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Blog posts tagged as 'work'


I mentioned back in October that we’d fallen off the end of our business plan. Well-regarded consultancy, prototyping products with major clients? Tick. Our own products? Tick. So when we shipped Little Printer, I’m not kidding it was the oddest feeling – I felt like we were done.

Actually, we’ve just begun.

Since I got back from vacation mid January we’ve been working on a new business plan, one that takes us right into the idea of BERG Cloud as a platform. Over 2012, our consultancy focused more and more on connected products: In 2013, we’re actively prioritising collaborations that use and build our technology. In 2012, we shipped our first consumer product. Now, we’re working on on-ramps to the platform for everyone. Dev boards are in progress!

The network is the new electricity. Connecting products is the electrification of the 21st century. And we want to be a big part of that.

But announcements of our work in these areas are to come. Sadly, we have some other changes… Two of the team are moving on.

Matt Jones

Way back in 2005, when this place was still called Schulze & Webb Ltd, our first client was Nokia, our first project was Continuous Partial Attention, and the fella who hired us there was one Matt Jones. Then, in 2009, we joined forces. A little later the company became BERG, and we built the awesome, inventive, ambitious, fun, consultancy-and-product-hybrid that is the studio we have today.

BERG has loads to thank Matt for. The consultancy business is a reflection of his insights and practices, and a good part of our intellectual foundations also come from him — our abiding interest in computer vision, “be as smart as a puppy,” immaterials… And, personally, I simply love his presence in the room.

Circumstances change. Last year, Matt started a family and became a brilliant dad. And then he was approached about a terrific job that fits incredibly well with his plans for 2013 — I’ll let him say more about that elsewhere. Long story short, at the end of March, Matt Jones is off to New York City. We’ll miss him! But we’re not letting go entirely…

Matt’s keeping an involvement in the company, so we’ll still get the benefits – albeit less frequently – of his smarts, energy, and vision. So we can have that as consolation! We’ll continue to be fellow travellers.

Simon Pearson

Simon’s been with us for two years, initially as our very first project manager – his remit was to invent the “BERG way” of running projects – and over time he’s taken on involvement in pretty much every part of how the company functions: Sales, budgeting, ops, supply chain and fulfilment, and more. Latterly he’s been Head of Little Printer, and he’s steered our first product from factory-ready to factory gate, then onto prioritising and launching features with the team, bridging product and marketing.

Simon is creative and energetic — his first love is music, and he’s off for a new journey into that. We wish him the best of luck!

We can’t replace Simon, just like we can’t replace Matt. We’ll each take on part of their old jobs, but I know there will still be something left undone… And I think what we’ll find is that whoever we bring in will have their own uniqueness, and they’ll fill that gap but do much more besides, and we can’t guess what that’ll look like.


The secret of the name BERG is that it’s an acronym: the British Experimental Rocket Group. I said once that our experimental rockets are our people and that I’m always proud to see what BERG alumni move onto and accomplish. My aspiration is that at BERG we learn to think big – to invent culture! – and one day we’ll have a PayPal Mafia all of our own.

So I’m proud, yes, of Matt Jones and Simon both, excited to see what they’ll do next, but it’s bittersweet because we’ll miss them!

I’m prouder still of what the team is creating here at BERG. There are always opportunities in change. Our 2013 strategy is a corner-turn, and we’ll be able to grow in new directions from this. We’re moving premises, too, at the end of March – to somewhere higher up, somewhere with carpets instead of concrete floors, somewhere quieter with double glazing, a place for making and building. So that’s a geographic accompaniment to the changes. It’s a new chapter for us.

Matt, Simon — I raise a glass to you both! Thank you for being with us on this journey, and all the best for your own new chapters!

Connbox: prototyping a physical product for video presence with Google Creative Lab, 2011

At the beginning of 2011 we started a wide-ranging conversation with Google Creative Lab, discussing near-future experiences of Google and its products.

We’ve already discussed our collaboration on “Lamps”, the conceptual R&D around computer vision in a separate post.

They had already in mind another brief before approaching us, to create a physical product encapsulating Google voice/video chat services.

This brief became known as ‘Connection Box’ or ‘Connbox’ for short…


For six months through the spring and summer of 2011, a multidisciplinary team at BERG developed the brief based on research, strategic thinking, hardware and software prototyping into believable technical and experiential proof of a product that could be taken to market.

It’s a very different set of outcomes from Lamps, and a different approach – although still rooted in material exploration, it’s much more centred around rapid product prototyping to really understand what the experience of physical device, service and interface could be.

As with our Lamps post, I’ve broken up this long report of what was a very involving project for the entire studio.

The Connbox backstory

The videophone has an unusually long cultural legacy.

It has been a very common feature of science fiction all the way back to the 1920s. As part of our ‘warm-up’ for the project, Joe put together a super-cut of all of the instances he could recollect from film and tv…

Videophones in film from BERG on Vimeo.

The video call is still often talked about as the next big thing in mobile phones (Apple used FaceTime as a central part of their iphone marketing, while Microsoft bought Skype to bolster their tablet and phone strategy). But somehow video calling has been stuck in the ‘trough of disillusionment’ for decades. Furthermore, the videophone as a standalone product that we might buy in a shop has never become a commercial reality.

On the other hand, we can say that video calls have recently become common, but in a very specific context. That is, people talking to laptops – constrained by the world as seen from webcam and a laptop screen.

13 September, 18.57

This kind of video calling has become synonymous with pre-arranged meetings, or pre-arranged high-bandwidth calls. It is very rarely about a quick question or hello, or a spontaneous connection, or an always-on presence between two spaces.

Unpacking the brief

The team at Google Creative Lab framed a high-level prototyping brief for us.

The company has a deep-seated interest in video-based communication, and of course, during the project both Google Hangouts and Google Plus were launched.

The brief placed a strong emphasis on working prototypes and live end-to-end demos. They wanted to, in the parlance of Google, “dogfood” the devices, to see how they felt in everyday use themselves.

I asked Jack to recall his reaction to the brief:

The domain of video conferencing products is staid and unfashionable.

Although video phones have lived large in the public imagination, no company has made a hardware product stick in the way that audio devices have. There’s something weirdly broken about taking behaviours associated with a phone: synchronous talking, ringing or alerts when one person wants another’s attention, hanging up and picking up etc.

Given the glamour and appetite for the idea, I felt that somewhere between presence and video a device type could emerge which supported a more successful and appealing set of behaviours appropriate to the form.

The real value in the work was likely to emerge in what vehicle designers call the ‘third read’. The idea of product having a ‘first, second and third read’ comes up a lot in the studio. We’ve inherited it by osmosis from product designer friends, but an excerpt from the best summation of it we can find on the web follows:

The concept of First, Second, Third Read which comes from the BMW Group automotive heritage in terms of understanding Proportion, Surface, and Detail.

The First Read is about the gesture and character of the product. It is the first impression.

Looking closer, there is the Second Read in which surface detail and specific touchpoints of interaction with the product confirm impressions and set up expectations.

The Third Read is about living with the product over time—using it and having it meet expectations…

So we’re not beginning with how the product looks or where it fits in a retail landscape, but designing from the inside out.

We start by understanding presence through devices and what video can offer, build out the behaviours, and then identify forms and hardware which support that.

To test and iterate this detail we needed to make everything, so that we can live with and see the behaviours happen in the world.

connbox for blogging.016

Material Exploration

We use the term ‘material exploration’ to describe our early experimental work. This is an in-depth exploration of the subject by exploring the properties, both inate and emergent of the materials at hand. We’ve talked about it previously here and here.

What are the materials that make up video? They are more traditional components and aspects of film such as lenses, screens, projectors, field-of-view as well as newer opportunities in the domains of facial recognition and computer vision.

Some of our early experiments looked at field-of-view – how could we start to understand where an always-on camera could see into our personal environment?

We also challenged the prevalent forms of video communication – which generally are optimised for tight shots of people’s faces. What if we used panoramic lenses and projection to represent places and spaces instead?



In the course of these experiments we used a piece of OpenFrameworks code developed by Golan Levin. Thanks Golan!

We also experimented with the visual, graphic representation of yourself and other people, we are used to the ‘picture in picture’ mode of video conferencing, where we see the other party, but have an image of ourselves superimposed in a small window.

We experimented with breaking out the representation of yourself into a separate screen, so you could play with your own image, and position the camera for optimal or alternative viewpoints, or to actually look ‘through’ the camera to maintain eye contact, while still being able to look at the other person.


One of the main advantages of this – aside from obviously being able to direct a camera at things of interest to the other party – was to remove the awkwardness of the picture-in-picture approach to showing yourself superimposed on the stream of the person you are communicating with…

There were interaction & product design challenges in making a simpler, self-contained video chat appliance, amplified by the problem of taking the things we take for granted on the desktop or touchscreen: things like the standard UI, windowing, inputs and outputs, that all had to be re-imagined as physical controls.

This is not a simple translation between a software and hardware behaviour, it’s more than just turning software controls into physical switches or levers.

It involves choosing what to discard, what to keep and what to emphasise.

Should the product allow ‘ringing’ or ‘knocking’ to kickstart a conversation, or should it rely on other audio or visual cues? How do we encourage always-on, ambient, background presence with the possibility of spontaneous conversations and ad-hoc, playful exchanges? Existing ‘video calling’ UI is not set up to encourage this, so what is the new model of the interaction?

To do this we explored in abstract some of the product behaviours around communicating through video and audio.

We began working with Durrell Bishop from LuckyBite at this stage, and he developed scenarios drawn as simple cartoons which became very influential starting points for the prototyping projects.

The cartoons feature two prospective users of an always-on video communication product – Bill and Ann…


This single panel from a larger scenario shows the moment Bill opens up a connection (effectively ‘going online’) and Ann sees this change reflected as a blind going up on Bill’s side of her Connbox.


Our early sketches on both whiteboards and in these explorations then informed our prototyping efforts – firstly around the technical challenges of making a standalone product around google voice/video, and the second more focussed on the experiential challenges of making a simple, pleasurable domestic video chat device.


For reasons that might become obvious, the technical exploration became nicknamed “Polar Bear” and the experimental prototype “Domino”.

Prototype 1: A proof of technology called ‘Polar Bear’

In parallel with the work to understand behaviours we also began exploring end-to-end technical proofs.

We needed to see if it was possible to make a technically feasible video-chat product with components that could be believable for mass-production, and also used open-standard software.

Aside from this, it provided us with something to ‘live with’, to understand the experience of having an always-on video chat appliance in a shared social space (our studio)



Andy and Nick worked closely with Tom and Durrell from Luckybite on housing the end-to-end proof in a robust accessible case.

It looked like a polar bear to us, and the name stuck…



The software stack was designed to create something that worked as an appliance once paired with another, that would fire up a video connection with its counterpart device over wireless internet from being switched on, with no need for any other interface than switching it on at the plug.


We worked with Collabora to implement the stack on Pandaboards: small form-factor development boards.


Living with Polar Bear was intriguing – sound became less important than visual cues.

It reminded us all of Matt Webb’s “Glancing” project back in 2003:

Every so often, you look up and look around you, sometimes to rest your eyes, and other times to check people are still there. Sometimes you catch an eye, sometimes not. Sometimes it triggers a conversation. But it bonds you into a group experience, without speaking.

Prototype 2: A product and experience prototype called “Domino”

We needed to come up with new kinds of behaviours for an always on, domestic device.

This was the biggest challenge by far, inventing ways in which people might be comfortable opening up their spaces to each other, and on top of that, to create a space in which meaningful interaction or conversation might occur.

To create that comfort we wanted to make the state of the connection as evident as possible, and the controls over how you appear to others simple and direct.

The studio’s preoccupations with making “beautiful seams” suffused this stage of the work – our quest to create playful, direct and legible interfaces to technology, rather than ‘seamless’ systems that cannot be read or mastered.

In workshops with Luckybite, the team sketched out an approach where the state of the system corresponds directly to the physicality of the device.


The remote space that you are connecting with is represented on one screen housed in a block, and the screen that shows your space is represented on another. To connect the spaces, the blocks are pushed together, and pulled-apart to disconnect.

Durrell outlined a promising approach to the behaviour of the product in a number of very quick sketches during one of our workshops:


Denise further developed the interaction design principles in a detailed “rulespace” document, which we used to develop video prototypes of the various experiences. This strand of the project acquired the nickname ‘Domino’ – these early representations of two screens stacked vertically resembling the game’s pieces.


As the team started to design at a greater level of detail, they started to see the issues involved in this single interaction: Should this action interrupt Ann in her everyday routine? Should there be a sound? Is a visual change enough to attract Ann’s attention?

The work started to reveal more playful uses of the video connection, particularly being able to use ‘stills’ to communicate about status. The UI also imagines use of video filters to change the way that you are represented, going all the way towards abstracting the video image altogether, becoming visualisations of audio or movement, or just pixellated blobs of colour. Other key features such as a ‘do not disturb blind’ that could be pulled down onscreen through a physical gesture emerged, and the ability to ‘peek’ through it to let the other side know about our intention to communicate.

Product/ID development

With Luckybite, we started working on turning it into something that would bridge the gap between experience prototype and product.


The product design seeks to make all of the interactions evident with minimum styling – but with flashes of Google’s signature colour-scheme.


The detachable camera, with a microphone that can be muted with a sliding switch, can be connected to a separate stand.


This allows it to be re-positioned and pointed at other views or objects.


This is a link back to our early ‘material explorations’ that showed it was valuable to be able to play with the camera direction and position.

Prototype 3: Testing the experience and the UI

Final technical prototypes in this phase make a bridge between the product design and experience thinking and the technical explorations.

This manifested in early prototypes using Android handsets connected to servers.





Connbox: Project film

Durrell Bishop narrates some of the prototype designs that he and the team worked through in the Connbox project.

The importance of legible products

The Connbox design project had a strong thread running though it of making interfaces as evident and simple as possible, even when trying to convey abstract notions of service and network connectivity.

I asked Jack to comment on the importance of ‘legibility’ in products:

Connbox exists in a modern tradition of legible products, which sees the influence of Durrell Bishop. The best example I’ve come across that speaks to this thinking is Durrell’s answering machine he designed.

When messages are left on the answering machine they’re represented as marbles which gather in a tray. People play the messages by placing them in a small dip and when they’ve finished they replace them in the machine.

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 16.36.07

If messages are for someone else in the household they’re left in that persons bowl for later. When you look at the machine the system is clear and presented through it’s physical form. The whole state of the system is evident on the surface, as the form of the product.

Making technology seamless and invisible hides the control and state of the system – this path of thinking and design tries to place as much control as possible in the hands of the end-user by making interfaces evident.

In the prototype UI design, Joe created some lovely details of interaction fusing Denise’s service design sketches and the physical product design.

For instance, I love this detail where using the physical ‘still’ button, causes a digital UI element to ‘roll’ out from the finger-press…


A very satisfying dial for selecting video effects/filters…


And here, where a physical sliding tab on top of the device creates the connection between two spaces


This feels like a rich direction to explore in future projects, of a kind of ‘reverse-skeuomorphism‘ where digital and physical affordances work together to do what each does best rather than just one imitating the other.

Conclusion: What might have been next?

At the end of this prototyping phase, the project was put on hiatus, but a number of directions seemed promising to us and Google Creative Lab.

Broadly speaking, the work was pointing towards new kinds of devices, not designed for our pockets but for our homes. Further explorations would have to be around the rituals and experience of use in a domestic setting.

Special attention would have to be given to the experience of set-up, particularly pairing or connecting the devices. Would this be done as a gift, easily configured and left perhaps for a relative who didn’t have a smartphone or computer? How could that be done in an intuitive manner that emphasised the gift, but left the receiver confident that they could not break the connection or the product? Could it work with a cellular radio connection, in places where there no wireless broadband is found?

connbox for blogging.027

What cues could the physical product design give to both functionality and context? What might the correct ‘product language’ be for such a device, or family of devices for them to be accepted into the home and not seen as intrusive technology.

G+ and Hangouts launched toward the end of the project, so unfortunately there wasn’t time in the project to accommodate these interesting new products.

connbox for blogging.029

However we did start to talk about ways to physicalize G+’s “Circles” feature, which emphasises small groups and presence – it seemed like a great fit with what we had already looked at. How might we create a product that connects you to an ‘inner circle’ of contacts and the spaces they were in?

Postscript: Then and Now – how technology has moved on, and where we’d start now

Since we started the Connbox project in the Spring of 2011, one could argue that we’ve seen a full cycle of Moore’s law improve the capabilities of available hardware, and certainly both industry and open-source efforts in the domain of video codecs and software have advanced significantly.

Making Connbox now would be a very different endeavour.

Here Nick comments on the current state-of-the-art and what would be our starting points were we (or someone else) to re-start the project today…

Since we wrapped up this project in 2011, there’s been one very conspicuous development in the arena of video chat, and that is the rise of WebRTC. WebRTC is a draft web standard from W3C to enable browser to browser video chat without needing plugins.

As of early 2013, Google and Mozilla have demonstrated this system working in their nightly desktop browser builds, and recorded the first cross-browser video call. Ericsson are one of the first groups to have a mobile implementation available for Android and iOS in the form of their “Bowser” browser application.

WebRTC itself is very much an evolution of earlier work. The brainchild of Google Hangout engineers, this single standard is implemented using a number of separate components. The video and audio technology comes from Google in the form of the VP8 and iLBC codecs. The transport layer has incorporated libjingle which we also relied upon for our Polar Bear prototype, as part of the Farsight 2 stack.

Google is currently working on enabling WebRTC functionality in Chrome for Android, and once this is complete, it will provide the ideal software platform to explore and prototype Connbox ideas. What’s more, it actually provides a system which would be the basis of taking a successful prototype into full production.

Notable precedents

While not exhaustive, here are some projects, products, research and thinking we referenced during the work…


Massive thanks to Tom Uglow, Sara Rowghani, Chris Lauritzen, Ben Malbon, Chris Wiggins, Robert Wong, Andy Berndt and all those we worked with at Google Creative Lab for their collaboration and support throughout the project.

Thanks to all we worked with at Collabora and Future Platforms on prototyping the technology.

Big thanks to Oran O’Reilly who worked on the films with Timo and Jack.

Mark Cridge joins BERG as Director Of Consulting

I’m delighted to say that Mark’s joined BERG as our new Director of Consulting this week.

The Cridge

Mark’s a friend that Jack, Matt and myself have known for some years now. While he was piloting the giant digital media and communications spaceship called GlueIsobar, we’d get together for a pint or three and ask him for advice. He founded Glue and built it into not only a mighty commercial force, but a culture that prized invention and creativity.

So, it was natural for us when we found out he was looking for a new challenge (over a pint or three) that we suggest BERG was just that.

We’ve built BERG over the last 6 years into a busy studio that creates not only what we think are pretty inventive connected products for ourselves to take to market (like Little Printer), but consults on connected products, services (and the strategy behind them) for some of the biggest technology, media and consumer brands in the world.

But we want to do more of that work – inventing the near-future and getting it into the world – with more clients, and get more fantastic inventive people in the studio to do it.

Mark is just the right person to help us grow our consultancy and he’s written a little bit about joining the studio from his perspective on his blog. I’m really happy he’s decided to come on board for the next phase of BERG as a colleague and a friend.

Little Printer available for pre-orders now!

We’re celebrating! Little Printer is available for pre-orders from today.

* Read the blog post announcing pre-orders
* Check out new features on the product page
* Pre-order Little Printer!

This is an incredible feeling.

I love this studio. Awesome work, folks.

Making Future Magic: light painting with the iPad

“Making Future Magic” is the goal of Dentsu London, the creative communications agency. We made this film with them to explore this statement.

(Click through to Vimeo to watch in HD!)

We’re working with Beeker Northam at Dentsu, using their strategy to explore how the media landscape is changing. From Beeker’s correspondence with us during development:

“…what might a magical version of the future of media look like?”


…we [Dentsu] are interested in the future, but not so much in science fiction – more in possible or invisible magic

We have chosen to interpret that brief by exploring how surfaces and screens look and work in the world. We’re finding playful uses for the increasingly ubiquitous ‘glowing rectangles’ that inhabit the world.

iPad light painting with painter

This film is a literal, aesthetic interpretation of those ideas. We like typography in the world, we like inventing new techniques for making media, we want to explore characters and movement, we like light painting, we like photography and cinematography as methods to explore and represent the physical world of stuff.

We made this film with the brilliant Timo Arnall (who we’ve worked with extensively on the Touch project) and videographer extraordinaire Campbell Orme. Our very own Matt Brown composed the music.

Light painting meets stop-motion

We developed a specific photographic technique for this film. Through long exposures we record an iPad moving through space to make three-dimensional forms in light.

First we create software models of three-dimensional typography, objects and animations. We render cross sections of these models, like a virtual CAT scan, making a series of outlines of slices of each form. We play these back on the surface of the iPad as movies, and drag the iPad through the air to extrude shapes captured in long exposure photographs. Each 3D form is itself a single frame of a 3D animation, so each long exposure still is only a single image in a composite stop frame animation.

Each frame is a long exposure photograph of 3-6 seconds. 5,500 photographs were taken. Only half of these were used for the animations seen in the final edit of the film.

There are lots of photographic experiments and stills in the Flickr stream.

Future reflection

light painting the city with Matt Jones

The light appears to boil since there are small deviations in the path of the iPad between shots. In some shots the light shapes appear suspended in a kind of aerogel. This is produced by the black areas of the iPad screen which aren’t entirely dark, and affected by the balance between exposure, the speed of the movies and screen angle.

We’ve compiled the best stills from the film into a print-on-demand Making Future Magic book which you can buy for £32.95/$59.20. (Or get the softcover for £24.95/$44.20.)

Say hello to Michel Thomas. Or bonjour, ciao, ¡hola…

When the Michel Thomas Method language course CDs arrived at the studio, we played them on the stereo immediately. But the post was late so it arrived only the day before we were due to speak with the publishers. We tore up all our ideas and started again.

Michel Thomas teaches with no homework and no repetition. Listening to him, it’s a little like being in a classroom with other students and a little like being hypnotised.

You don’t learn, you flow.

As a design studio, we knew we had to carry the same experience onto the phone, using just the regular audio and a decent respect for the philosophy.

We designed and produced the brand new iPhone app. Check it out in the App Store: Learn a Language with Michel Thomas.

You can learn French, Spanish, Italian and German. It’s free to get the app (you get a preview of each language), and then you buy hour-by-hour as you improve.

In the flesh, the screen on the right is animated. It draws you in as you listen to the voice.

Do a pulsating pause button and tactile flower petals have a place in an audio language course app? Yes. (You have to hear Michel to understand why. I’m not kidding.)

Because mobile phones are, well, mobile, you might want to keep that learning flow going while you’re on the bus. So there’s a flashcard game. You can play one of dozens of preset decks, or make your own from favourite phrases.

This one is from the Spanish course.

There’s also the shop. I like that the “pay as you learn” store is in the exact same place as where you thumb through the course contents. I think we went through 4 iterations until it felt this smooth.

Product invention?

Between this, Popular Science+, and Schooloscope, you can see a little of our philosophy about product invention.

Work in the popular market, and be inventive, beautiful.

Respect the materials. I believe with Michel Thomas we’ve taken what’s best about the experience and made a hybrid with what’s best about the iPhone. We’re best when we partner with people who are just working out what they want to do, and we can discover together.

But what I’m proudest about is that this is a design-led product in a commercial marketplace. This isn’t just for Michel Thomas fans (though there are many). By bringing the feeling of Michel to the iPhone, his courses can find a whole new audience, and a whole load more fans.

Michel Thomas is available for your iPhone and iPod Touch now, at the App Store: Learn a Language with Michel Thomas.

See the official site for more pics and videos.

Congratulations to the team, Matt Brown, Nick Ludlam, and Matt Jones! Thanks also to Guy Moorhouse for the microsite. And, especially, thanks to Vivian and Helen and the whole Hodder team. It has been a pleasure.

Say hello to Schooloscope

Schooloscope is a new project from BERG, and I want to show it to you.

What if a school could speak to you, and tell you how it’s doing? “I have happy kids,” it might say. “Their exams results are great.”

Schools in England are inspected by a body called Ofsted. Their reports are detailed and fair — Ofsted is not run by the government of the day, but directly by Parliament. And kids in schools are tracked by the government department DCSF. They publish everything from exam results to statistical measurements of improvement over the school careers of the pupils.


What Schooloscope does is tell you how your school’s doing at a glance.

There are pictures of smiling schools. Or unhappy ones, if the kids there aren’t happy.

Each school summarises the statistics in straightforward, natural English. There are well over 20,000 state schools in England that we do this for. We got a computer to do the work. A journalism robot.

You can click through and read the actual stats afterwards, if you want.


A little of my personal politics. Education is important. And every school is a community of teachers, kids, parents, governors and government. The most important thing in a community is to take part on an equal footing and with positive feeling. Parents have to feel engaged with the education of their children.

As great as the government data is, it can be arcane. It looks like homework. It’s full of jargon… and worse, words that look like English but that are also jargon.

Schooloscope attempts to bring simplicity, familiarity, and meaning to government education data, for every parent in England.

A tall order!

This is a work in progress. There are lots of obvious missing features. Like: finding schools should be easier! There are bugs. There’s a whole bunch we want to do with the site, some serious and some silly. And full disclosure here: over the next 6 months we’re working on developing and commercialising this. Schooloscope is a BERG project funded by 4iP, the Channel 4 innovation fund. Is it possible to make money by being happily hopeful about very serious things and visualising information with smiling faces? I reckon so.

Anyway. The way we learn more is by taking Schooloscope public, seeing what happens, and making stuff.

The team! Tom Armitage and Matt Brown have worked super hard and made a beautiful thing which is only at the start of its journey. They, Matt Jones and Kari Stewart are taking it into the future. Also Giles Turnbull, Georgina Voss, and Ben Griffiths have their fingerprints all over this. Tom Loosemore and Dan Heaf at 4iP, thanks! And everyone else who has given feedback along the way.

Right, that’s launch out of the way! Let’s get on with the job of making better schools and a better Schooloscope.

Say hello to Schooloscope now.

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.


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.


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 231

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 230

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Matts. This is going to be confusing.

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

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

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