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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.)

Cybernetics: researcher wanted

I’m into cybernetics. Or rather: I think that the cybernetics movement of mid last century is the hidden nexus of interconnected postwar history.

cybenetics interconnections

The 1946 Macy Conference is kind an aleph moment. In attendance were people intrinsically involved in computers and prosthesis (the collaboration of man and machine), modern anthropology and modern neuroscience (what it means to be human), game theory (the Cold War and the conversion of people into cogs). We can trace direct paths through counterculture and social organisation, decentralisation and the Web, and to a socialist Chilean internet. There are connections to cults, advertising, social software and games, rocketry, suburbia, complexity theory and ecology. Historical roots lie in golems and pneumatic tubes, science fiction and weaving, pataphysics and the telegraph. The language of our information society was created, often knowingly, by these people. Cybernetics is the beautiful and ugly and ambiguous heart of our information society.

I have a dozen or so books in my collection that directly speak about these era. Two that stand out are both by Steve Joshua Heims: Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group, 1946-1953; and John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death.

What’s wonderful about this history is that it’s a history of people. It’s all people who know people. The messy social world of this invented science that then vanishes undermines its own contention that humans can be modelled as components. It is a story that cannot be linearised, it is a hypertext history; a hyperhistory of actors and networks, only tellable through contradictory, subjective points of view. Yet there are aspects of known history that, I believe, only make sense when you see the hidden particle traces, the lives of the attendees of the Macy Conferences and who they knew.

It has been a pet project of mine, for a few years, to somehow tell this story. Many of the key participants are no longer with us. Understanding the modern world, in this time of change, is important. It should be known that common practices in our innocuous online spaces were thrashed out as military efforts. Conversely it should be known that the mindset computers were borne out of was reactionary and weird and perverse from the very outset.

Help wanted

I’d like some help assembling the research. I’m not sure precisely where it’ll go – for a while I thought I’d write a book, and now I have other ideas – but what I do know is that I’d like to work with a researcher for 3-6 months to turn books, articles and references into research notes: the foundation for future work.

I have a starting set of books, and a pretty clear idea of what I need as output (one reference point is Anne Galloway’s re/touch encyclopaedia). If you’re the researcher I’d like to work with, you’re already knowledgeable about postwar America and one or two of the topics associated with cybernetics. You’re good with book research, following leads like a hungry investigative journalist, and diligent with references. You’re probably in research academia in an allied field, and you may have your own use for this work. This is a part-time job, and it’s maybe another small piece of funding for you. You’ll be a self starter, and glory in interconnections and libraries both.

Why am I talking about this in public? Well, I don’t know the right researcher. Is this you, or is it someone you know? It’s speculative work – just following my nose – and I can put about £3,000-5,000 aside. If you’d like to have a chat, please do get in touch.

Ashdown: researcher wanted

As Webb has mentioned in this week’s update, I’m leading a project in the studio called Ashdown, which is in it’s very early stages.

One of the things we need is a researcher to undertake a small sub-project for a few weeks, to help us understand the territory we’re designing for.

Have a read of the mini-brief below. It might be you!

Introducing Ashdown
Ashdown is an information system we are developing – that will manifest in a number of products relating to the UK’s educational system. Each will be built on a combination of publicly-available data sources and be made unique by the quality and insight of its presentation. The products have a variety of potential audiences: from journalists and commentators to policy-makers, teachers and parents. Each one will be gorgeous.

What do we need
We need to build up a profile of these different audiences, particularly teachers and parents – around the UK. We are looking for a researcher who can do some quick field research and create a bundle of assets that can inform the design of our products: interviews, personas, videos, relationship maps. We want someone who can provide some analysis, synthesis and have some opinions also – that we can use in our process as designers.

Who we’re looking for
Probably an individual, probably someone based near London so we can spend time together, probably someone who knows people in or related to education (getting out and finding the right people around the UK is a must), and who is happy running this piece of work themselves, for us.

When / How
We would like to have a final report and assets by the end of November 2009, and we have a £1,000 budget + reasonable expenses put aside for this.

If you’re interested yourself get in touch with me: mj [at], or if you know someone who might fit the bill – please do let them know about this opportunity.We’re looking to get started as soon as we can!

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.

Week 227

Webb’s on holiday after delivering his keynote at Web Directions South. He’ll post the slides/notes when he returns from his spirit journey but in the mean-time here’s the bibliography.

Tom is still doing his data-botany for Ashdown, running around in servers with his butterfly net made of finest regexp to see what he can find, and making beautiful magnified watercolour illustrations for the info-bestiary.

The edges are starting show in this particular patch-ecology, as are the gaps – not only in terms of what’s not there, but also the space-between where we could add data-on-data and make interesting new things to show people. Again this is an approach that worked really well while we were developing Shownar, and it’s bearing fruit already for Ashdown.

I’m still working on some initial Ashdown brief writing and project planning (which is coming on leaps-and-bounds thanks to Tom’s investigations), a bit of new business development and going to the inaugural Icon Minds event tomorrow to see Bruce Sterling talk “Design Fiction” with Dunne + Raby.

Schulze started the week with a splash, launching the Immaterials film, as part of our collaboration with Timo, Einar and the Touch project It’s since been io9‘d, Ellis‘d and Slashdotted and we’re really pleased with how both the tech and design communities are engaging with it.

He’s also working with our modelmakers on new, improved Ojito prototypes and looking at manufacturing options and sorting out the final stages of our negotiations for a new studio.

Both Jack and myself are off at the end of the week to Sweden to run a really exciting new media design project workshop for one of our favourite clients which will be intense.

Finally – as Autumn has finally arrived and we found ourselves shivering in the studio, we’ve invested in some state-of-the-art thermoregulation apparatus, that we’ve codenamed “Ojiter”.


(O-heater… Geddit?).

Dont worry.

Normal pun-free programming resumes next week when Webb returns…

Week 226

Matt Webb’s down-under preparing for his talk at Web Directions South, prior to him going on holiday for a bit, so I’m writing the weekly update! I’m drunk with the power!

So – in summary: Schulze is spending the week in zero-g combat training, Tom is playing with an orangutan genome that he got from some guy in Zurich and I’m building a laser-harp.

Not really.

Jack’s working on Ojito some more this week, and with me on new business development. He’s also working on some animations with Timo for the Touch project.

Tom is still engrossed in material exploration of the data sets for Ashdown as Webb described so nicely in Week 225.

He’s wrangling it now to the point of finding the interesting edges and qualities to output that into graphical, understandable diagnostic artefacts that will help us when the design begins in earnest. I find this really useful in particular, as more of visual thinker – helps me get my head round the territory far faster. Boundary objects.

He’s also doing a little bit of sound design on the side for our casual game proto that we’re delivering at the end of the week. Busy boy!

I’m still working with Paul Pod on that sprint. It’s been a really short intense project but I’m super-pleased with how it’s going and from what we can tell so is the client – hopefully it will lead to something bigger…

My creative direction for it so far has been “Y’know… Peggle meets that Röyksopp video!

Luckily, having worked with Paul before he’s able to understand garbling like that from me, and go far beyond what I imagine.

I’m also preparing the project plan and internal briefing documents for Ashdown. Writing a brief for a project that you’re going to design might seem a little odd, but of course it’s still valuable in order to really set some goals and scope going in.

What else? Well, I’ve already mentioned the new business development meetings with Jack, and I’m writing a final proposal for a mobile storytelling tool we hope to prototype.

Ok – with that, it’s back to the laser-harp.

Week 225

Material exploration is the process of getting your hands dirty in order to realise inherent possibilities. Forms for consumer electronics and big, interconnected data are both clays to learn and sculpt. Ashdown is a data heavy project, and Tom is beginning the material exploration now, building systems to ingest data for manipulation and folding, so that – in the design process – we can ask the data what it wants to be, and have that dialogue that happens between material and designer during thinking through making.

That’s Tom’s focus. Matt is focused on a casual game prototype in a two week sprint on another big data project. You have to want to keep clicking, and that’s such an experiential requirement: everything else can be mocked, but this part needs to be designed. Paul Pod is in the studio to work together with Matt on this, and he’s great to have around. (Paul also worked with us on The Incidental.) Matt is our golden boy this week: his recent future cities column at io9 provoked a stellar review from Bruce Sterling. “BERG has become a new Archigram”?? Bruce, that’s terrifically flattering hyperbole, thank you! Now we really have something to live up to.

Jack is prepping the launch materials for the next film to be released (post Nearness). That’s for Tuesday next. He’s working with a mechanical engineer on one project, and will have what we hope is the production-ready Ojito back from the model maker tomorrow. There are a few more costs to figure out before we can make a go/no go. Last week’s workshop we had together with Brian Boyer of Sitra went well, and I’m pleased to see Brian beginning weekly updates for the Helsinki Design Lab.

Me, I’m writing a talk, clarifying points for the accountants, and filling in forms this week, together with the usual progressing of business development. (The pipeline is looking healthy at all stages this week, with all hands taking the lead on a variety of projects.) I’ll be sitting on a panel at the Wired Intelligence Briefing on Thursday, and on Saturday flying to Australia to open Web Directions South and to have a holiday.

A holiday? I’m serious, a holiday.

Week 224

The exciting news this week is that terms were agreed on Ashdown. This is a project on the scale of Shownar so will keep us occupied in various ways for at least the next six months. It’s a shame Matt Jones is on holiday this week, as he’s leading it — we’ll have to celebrate once he’s back.

Tom’s broken ground on Ashdown already: the first stage is material exploration, and so there’s data to be ingested and explored by designers.

I had hoped we could coincide Ashdown with another project using similar resources, and take advantage of being able to bring in long-term contractors, but we’re facing the traditional problem: closing deals always takes longer than I think. That’s getting some more of my attention now… how can risk be minimised and the process eased to move toward contract, when there’s investment that needs to be made simultaneously on both sides? I need to learn more about closing, especially in this industry, so any book recommendations or pointers are much appreciated.

That aside, I’m getting pretty confident in the process behind bringing in and balancing client services. Next up is to get as confident about new product development. We’re pretty good at the design process itself – developing briefs and finding the inventive steps – but across many products, there are questions: how much to invest in feasibility; how much should be known at the point of go/no go; how to continue to commercialise ideas. We have limited attention and investable cash, and physical things cost more – in cash terms – than websites, so it can’t be a matter of working late to try out ideas. Schulze made some good suggestions yesterday.

In terms of work: Matt, as I said, is on holiday. Tom has been writing and coding for data exploration on Ashdown. Schulze is split between business development meetings in media design/consultancy (his particular speciality), managing contractors on one product concept, and working on feasibility for two more. He’s in a client workshop with me today. I’ve been chasing invoices and fielding emails this week, and arranging a workshop for next Monday to kick off a two week sprint on a kind of playable demo. There were two talks for me – UX Week last Friday in San Francisco, and a panel at Digital Architecture London on Monday – and that always eats more time than I expect.

As Ashdown gets plugged into regular work, my attention is moving to the next big project to activate, one we call Weminuche.

Week 223

I’m sitting in the lobby of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. In an hour or so I’m keynoting the final day of UX Week. I have a bit of a thing for cheap, black American filter coffee. It has a bitterness and twang and directness that cuts right to the heart of what coffee is about. My paper cup is running low so I’ll keep this quick.

We in the main split the work of the company in half. Matt Jones looks after client services, and Schulze looks after new product development. It’s not clear cut, of course, because we’re small and so much is shared. But I think that general wellbeing, agency, the development of unconscious expertise, and structure without management are rooted in areas of responsibility that belong to individuals, are clearly demarcated and known by the group. It took me a while to come to this – Schulze noticed it first – but I’m a believer in roles now.

Having said there’s often cross-over, there was hardly any this week. Matt was at early and late stage business development presentations and meetings. He’s writing too. Schulze was working on feasibility pricing for two products, one of which at least I’d like to have on the market for Christmas, and moving another product forward. A couple weeks ago, I began tracking the movement towards revenue of both client services and NPD side by side, on a pipeline diagram stuck to the wall behind my desk. When the pipeline is showing progress at all stages, on both sides, it makes me happy, like a plumber who isn’t needed today.

Otherwise… Tom has been on holiday, and I’ve finally jumped through the last logistical hoops for Ashdown. We’ll sign the contract for that on Monday.

I’ve left the big news till last. Schulze has been working with Timo Arnall of Touch/AHO, and this week they released Nearness, a chain reaction film short using RFID, touching without touching.

The reaction has been tremendous. Timo brought together some responses yesterday. The video is already at 67,000 views. I’m proud we’ve been part of some beautiful and, yes, popular work. Congratulations Schulze and Timo!

Week 222

Let’s keep it short and sweet. Schulze is working on video all week with Timo for the RFID design research and communication project. Tom is breaking ground on our new fulfilment system, named Springdale, which will be used in consumer sales in the future. He’s also writing, and in this morning’s crit showed a component of last week’s toy experimentation he built. It manipulates video and looks like it has lots of other uses. Neat.

Matt J is doing design work on Ojito and research on upcoming projects. Ashdown is close to kicking off and he’s leading that — the subsidiary holding company is formed and there are just a few more logistical hoops to jump through.

My priorities this week are coding for the racing car, and admin: anything in the pipeline needs to be progressed, and there is a list of tasks for the year end accounts which really must be done this week. (The pipeline is the list of projects pre-contract, everything from prospect through proposal to purchase order. It’s healthy to keep the pipeline full at every stage, and everything moving.)

Schulze has just walked in the door with Timo, so I’m off to lunch with them now. Enjoy your week!

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