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.