but you need to find your way out of it by knack or luck), we’ve had a crunchy couple of weeks of multiple projects at crunchy points anyway, and I’ve not been paying the Room enough attention?

Some combination of the two I suppose. These things happen.

And I guess this says a bunch about my temperament but I’m reminded of running and those real grinds of hills you sometimes encounter that make your muscles burn and your lungs feel like hot raisins. I love that feeling.

Mainly what I’ve been saying this week (about my own week) is “it’s all a lot of fun.” It’s not the kind of fun that I go to the pub for, sure, but it’s the kind of fun where you listen closely to your muscles and you cuddle up to the sting and you feel the push to keeping running up the hill as a resolved exuberance. And boy it stings, you can’t think of anything else.

As fun as it is, you make sure to do your stretches afterwards so that it doesn’t sting next time.

3. I haven’t done weeknotes for a while, and it’s a shame my turn on the rota has fallen on a week I’m feeling particularly introspective!

So let me also say that this week my general (and hidden from the studio) obsession with David Bowie’s 1972 single Starman continues.

Here it is on YouTube:

As you listen, listen out for (from this description by Thomas Jones) the build-up of tension as the song opens, and the sense of as he says “release and climax” when the chorus kicks in. Here’s what’s happening:

What happens is that for the first time, the melody hits the tonic; Bowie gets through 15 bars in F major without singing an F, and then on the word ‘starman’ he hits two of them, an octave apart.

It’s astounding to hear once you know what’s going on, grab your headphones and listen to it now. That first staaaar-maan gives me shivers.

I believe that the reason I can’t stop listening to the song is that here, in week 359, our own chorus hasn’t yet kicked in, and I’m impatient, I can’t wait.

Swiping through cinema, touching through glass

The studio is continually interested in the beautiful and inventive stuff that can happen when you poke and prod around the edges of technology and culture. Mag+ emerged from a curiosity from both Bonnier and BERG about reading on tablets while Making Future Magic emerged from experiments with light painting and screens.

Early last year we were experimenting with product photography for a retail client pitch. We wondered how we could we use cinematic techniques to explore product imagery.

Watch the video of our experiments on Vimeo.

What would happen if instead of a single product image or a linear video, we could flick and drag our way through time and the optical qualities of lenses? What if we had control of the depth of field, focus, lighting, exposure, frame-rate or camera position through tap and swipe?

Swiping through cinema

This is a beautiful 1960′s Rolex that we shot in video while pulling focus across the surface the watch. On the iPad, the focus is then under your control, the focal point changes to match your finger as it taps and swipes across the object. Your eye and finger are in the same place, you are in control of the locus of attention.

Jack originally explored focus navigation (with technical help by George Grinsted) in 2000, and now Lytro allow ‘tap to focus’ in pictures produced by the ‘light field camera‘.

The lovely thing here is that we can see all of the analogue, optical qualities such as the subtle shifts in perspective as the lens elements move, and the blooming, reflection and chromatic abberations that change under our fingertips. Having this optical, cinematic language under the fine control of our fingertips feels new, it’s a lovely, playful, explorative interaction.

Orson Welles’ Deep Focus.

Cinematic language is a rich seam to explore, what if we could adjust the exposure to get a better view of highlights and shadows? Imagine this was diamond jewellery, and we could control the lighting in the room. Or to experiment with aperture, going from the deep focus of Citizen Kane, through to the extremely shallow focus used in Gomorrah, where the foreground is separated from the environment.

Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker.

What if we dropped or exploded everyday objects under a super high-frame rate cinematography, and gave ourselves a way of swiping through the chaotic motion? Lots of interesting interactions to explore there.

Touching through glass

This next experiment really fascinated us. We shot a glass jar full of thread bobbins rotating in front of the camera, on the iPad you can swipe to explore these beautiful, intricate colourful objects.

There is a completely new dimension here, in that you are both looking at a glass jar and touching a cold glass surface. The effect is almost uncanny, a somewhat realistic sense of touch has been re-introduced into the cold, smooth iPad screen. We’re great fans of Bret Victor’s brilliant rant on the problems of the lack of tactility in ‘pictures under glass‘, and in a way this is a re-inforcement of that critique: tactility is achieved through an uncanny visual re-inforcement of touching cold glass. This one really needs to be in your hands to be fully experienced.

And it made us think, what if we did all product photography that was destined for iPads inside gorgeous Victorian bell jars?

Nick realised this as an App on a first-generation iPad:

Each of the scenes in the Swiping through Cinema app are made up of hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of individual images, each extracted from a piece of real-time HD video. It is the high speed manipulation of these images which creates one continuous experience, and has only become possible relatively recently.

During our time developing Mag+, we learnt a great deal about using images on tablets. With the first-generation iPad, you needed to pay careful attention to RAM use, as the system could kill your app for being excessively greedy, even after loading only a handful of photographs. We eventually created a method which would allow you to smoothly animate any number of full-screen images.

With that code in place, we moved onto establishing a workflow which would allow us to shoot footage and be able to preview it within the app in a matter of minutes. We also consciously avoided filling the screen with user interface elements, which means that the only interaction is direct manipulation of what you see on-screen.

With the Retina display on the third-generation iPad, we’re really excited by the prospect of being able to move through super crisp and detailed image sequences.

We’re really excited about re-invigorating photographic and cinematographic techniques for iPads and touchscreens, and finding out how to do new kinds of interactive product imagery in the process.

“Sometimes the stories are the science…”

This is a blog post about a type of work we find successful – namely, video prototyping – and why we think it’s valuable.

We’ve made quite a few films in the last couple of years, that have had some success – in how they describe products, technologies and contexts of their use in public.

We’re lucky enough to work with Timo Arnall, as creative director, who guides all of our film output and is central to the way that we’ve been able to use the moving image as part of our design process – more of which later.

Film is a great way to show things that have behaviour in them – and the software, services and systems that literally animate them.

Embedded in Time.

A skilled film-maker can get across the nature of that behaviour in a split-second with film – which would take thousands of words or ultra-clear infographics.

They can do this along with the bonuses of embedding humour, emotional-resonance, context and a hundred other tacit things about the product.

Film is also an easy way to show things that don’t exist yet, or can’t exist yet – and make claims about them.

We’ve all seen videos by corporations and large design companies that are glossy and exciting illustrations of the new future products they’ll almost certainly never make.

Some are dire, some are intriguing-but-flawed, some are awesome-but-unbelievable.

This is fine!

More than fine!

Brilliant!

Ultimately they are communications – of brand and ambition – rather than legal promises.

Some of these communications though – have enormous purchase on our dreams and ambitions for years afterwards – for better, or for worse.

I’m thinking particularly of the Apple ‘Knowledge Navigator’ film of 1987, important in some of the invention it foreshadowed, even while some of the notions in it are now a little laughable.

It was John Sculley‘s vision – not Jobs – and was quite controversial at the time.

Nevertheless, designers, technologists and businesses have pursued those ideas with greater and lesser success due to the hold that film had over the collective psyche of the technology industry for, say, 20 years.

Hugh Dubberly was working at Apple at the time points out some of the influences the film in a piece on his studio’s website:

“We began with as much research as we could do in a few days. We talked with Aaron Marcus and Paul Saffo. Stewart Brand’s book on the “Media Lab” was also a source—as well as earlier visits to the Architecture Machine Group. We also read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and Verber Vinge’s “True Names”.

Of course the company that authored it, Apple, I’d argue built it eventually to some extent with the iPhone.

The gravity well of the knowledge navigator was enormous, and fittingly, Apple punched out of it first with real product.

As Andy Baio and Jason Kottke has pointed out – their predicted time horizon for some of the concepts realised in the iPhone 4S and particularly Siri was uncannily accurate.

This ‘communications gravity’ – the sheer weight of the ‘microfuture’ portrayed shifts the discussion, shifts culture and it’s invention just a little bit toward it.

They are what Webb calls (after Victor Papanek, I believe) ‘normative’ – they illustrate something we want to build toward.

They are also commercial acts – perhaps with altruistic or collegiate motives woven in – but commercial all the same.

They illustrate a desirable microfuture wherein Brand-X’s product or services are central.

Dubberly, in his piece about Knowledge Navigator points out the importance of this – the influence the film had on the corporate imagination of the company, and of competitors:

“What is surprising is that the piece took on a life of its own. It spawned half a dozen or more sequels within Apple, and several other companies made similar pieces. These pieces were marketing materials. They supported the sale of computers by suggesting that a company making them has a plan for the future.

One effect of the video was engendering a discussion (both inside Apple and outside) about what computers should be like. On another level, the videos became a sort of management tool.

They suggested that Apple had a vision of the future, and they prompted a popular internal myth that the company was “inventing the future.”

Very recently, we’ve seen the rise of two other sub-genres of concept video.

It’s very early days for both, but both are remarkable for the ‘communications gravity’ they generate for very different commercial endeavours.

First of all – what Bruce Sterling has called the ‘vernacular video’ – often of products in use – created for startups and small companies.

Adam Lisagor has been hailed as the leader in this genre by Fast Company – and his short films for the like of Flipboard, Square and Jawbone have in many ways been defining of the vernacular in that space. They are short, and understated – and very clear about the central benefit of the product or service. Perfect for the sharing and re-sharing. Timo’s written about Adam’s work previously on his personal blog, and I’d agree with him when he says “He’s good at surfacing the joy and pleasure in some of the smallest interactions”. They serve as extraordinarily elegant pitches for products and services that are ‘real’ i.e. has usually already been made.

Secondly – the short videos that illustrate the product intentions of people on Kickstarter, often called ‘campaign videos’ – outlining a prototype or a feasibility investigation into making a product at small scale.

They are often very personal and emotive, but mix in somewhat of a documentary approach to making and construction around prototypes. They serve as invitations to support a journey.

So far, so what?

Video is a well-known way of communicating new or future products & services that reaches the mainstream – and we are seeing a boom in the amount of great short communication about design, invention and making with ever-higher production value as the tools of creation fall in cost, and the techniques of using them become available to small, nimble groups of creators.

Well, we think that’s just half of the potential of using video.

There is a great deal of potential in using video as a medium for design itself – not just communicating what’s been designed, or imagined.

Jack and Timo drew this for me a couple of months ago when we were discussing an upcoming project.

Public Prototyping = New Grammars

We were talking about the overlap between invention and storytelling that occurs when we make films, and how and why that seems to happen.

On the right is the ‘communications gravity’ that I’ve already talked about above – but the left-hand circle of the Venn is ‘product invention’.

During a project like Mag+ we used video prototyping throughout – in order to find what was believable, what seemed valuable, and how it might normalise into a mainstream product of worth.

In the initial workshopping stages we made very quick sketches with cut-up magazines, pasted together and filmed with an iPhone – but then played back on an iPhone to understand the quality of the layout and interaction on a small screen.

From these early animatics to discuss with our client at Bonnier R&D, we moved to the video prototype of the chosen route.

There were many iterations of the ‘material quality’ of the interface – we call it the ‘rulespace’ – the physics of the interactions, the responsiveness of the media – tuned in the animation and video until we had something that felt right – and that could communicate it’s ‘rightness’ in film.

You find what is literally self-evident.

You are faking everything except this ‘rulespace’ – it’s a block of wood, with green paper on it. But as we’ve written before, that gets you to intuitions about use and gesture – what will make you tired, what will feel awkward in public places, how it sits on the breakfast table.

Finding the rulespace is the thing that is the real work – and that is product invention through making a simulation.

Why we make models

We are making a model of how a product is, to the degree that we can in video. We subject it to as much rigour as we can in terms of the material and technological capabilities we think can be built.

It must not be magic, or else it won’t feel real.

I guess I’m saying sufficiently-advanced technology should be distinguishable from magic.

Some of that is about context – we try and illustrate a “universe-next-door” where the new product is the only novelty. Where there is still tea, and the traffic is still miserable.

This increases belief in our possible microfuture to be sure – but it also serves a purpose in our process of design and invention.

The context itself is a rulespace – that the surface and behaviour of the product must believably fit into for it to be successful. It becomes part of the material you explore. There are phenomena you discover that present obstacles and opportunities.

That leads me to the final, overlapping area of the Venn diagram above – “New Grammar”

This summer I read “The Nature Of Technology: What it is and how it evolves” by W. Brian Arthur. I picked it up after reading Dan Saffer’s review of it, so many thanks to him for turning me on to it.

In it, Arthur frames the realtionship between ‘natural phenomena’ as discovered and understood by science, and how technology is that which ‘programs phenomena to our use’.

“That a technology relies on some effect is general. A technology is always based on some phenomenon or truism of nature that can be exploited and used to a purpose. I say “always” for the simple reason that a technology that exploited nothing could achieve nothing.”

“Phenomena are the indispensable source from which all technologies arise. All technologies, no matter how simple or sophisticated, are dressed-up versions of the use of some effect—or more usually, of several effects.”

“Phenomena rarely can be used in raw form. They may have to be coaxed and tuned to operate satisfactorily, and they may work only in a narrow range of conditions. So the right combination of supporting means to set them up for the purpose intended must be found.”

“A technology is a phenomenon captured and put to use. Or more accurately I should say it is a collection of phenomena captured and put to use. I use the word “captured” here, but many other words would do as well. I could say the phenomenon is harnessed, seized, secured, used, employed, taken advantage of, or exploited for some purpose. To my mind though, “captured and put to use” states what I mean the best.”

“…technology is more than a mere means. It is a programming of phenomena for a purpose. A technology is an orchestration of phenomena to our use.”

This leads me to another use of film we find valuable – as documentary evidence and experimental probe. What Schulze calls ‘science on science’.

The work that he and Timo did on RFID exploring it’s ‘material’ qualities through film is a good example of this I think.

It’s almost a nature documentary in a way, pointing and poking at a phenomena in order to capture new (often visual) language to understand it.

Back to W.Brian Arthur:

“…phenomena used in technology now work at a scale and a range that casual observation and common sense have no access to.”

I think this is what Jack and Timo are trying to address with work such as ‘Immaterials’, and reffering to in the centre of their Venn – creating new grammar is an important part of both design investigation, and communication. It is an act of synthesis that can happen within and be expressed through the film-making process.

Arthur’s book goes on to underline the importance of such activities in invention:

“A new device or method is put together from the available components—the available vocabulary—of a domain. In this sense a domain forms a language; and a new technological artifact constructed from components of the domain is an utterance in the domain’s language. This makes technology as a whole a collection of several languages, because each new artifact may draw from several domains. And it means that the key activity in technology—engineering design—is a form of composition. It is expression within a language (or several).”

He goes on to quote Paul Klee on the the importance of increasing the grammar we have access to:

“…even adepts can never fully keep up with all the principles of combination in their domain. One result of this heavy investment in a domain is that a designer rarely puts a technology together from considerations of all domains available. The artist adapts himself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of his paintbox. “The painter… does not fit the paints to the world. He fits himself to the paint.” As in art, so in technology. Designers construct from the domains they know.”

I think one of the biggest rewards of this sort of work is finding new grammar from other domains. Or what Arthur calls the importance of ‘redomaining’ in invention.

“The reason… redomainings are powerful is not just that they provide a wholly new and more efficient way to carry out a purpose. They allow new possibilities.”

“A change in domain is the main way in which technology progresses.”

“…a single practitioner’s new projects typically contain little that is novel. But many different designers acting in parallel produce novel solutions: in the concepts used to achieve particular purposes; in the choice of domains; in component combinations; in materials, architectures, and manufacturing techniques. All these cumulate to push an existing technology and its domain forward.”

“At the creative heart of invention lies appropriation, some sort of mental borrowing that comes in the form of a half-conscious suggestion.”

“…associates a problem with a solution by reaching into his store of functionalities and imagining what will happen when certain ones are combined.”

“Invention at its core is mental association.”

It’s not necessarily an end product we are after – that comes through more thinking through making. And it also comes from a collegiate conversation using new grammars that work unearths.

But to get a new language, a map, even if it’s just a pirate map, just a confident sketch in an emerging territory – is invaluable in order to provoke the mental association Arthur refers to.

We’re going to continue to experiment with video as a medium for research, design and communication.

Recent efforts like ‘Clocks for Robots‘ are us trying to find something like a sketch, where we start a conversation about new grammar through video…

About a decade ago – I saw Oliver Sacks speak at the Rockerfeller Institute in NYC, talk about his work.

A phrase from his address has always stuck with me since. He said of what he did – his studies and then the writing of books aimed at popular understanding of his studies that ‘…sometimes the stories are the science’.

Sometimes our film work is the design work.

Again this is a commercial act, and we are a commercial design studio.

But it’s also something that we hope unpacks the near-future – or at least the near-microfutures – into a public where we can all talk about them.

Friday Links: Chumbys that see, cheetahs made of metal, and beautiful digital playthings

It’s Friday, so time for our usual jumble-sale of the near-future, as detected via the studio mailing list.

Nick found ChumbyCV – a computer vision framework for Chumby. Here’s one that can not only see, but has acquired motive power.

At the other end of the slightly-terrifying robot scale, are the newest designs to come out of Boston Dynamics – makers of BigDog – which include this incredible ‘cheetah’ design…

Which just gives me flashback to my youth, and the evil Decepticon cassette tape / jaguar – Ravage!

From one 1980′s toy to an update of another – what happens when you combine scalectrix (or perhaps, micromachines) with projection and computervision? Answer: you get this brilliant experiment by Lieven van Velthoven: Room Racers…

As pico projectors get cheaper and more powerful I wonder what new play forms are going to arrive in the next couple of years.

Friends of BERG, Bjorn Jeffery and Emil Overmar are likely to be involved if the first products of their new Bonnier-backed venture Toca Boca are anything to go by.

They are consciously not making games for kids but – get this“digital toys”.

Brilliant.

I downloaded “Helicopter Taxi” and it really is a digital toy. It’s simple, delightful, charming and radiates play. It’s aimed at 3 years old and up – but the 30somethings in the studio who played with it had stupid grins on their faces from the first couple of seconds they picked it up. Really looking forward to seeing what else the Toca Boca playsmiths come up with.

More beautiful digital playthings. Tom pointed to Fez, which I won’t even try and describe – it’s just lovely. Watch.

FEZ PAX EAST GAMEPLAY VIDEO from POLYTRON on Vimeo.

And finally, Matt Brown pointed us to the new video by Airside for Flashman – the new band by Fred Deakin (Lemon Jelly) and Robin Jones (Beta Band). It’s lovely – and as Matt points out, very New British Modern…

Flashman — The Proposition from Airside on Vimeo.

Have a lovely weekend!

5 iPad magazines now on the Mag+ platform

I wanted to point out a little milestone!

You may remember we built Popular Science+ for the iPad — available on the day the iPad was launched (3 April), it was the first magazine available, and based on our Mag+ concept from December 2009 with Bonnier.

What you might not know is we spent that time building a platform. Mag+ is

  • a way to read magazines on tablets, and a file format to package up editorial, assets and interactions
  • InDesign integration to go from existing paper magazines to the Mag+ format, with custom tools to aide design, iPad previewing, and publishing
  • e-commerce and customer relationship servers, and integration

Over the summer, we took this system from prototype to hand-over: for the past months, Bonnier have developed the platform, deepened the integration, and are now rapidly adding features and titles.

First is was Popular Science…

…now there are five magazines on the Mag+ platform! In three languages. All launched on the App Store, all published every month.

Read more about the platform and see the magazines at magplus.com.

And have a look at PopSci’s write-up of the four new mags. They’re really worth a look.

The various art directors are really beginning to understand the visual design possibilities of Mag+, the layouts are moving way beyond the simple right-column, left-photo place we started. It’s exciting to see, and exciting to imagine what comes next.

I’m really pleased to see Bonnier developing the platform so well, and to see the seeds we planted together blossom so beautifully.

(Read more about the Mag+ project here.)

My piece on iPad magazines for Icon’s September 2010 issue.

Icon September Issue: piece on (near-)future of digital magazines by me

Outgoing editor Justin McGuirk asked me to write a little about the near-future of digital magazines for Icon #87, in which I talk a bit about challenges of the context they now find themselves in as a media form, as well as things we think we learned during the Mag+ project.

They’ve kindly allowed us to republish it here.

Since the launch of the Apple iPad six months ago, the world of digital magazines has seen fevered activity and hyperbolic punditry.

Big names such as Wired, Vanity Fair, Time and Popular Science (which our studio, BERG, helped to bring to the iPad with the Mag+ platform) have released editions into the App Store and made proclamations that it’s the future of magazines.

However, the very term “digital magazine” smacks of “horseless carriage”, Marshall McLuhan’s term for an in-between technology that is quickly obsolete. While nothing is certain about the future of any media, there is no doubt that the digital tablet form will grow in popularity, with the iPad being joined later this year by numerous other (possibly cheaper) competitors mainly powered by Google’s Android operating system.

So, what does the future really hold for digital magazines? We can identify some challenges and some opportunities. One certainty is that the manner by which we discover and purchase magazines will be given a hefty thump by the switch to digital. We are in a world of search rather than browse – which perhaps in turn leads to a change in the role of cover design, from “buy me, look what’s inside” to “you know what’s inside, but here is an incredible, evocative image”. In many ways it’s a return to the “classic” magazine covers of the 1950s and 60s, privileging the desirability of the object itself rather than shouting about every feature.

The bounded “object-ness” of the magazine embedded in the world of the endless, restless internet is seen by most as an anachronism, but it is also one of its greatest attributes. Research we received from our client Bonnier as part of the brief for the Mag+ concept indicated that people really were attached to the magazine as a form of media that creates a bubble of time to indulge in reading – and as a contrast to other, faster forms of media.

Meeting this need – while acknowledging the breadth, speed and interconnectedness of the internet – is a design condition that has not been satisfied fully by the current crop of digital magazine offerings, our efforts included. But stay tuned.

Another change in what we might term the “attention economics” of digital magazines is that their new neighbours in the app ecosystem are not other magazines, but games, spreadsheets, supermarket delivery apps, photography apps and so on. One device is now the conduit for vastly different activities and experiences.

And yet – at least in the current user-interface paradigm of Apple and Google – they all get pretty much the same real estate on screen. You have to decide between killing time with a magazine, playing Angry Birds or ordering your Ocado delivery based on the same visual evidence.

Perhaps future iterations of mobile and tablet operating systems will have a more media-led approach, as evidenced by the new Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system (yes, that’s right, Microsoft has made a more media-centric user interface than Apple) – leading to magazine icons being bigger or more varied on the media surface.

Still, having such vastly different neighbours nestling so close creates a new context for an old form that has heavier production costs than its new competitors. A casual game developed by five people commands the same attention of a magazine produced by 25. That is remarkably imbalanced, but don’t think these attention economics will stand. The production and form of the magazine cannot fail to be affected. Internet-native publishers such as gadget expert Gizmodo, fashion maven The Sartorialist or critically minded gamer Rock, Paper, Shotgun are smaller and nimbler. And eventually they’ll be able to publish to the same canvas as the big boys and girls – and be able to charge for their expert curation and commentary.

Which brings us to some of what I’ve started to call “two-star problems”. In the consumocracy of the App Store, star ratings are all, and unfortunately most of the current magazine offerings have only two stars, compared to the four- or five-star world of games and other apps. Even Wired and, I’m sad to say, Popular Science garner a “must-try-harder” three stars. Consumer dismay at customer service, reliability, consistency, pricing and the overall offer seem to lead to these relatively low ratings. Consumers’ expectations are determined by the value they see offered by software producers compared to traditional media producers.

So where to head? What are the opportunities? I think they are supplementary to what magazine publishers see as their existing strengths in writing, curation and design. They will emerge from their less glamorous but equally deep knowledge of subscriptions, service and “belonging”.

Take the best of what you understand of your readership and the decade or so that many magazines have spent on the internet and look to exploit the social technologies of the web, rather than run to present your content as an isolated recapitulation of a mid-1990s CD-ROM.

Create hybrids and experiment – not with the empty (and costly) spectacle of embedding jarring 3D and video, but with data, visualisation, sociality, location-based services, semantic technologies.

There’s no reason that the feel of a well-designed, valuable, curated object shouldn’t be complemented when placed properly in the roaring, sparkling stream of the internet. And experiment not just with editorial content, but also with advertising. I’d rather have a live link to the latest Amazon price for a camera than a spinning 3D video of it.

Tablets promise to be transformative – in their context of use and how well they can display content – but they do not wish away the disruptive challenge (and opportunity) the internet presents to magazine publishers.

This is the beginning of a tumultuously exciting time for magazines and those who produce them – not an end to the “free-for-all” of the web as many would love to believe. More experimentation, not less, is what’s called for. As a reader and a designer, I’m looking forward to that.

Week 272

Studio leylines

One of the things that was easier, writing these notes about the studio back in 2009, was that the room was smaller. There’s something about stewing in each other’s pheromones. You share moods. If the week was tiring, you were all tired. If you had the sherbet fizz of excitement in your belly, you knew that was the collective unconscious of the studio at large.

In August 2010, we’re too big for that. We’re not big by any means! Eight people, a network of experts, and just taken on a ninth – Alex Jarvis is joining us in October! – but big enough for different moods and senses to sit together in the same space.

When three people are buzzing, collectively discovering a new filming technique, you can see the static sparks fly between them and the energy is infectious. Conversely, a feeling of difficulty or defeat when a particular project is crunching can rise like some deep magma upswell and roll around the studio almost tidally before it’s recognised, digested and massaged out.

Mood transmission follows lines of physical proximity, conversations, and collaboration.

Part of the job of gardening a studio – a community of people – is to encourage the right transmissions and tides. By weaving together sources of energy, in reinforcing loops, a collective exuberance may take place.

Exuberance is a period in the development of the brain that lasts until 10 years of age. It is an over-production of connections between neurons, a decade-long acid trip seeing the secret alignments of the universe. During your teenage years, your brain sculpts itself into a mirror of the reality it has chosen to perceive, pruning away possible worlds.

Exuberance is a state only entered into with care. It’s frazzling. We maybe don’t have to use it right now.

We have a lot on at the moment: internal R&D, film-making, design and communications work, ops and infrastructure, the sales pipeline… projects are giant invisible bears that roam around the studio tickling ribs and cracking heads. Recently projects have been colliding, not in a way where that has been affecting the work, but in odd second-order ways: people have to task-switch too much; tasks appear suddenly when they’re urgent instead of being apprehended; the gardening of the studio becomes automatic and unthinking. That needs to be looked at.

When I write these notes, I’m aware that I’m now just one perspective. When I look around, easiness and effort sit side-by-side. This studio has many voices.

What matters now are how different characters refract light differently as illumination moves between them, and how the interference patterns of the waves and rhythms of different projects interacting can be either choppy or smooth. Complexity. I have no ways to understand this. My brain’s picture of reality isn’t yet sculpted like this.

So I’m thinking about ways to manage a small big room instead of a big small room.

All of which feels like growing up a bit.

Autopoiesis is a process whereby a system produces its own organization and maintains and constitutes itself in a space. E.g., a biological cell, a living organism and to some extend a corporation and a society as a whole.

The studio we’re creating together is not only a garden that grows culture, but at the same time garden capable of self-gardening. We sometimes overlook this capacity in humans I think, because of the organ focus we have on the body. There is an organ for thinking. There is an organ for cleaning the blood. There is an organ for digesting the world into particles. These are clearly demarcated. There is also an organ for self-growth, but it isn’t demarcated in the same way. It is distributed into the molecules of every cell in the body. It exists on the organisational plane. So the organs of regulated self-creation in our studio will be psychic and structural, but they have existence none-the-less. I want to be able to spend more time looking for and looking after this organ.

For some reason today, I’m preoccupied with the leylines and gravities and internal terrain of the studio.

12 months

I monitor three budgets: attention; cash; risk. All are flows to be directed. Attention: how many minutes do we have as a studio, any how many can be spent in experimental or undirected ways? Cash: how can cash-flow be managed to build up working capital to invest, versus spend freely to buy more attention to spend? Risk: how tolerant are the attention and cash budgets to delay or failure?

We can direct some flow into the infrastructure of the studio machine: our calcified processes, libraries and knowledge that operate automatically, and give our future attention and cash greater leverage.

In the last 12 months, we’ve consulted on design strategy with Nokia, the BBC, Sitra, Bonnier, Layar, BILD and Absolut. We’ve written articles in Icon and Edge, had press in Wired and Creative Review. We’ve made a movie about RFID, re-invented the magazine with Mag+ — and created a digital magazine publishing platform that excited Apple. We’ve released Michel Thomas, Schooloscope, and BBC Dimensions. We’ve moved premises, built a team, and have significant internal and client projects well underway.

From this, we’re building decent leverage of our activity. The conversations we have with people now are less like client/supplier interactions, and more like figuring out how to start relationships. Good.

Behind the mountains there are mountains, so enjoy the climb. It’s a good feeling to look at the mountain-tops and, even in a little way, know we have room to choose the path.

BERG

And of course, on 19 August last year, we launched as BERG.

A beautiful, difficult, inventive, frazzling, exuberant, rewarding, wonderful garden.

One year!

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.

Popular Science+

In December, we showed Mag+, a digital magazine concept produced with our friends at Bonnier.

Late January, Apple announced the iPad.

So today Popular Science, published by Bonnier and the largest science+tech magazine in the world, is launching Popular Science+ — the first magazine on the Mag+ platform, and you can get it on the iPad tomorrow. It’s the April 2010 issue, it’s $4.99, and you buy more issues from inside the magazine itself.

See Popular Science+ in the iTunes Store now.

Here’s Jack, speaking about the app, its background, and what we learned about art direction for magazines using Mag+.

Articles are arranged side by side. You swipe left and right to go between them. For big pictures, it’s fun to hold your finger between two pages, holding and moving to pan around.

You swipe down to read. Tap left to see the pictures, tap right to read again. These two modes of the reading experience are about browsing and drinking in the magazine, versus close reading.

Pull the drawer up with two fingers to see the table of contents and your other issues. Swipe right and left with two fingers to zip across pages to the next section. Dog-ear a page by turning down the top-right corner.

There’s a store in the magazine. When a new issue comes out, you purchase it right there.

Editorial

Working with the Popular Science team and their editorial has been wonderful, and we’ve been working together to re-imagine the form of magazines. Art direction for print is so much about composition. There are a 1,000 tiny tweaks to tune a page to get it to really sing. But what does layout mean when readers can make the text disappear, when the images move across one another, and the page itself changes shape as the iPad rotates?

We discovered safe areas. We found little games to play with the reader, having them assemble infographics in the act of scrolling, and making pages that span multiple panes, only revealing themselves when the reader does a double-finger swipe to zoom across them.

It helps that Popular Science has great photography, a real variety of content, and an engaged and open team.

What amazes me is that you don’t feel like you’re using a website, or even that you’re using an e-reader on a new tablet device — which, technically, is what it is. It feels like you’re reading a magazine.

Apple made the first media device you can curl up with, and I think we’ve done it, and Popular Science, justice.

From concept to production

The story, for me, is that the design work behind the Mag+ concept video was strong enough to spin up a team to produce Popular Science+ in only two months.

Not only that, but an authoring system that understands workflow. And InDesign integration so art directors are in control, not technologists. And an e-commerce back-end capable of handling business models suitable for magazines. And a new file format, “MIB,” that strikes the balance between simple enough for anyone to implement, and expressive enough to let the typography, pictures, and layout shine. And it’s set up to do it all again in 30 days. And more.

It’s all basic, sure. But it’ll grow. We’ve built in ways for it to grow.

But we’ve always said that good design is rooted not just in doing good by the material, but by understanding the opportunities in the networks of organisations and people too.

A digital magazine is great, immersive content on the screen. But behind those pixels are creative processes and commercial systems that also have to come together.

Inventing something, be it a toy or new media, always means assembling networks such as these. And design is our approach on how to do it.

I’m pleased we were able to work with Popular Science and Bonnier, to get to a chance to do this, and to bring something new into the world.

Thanks!

Thank you to the BERG team for sterling work on El Morro these last two months, especially the core team who have sunk so much into this: Campbell Orme, James Darling, Lei Bramley, Nick Ludlam and Timo Arnall. Also Jack Schulze, Matt Jones, Phil Gyford, Tom Armitage, and Tom Taylor.

Thanks to the Popular Science team, Mike Haney and Sam Syed in particular, Mark Poulalion and his team from Bonnier, and of course Bonnier R&D and Sara Öhrvall, the grand assembler!

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to work with each and every one of you.

See also…

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.

Phew.

Yes.

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 bbc.co.uk 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!

Grrreat!

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 weeknotes.com 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 bbc.co.uk 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.

Mag+, a concept video on the future of digital magazines

I’ve got something I want to share with you.

We’ve been working with our friends at Bonnier R&D exploring the future of digital magazines. Bonnier publish Popular Science and many other titles.

Magazines have articles you can curl up with and lose yourself in, and luscious photography that draws the eye. And they’re so easy and enjoyable to read. Can we marry what’s best about magazines with the always connected, portable tablet e-readers sure to arrive in 2010?

This video prototype shows the take of the Mag+ project.

You can see this same video bigger on Vimeo.

The articles run in scrolls, not pages, and are placed side-to-side in kind of mountain range (as we call it internally). Magazines still arrive in issues: people like the sense of completion at the end of each.

Mag+ in landscape

You flip through by shifting focus. Tap the pictures on the left of the screen to flip through the mag, tap text on the right to dive in.

Bedside manner

It is, we hope, like stepping into a space for quiet reading. It’s pleasant to have an uncluttered space. Let the Web be the Web. But you can heat up the words and pics to share, comment, and to dig into supplementary material.

Heated Mode

The design has an eye to how paper magazines can re-use their editorial work without having to drastically change their workflow or add new teams. Maybe if the form is clear enough then every mag, no matter how niche, can look gorgeous, be super easy to understand, and have a great reading experience. We hope so. That gets tested in the next stage, and rolled into everything learned from this, and feedback from the world at large! Join the discussion at the Bonnier R&D Beta Lab.

Recently there have been digital magazine prototypes by Sports Illustrated, and by Wired. It’s fascinating to see the best features of all of these.

Many teams at Bonnier have been involved in Mag+. This is a synthesis of so much work, research, and ideas. But I want to say in particular it’s a pleasure to collaborate with our friends at R&D. And here at BERG let me call out some specific credits: Jack Schulze, Matt Jones, Campbell Orme and Timo Arnall. Thanks all!

Treemap ToC

(See also Bonnier R&D’s Mag+ page, where you can leave comments and contact Bonnier, and the thoughts of Kicker Studio — who will be expanding the concept to robust prototype over the next few months in San Francisco! BERG’s attention has now moved to the social and wider services around Mag+ – we’ll be mapping those out and concepting – and we’re looking forward to working with all the teams into 2010. Awesome.)

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 Last.fm, 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.

Week 229

Tom is on holiday. Matt Jones was with the RCA Design Interactions programme on Monday launching a brief on the Future of Etiquette, in collaboration with T-Mobile. He’s currently in Berlin with that. Aside from that: Ashdown; helping Schulze with Bonnier; gentle biz dev.

Schulze is gently biz deving too, on top of developing last week’s low fi video prototypes for Bonnier with Campbell Orme, more Ojito designs and costings, and organising building works for the new studio.

I’m using this brief moment of calm to catch up on emails, writing, pitches and chores, and to build simple financial models of the company to give us a better view on the next couple of quarters. It’s got too complex to manage from looking at the books and invoices. The consequences of not doing certain kinds of biz dev or not watching cash or growth don’t become apparent for a few months. So: spreadsheets. I have to admit, I enjoy it.

(Also I’m holding my breath over two projects I’d really love for us to land this week. Don’t tell anyone I get this nervous.)

Week 228

I’m back. Holidays are good, I can thoroughly recommend them. And if you’re interested in the talk, Escalante, I gave while I was away, you can listen to the MP3 recording and see the bibliography.

Thanks Matt Jones for giving the week 226 and week 227 updates while I was away! He’s funnier but I talk more about business strategy. Let’s get on with the show.

Ashdown is a project to bring great user experience to UK education data. There’s a lot of it. Tom is working hard on material exploration, ingesting data sets and visualising connections and context within the data, to help designers understand and invent. I’m hoping he’ll say more about that process, from a code perspective, on this blog this week. But just now he was taking movies and chopping them into frames for some studio experiment or another, something Schulze has been working on.

Matt Jones is away today, speaking at Design by Fire in the Netherlands. I’m not kidding: he’s speaking about the nature of time. It’s possible we’ll be in a workshop together later this week, and otherwise he’s following up new business opportunities and working on Ashdown. I’m hoping he’ll get a chance to make us some more business cards and to arrange a party.

Last week Matt and Schulze were in Stockholm working with the Bonnier Group, kicking off a project that runs through to December. Bonnier are fascinating: a 150 company multinational media conglomerate with interests in radio, television, books, games and cinema, they’re also privately owned (since 1804) and able to take the long view. The R&D division – our previous and current client – works across the entire group without barriers, and is uniquely both exploratory and business savvy.

It used to be there were just a few media: telly, radio, books, phones, those kind of things. But I don’t think it makes sense to say that the Web is simply one more medium. The different services built on top of the Web have such different qualities: they are differently social; differently permanent or ephemeral; differently immersive or ambient. Flickr is a medium. YouTube is a medium. Blogs are a medium. What gave a medium its characteristics used to be the technology itself – the pipes and means of production – but with the Web that’s no longer true. What makes a medium a medium is itself up for design. The Web is not one medium, it is too fluid for that. The Web is ten thousand media, and you get to choose and invent which you use.

Schulze calls this media design and increasingly it’s what our strategy work involves. Interestingly companies up and down the media stack want the same thing. Content companies, distribution companies and technology companies are in a process of convergence. To put it bluntly: Facebook, Google, Apple, Nokia, BBC, Bonnier, the Guardian, Microsoft are becoming direct competitors, which never used to be the case.

So we’re doing media design for Bonnier, which involves strategy, invention and prototyping, and Schulze is half on that this week.

The other half of Schulze’s time is on Ojito. The manufacturing costs, timings and bill of materials are firming up, but there are a few other design and cost estimates to figure out on the route to market before we give it a GO/NO GO. If this doesn’t get in your hands via a client partnership (which is about 50% possible), this work is our pre-requisite to taking it to market ourselves.

Me, this week I’m on admin. There’s a contract to put together for a new hire, more work to be done on book-keeping, and the financial projection and work pipeline to be brought up to date. I have some invoices to chase, others to raise, and some phone calls to make. It’s incredible how much time that all takes.

I’m also working on bringing in Weminuche, and thinking hard about some challenges I see for the company on a six month timescale.

Coming back to work, I’m enormously proud of what the guys achieved while I was away. There’s been some great work completed, more brought in, and some startling opportunities developed.

But with the benefit of the distance a holiday brings, I’m aware that I’m not sufficiently able to support the right creative environment in the studio while I’m so preoccupied with admin. Matt and Schulze took me aside when I got back to give the same message. Growing pains.

I need a part-time office manager, and if you know someone who’s interested in (initially) a day a week, please ask them to get in touch and I’ll get back to them with a job spec.

That’s more or less most of what’s going on. A busy week 228.

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