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Blog posts tagged as 'update'

Our experimental rockets are our people

Some sad-but-proud news!

Tom Armitage

Tom Armitage was employee #1, making the leap to join BERG before it was named BERG. For 2 years he’s been both creative technologist and writer, leading technology on several projects, and also running the online face of the studio through his blogging and longer form pieces. When he’s coding, he has the rare gift of solid interaction design intuitions. And in the room, he seems to know of every weird design project and obscure game ever, and can hook you up with relevant links to whatever you’re researching.

And now he’s off! Tom is joining the London game design studio Hide & Seek as a Game Designer. We’ve been watching Hide & Seek for a while — they’re an exciting practice in the rapidly growing area of games and public experiences. And Tom is passionate about games and what they mean to people. Check out his recent talk, Things Rules Do.

It’s a great move for Tom, and we’re very proud of him.

Matt Brown

Matt Brown has been with us as senior designer and chief of music since mid 2009. He’s a wide-ranging and inventive talent, as deft with illustration and composing music as he is prototyping procedurally generated graphics and crafting beautiful and natural interfaces. He’s grown into running projects with us, and working directly at the weird creative coherence where multiple design strands overlap and coincide. When I talk about BERG as a studio, producing work which is inventive, beautiful and populist, it’s Matt’s work which has been right at the centre of that.

And at the end of March, he’s off too. Matt is moving from London to Cupertino, to invent the future as part of a jaw-droppingly impressive team. He’s joining the Human Interface Device Prototyping group at Apple as a designer/prototyper.

The news of his leaving is countered only by our terrific pride at seeing our boy done so good.


Our culture and way of working is what makes us BERG. And our culture is made by our people. Everyone here has a colossal impact on the life of the room. Nobody just “fits in,” we grow together — learning, teaching and developing as we go. Tom and Matt B are irreplaceable, we’ll miss them enormously!

That said, one of the things that makes me most pleased is that the studio is a place that people travel through and move on from. I’m proud of our alumni! When they achieve great things, I admit I take a good deal of satisfaction that a fellow traveller has carried a little bit of BERG into the world.

We keep it quiet, but the secret history of our name is that is stands for the British Experimental Rocket Group. Our experimental rockets are our people.

So what next?

The studio will grow and change. We’re established enough that we can treat these moments as opportunities. It was surprising and gratifying to have Fast Company place us #4 in their list of most innovative design firms, in such illustrious company as Stamen, IDEO and Pentagram!

And so I have more changes to announce — soon, when the ink is dry. I can’t wait to tell you.

In the meantime, please lift a glass to Tom and Matt! Congratulations fellas, well done both of you, and thank you for being part of the journey.

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.

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.

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!

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