James Box publishing other people’s stuff as if it were his own. Ask me stuff.

Metadesign at Hack Farm

A bunch of us – mainly Clearleft, but also co-conspirators Jessica, Mike, Brian and Andy – recently went on a thing called Hack Farm. We even made a site about it. And just-enough of a product. It was fun and I feel very honoured to be part of a team of enormously talented people.

I have to admit my interest in Hack Farm was weighted towards the process rather than the output itself. Part of my ever-growing interest in the conditions and environment around innovation.

Anyway I made a bunch of notes about this side of things.

Innovation (as opposed to plain old ‘good design’) can feel uncomfortable. Finding a balance between excitement/momentum/making and ambiguity/uncertainty/creativity is a challenge that someone needs to take the lead on.

Stewardship is so important here. The groups needs enough structure to avoid disorder/chaos but not so much that this it inhibits bold/exuberant thinking (often the source of the most exciting ideas). IMO, we underestimated how much stewardship was required. With hindsight, an (independent) facilitator and A LOT more preparation would have been a smart move. Think of each day as a collaborative design workshop and you’ll be getting closer to what’s required.

Design Games are, as always, your friends. We adapted versions of exercises we use with clients (especially Design Studio). But they come with a few words of warning. A lot of these games are focused on reaching consensus. However, this often comes at the expense of some of the sharper edges. At times it felt like regression toward the mean. In some ways this is desirable during client workshops but at Hack Farm we were a little too hasty to smooth those edges. Again, structure/planning/facilitation would have helped here.

People will approach the problem from different places. I tend to work outside-in, looking at big picture stuff like strategy/vision before moving on to details. Others prefer material exploration. On Hack Farm a lot of material exploration meant playing with the various APIs and data-sources already working in the UK political space. This blend of conceptual/abstract thinking with exploratory/investigative hacking was one of my personal highlights from Hack Farm. Definitely something I’d like to see more of on live projects.

Some people will struggle with this way of working. This is inevitable. After all, it’s hard to stay engaged for an entire week, especially when everything (environment/process) is unfamiliar. But it can be a little toxic for the rest of the group if there are stragglers, especially if it happens too often. Again, a good moderator will stay on top of this and adjust if needed.

I went into Hack Farm wondering whether the model could be applied to client work. The answer for me is yes, but with a lot more work. The logistics, not to mention the cost, would make this a significant investment for anyone. But the potential is clear for me. Let’s see where that goes.

Leadership is 50 percent fiction/50 percent nonfiction. That is to say, leadership is the confidence in knowing what you know and what you know you’ll know. It’s the ability to speak confidently, knowledgeably, and easily about the latter that sets some apart. Be comfortable with the fiction.
Design is no longer concerned only with things. Increasingly, design is concerned with systems—and now systems of systems or ecologies. In a sense, these systems are alive. They grow and coevolve. Designers and product managers cannot always control them. Instead, they must create conditions in which they can emerge and flourish. All this requires new thinking and new knowledge. It requires design practice to learn.

This is rude:

Screengrab of Medium requesting read & write access to my Twitter account

This is not:

Screengrab of Lanyrd requesting read-only access to my Twitter account

Let’s be polite. Especially when starting relationships.

I stumbled on this earlier.

It is, of course, a faux-leather-bound, vintage TV with a side-protruding, retro camera lens. 

I was reminded of Russell’s Wired piece about the absence of futureness.

Everywhere the current look is classic, vintage and plain. We’re dressing like artisanal leather workers with sidelines in egg collecting and a thing for moustache wax. Where are the futuristic fabrics, the exoskeletal tabards? 

This is for an app – seems to be Instagram but for video – which may not be earth shatteringly innovative, but it’s still compositing video and music with a handheld telephone. On the fly.

I think we’re ready for better metaphors.

Her: Tell me when you’ve worked out what it is.

Me: No, that’s kinda the point. I want to tell you so I can work out what it is.

James Burke says we ‘abhor complexity, and seek to simplify things whenever we can by whatever means we have at hand.’ I agree. 

He also says ‘through fear of chaos we impose system on it’. I agree, again.

And we talk about the these kind of systems a lot. We heroicise them. Because the output – the system, the solution, the boxed product – is mainly what we set our sights on. And get paid for (as designers). And cry wank over with our peers.

I have no problem with this. It’s good, and worthwhile and it gets us somewhere comfortable and often meaningful.

But the last few days, to me, seem to have been less about the end and more about the getting there. Tom’s celebration of toying epitomised this for me. So did the glorious working parts of Maker Faire. And the various provocations of SF.

The divergent bit of design – where everything is half-formed, and possibly wrong, and likely to embarrass – is often forgotten. Mainly because it’s not at the end. But also because it doesn’t make for a shiny press release. Or a cohesive presentation. Or a 10 tips on how to do this better blog post.

I want to find a way of making these things more evident and more discursive. Exposing ideas at their most fertile moment, when they’re ripe for change and would benefit from nurture.

James’ Happenstance work does some of this. I love the idea of people being able to walk through the problem and see the debris of design (before it gets swept away). And eventually start to play with it themselves or just talk about it.

Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.

Brute Force Architecture and its Discontents - etc Rem Koolhaas, Bigness essay in S,M,L,XL

They [clients] effectively pay a premium for an agency who knows what they’re doing to do that thing well. It tends not to play well for an agency to then spend the duration of the contract being actively uncertain, making hypotheses and validating them, using the client’s money to ‘learn’.

This, traditionally, is not what we pay a top class agency to do. We pay them to know stuff and to get stuff right, and to be the people we blame if it doesn’t work out well. Until clients get comfortable with this (will they ever?) it will be difficult, nigh impossible, for an agency to be properly Lean or even agile.

If you freeze an idea too quickly, you fall in love with it. If you refine it too quickly, you become attached to it and it becomes very hard to keep exploring, to keep looking for better. The crudeness of the early models in particular is very deliberate.

Jim Glymph, Gehry Partners


Unlike products, services are often designed or modified as they are delivered; they are co-created with customers; and service providers must often respond in real time to customer desires and preferences. Services are contextual – where, when and how they are delivered can make a big difference. They may require specialized knowledge or skills. The value of a service comes through the interactions: it’s not the end product that matters, so much as the experience.
The biggest impediment to service innovation is not a lack of ideas. It’s the inability of companies to deliver them the way they are currently structured. Service designer Ben Reason notes that “Coming up with innovative services is easy. What’s hard is getting companies to adapt.”

Or consider this 2009 experiment, published in Science. The psychologists, at the University of British Columbia, were interested in looking at how the color of interior walls influence the imagination. They recruited six hundred subjects, most of them undergraduates, and had them perform a variety of basic cognitive tests displayed against red, blue or neutral colored backgrounds.

The differences were striking. When people took tests in the red condition – they were surrounded by walls the color of a stop sign – they were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as catching spelling mistakes or keeping random numbers in short-term memory. According to the scientists, this is because people automatically associate red with danger, which makes them more alert and aware.

The color blue, however, carried a completely different set of psychological benefits. While people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on those requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children’s toy out of simple geometric shapes. In fact, subjects in the blue condition generated twice as many “creative outputs” as subjects in the red condition. That’s right: the color of a wall doubled our imaginative power.

We’ll get to why this is important and necessary in a moment, but first we need to face up to a painful fact. It is that almost everything we have done over the last two decades in the area of ICT education in British schools has been misguided and largely futile. Instead of educating children about the most revolutionary technology of their young lifetimes, we have focused on training them to use obsolescent software products. And we did this because we fell into what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle would have called a “category mistake” – an error in which things of one kind are presented as if they belonged to another. We made the mistake of thinking that learning about computing is like learning to drive a car, and since a knowledge of internal combustion technology is not essential for becoming a proficient driver, it followed that an understanding of how computers work was not important for our children. The crowning apotheosis of this category mistake is a much-vaunted “qualification” called the European Computer Driving Licence.