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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.