Friday, 8 April 2011

Technology Nostalgia

Guess this stuff has been around for long enough for a viable nostalgia industry to have emerged. 

These two are examples of this. The first is a company producing these 'retro' Apple decals for your latest Apple device, and the second is a reboot (sorry) of a once defunct brand - the much loved C64 - where the original casing is considered cool enough to be desirable. 

So the fan-boy within me just thinks this a cool thing, the thing I really respond to is the inference of 'classic' in both these examples. In the Apple case people are reaching back and selecting elements of the brand's history that they (not Apple) feel are relevant today, lending credibility to the companies' past and badging themselves as 'original' Apple advocates. 

And, in the C64 case the company is bringing back an object that is closely tied to the beginning of the home PC boom of the last 20 to 30 years. It's re-launch draws a line under a period of personal computing defined by paradigms of work (the QWERTY keyboard) and driven by the bedroom programmers who have most recently delivered services like Facebook.

So just back to Apple briefly, Steve Wozniak recently said that Tablet computers are "for the normal people in the world". So if the retro Apple stickers and the relaunched C64 tell the story up to today, the new burst of Tablets and Smartphones suggest the next chapter will tell a more connected, aware, professional (and of course monetised) story. 

That makes me feel nostalgic again ...

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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Service Authenticity


I recently stumbled across a beautiful oil skin bag self-sew kit in the Design Museum. A bit of digging revealed it is from a draper in Hay on Wye called Merchant & Mills – here's what they say about themselves "We like stark design and clear words. We reference our roots. We acknowledge the 21st Century."

This put me in mind of another company I love: Labour & Wait, who say they "believe in a simple, honest approach to design ... we endeavour to search out specialist makers from around the world, who continue to manufacture goods in the traditional way to their original designs ... therefore appropriate in a traditional or modern environment"

Neither of these companies are massive brands, but they do inspire a fiercely loyal and articulate following. At the heart of what both these brands offer is 'authenticity', an idea which due to straightened times and pressures on people's wallets, has been entering the mainstream for a little while. Need a mainstream example? How about this Budgens supermarket, who grow their own food on their roof and sell it in store every Friday. These brands inhabit a world where the consumer chooses to engage with the history of an item, it's purpose & form, it's relevance to daily life (both theirs and everyone's) and weighs this the value for money equation they are running in the bg. 

So, the principles mentioned in the two examples above: 
  • clarity - of purpose and message; 
  • relevance - to present day needs and behaviours;
  • continuity - from the original ethos or purpose to the current offer
... clearly work well for a brand dealing with physicality, but are they applicable to the intangible as well as the tangible?

Well I'd certainly hope so. And a brand that can't achieve these three things will I think start to struggle in the next few years.

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Friday, 25 February 2011

End of an era

So, it's goodbye to the Space Shuttle Discovery – now it's undertaken it's final mission – and goodbye to the NASA shuttle program, with only two more trips left before it's shut down for good. To be replaced by and astronaut Robot and a contract supply deliver company from L.A.

I was one of the millions of kids to be inspired by the ambition of that program and to dream about all the adventures that their missions represented. Although it didn't take me long to realise I was never going to be an Astronaut – I hope that I take a little of their sense of adventure to work with me everyday. 

The shuttle program was not about individual heroes, but the collective effort of a group of people who know where they are going (literally and metaphorically) and who did everything they could to get there. And it's that vision and sense of shared purpose (however small your share) that helps keep a disparate group of people moving in roughly the same direction. 

Being clear about where your organisation is going and why it does what it does will help in attracting and retaining the talent you want, it will differentiate you from your competition and it will give you the confidence to have a point of view and to be a thought leader. 

Then you can insert your own 'take-off' metaphor here, without me needing to sound cheesy. 

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Monday, 21 February 2011

The New Content

I am excited by the blurring of the lines between our digital and physical worlds that we are seeing the moment.

In a roundabout way, this has been coming for a while, with its roots in 'shared-ownership' of entertainment media. We have had book and movie/music libraries for quite a while of course; they are continually evolving in various forms – how about an Amazon eLibrary on the Kindle, free to the end user and paid for by local councils ( in partnership maybe)? After all Spotify has successfully managed to build a business that (just about) delivers free music to consumers and provides revenues for the record labels.

This model is also present with the more tangible objects of our world. Street/Zip-car have long understood that consumers are adept at weighing up the value and cost of owning a high cost item vs. paying for it when you need it. While this does not mean downloadable cars (at least not yet) - it does mean that a new car is just a cheaper subscription fee away – and this mindset is showing itself cheaper, in-frequent use categories such as D.I.Y tools and fashion bags, with Fashion Bags for example. And of course, it has made entrepreneurs of us all, giving us the ability to unlock the potential of the physical assets we own. Airbnb the peer to peer accommodation service is the current high-flyer, but expect many more examples to follow soon.

What this adds up to is an evolving relationship between us, these items and the channels to using them. With ownership no longer a pre-requisite to use,  physical objects have effectively been 'positioned' alongside digital content, enabling people to choose the cheapest/most flexible/quickest/etc ... service to access this new 'content'. 

And for us (and our clients)? We will need to continually evaluate the decisions people make when looking to solve their needs. Knowing what people consider 'content' (therefore a commodity) and what they consider 'service' (therefore ownable) will be a key aspect how we shape future interactions with brands and organisations. It is this shifting relationship that will provide the most exciting opportunities ... 

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Friday, 28 January 2011

Open source moves into the mainstream

It’s been great to see the idea of ‘open source’ gain ground. Although the nerd in me will always delight at platforms like Arduino and Ubuntu, it’s how the idea and it’s principles moves into the mainstream that’s really instructive.

There are the literal translations from sites like My Starbucks Idea to the more abstract shared ownership services like the Paris Velib and Zip car. And data is forming the basis of a new wave of services to hit our (touch) screens – services like Waze which are wholly driven by user contribution and which is making formally hidden data available to the public.

But where it gets really interesting is where the principles behind open source are applied to a brand. Currently this is most visible in the runaway success of App Stores – where the brands have provided the platform on which users can build their own services and the channels to sell them through. All of a sudden our experience of a brand has shifted from being defined solely by that brands’ outputs to being defined by the shared output of that brand and it’s consumers (prosumers?).

So what? Well what if you could ‘open source’ your HR department? What if the hiring processes was an opportunity for people to design their job roles? What if your job description was an opportunity for improvisation rather than a script? The best experiences of brands and services come through people who enjoy and are engaged with their role –  people who are able to put themselves into the company they work for, rather than having to conform a template.

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Thursday, 16 December 2010

What shape are designers?

There is a long and dearly held assumption in the part of the design industry in which I work, that being T-shaped is a prerequisite for long the long term success of individual practitioners. And why not? The idea of the ‘T-shaped designer’ makes a lot of sense. Here it is defined by IDEO CEO Tim Brown in an interview as:

“T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.”

Sounds great and makes sense.

This does however leave the door open for a problem to arise. Specifically when a company, wilfully or otherwise, distorts the T-shape and starts to insist either through it’s hiring process, or it’s culture, that the depth of the T should be a design discipline. That a design education somehow denotes a superior breed of design thinkers.

My experiences over the last two years have shown me that large parts of the ‘design toolkit’ I gathered during my design education and on through the first few years of my career no longer satisfy the challenges I am being asked to solve. When tackling increasingly abstract and cultural questions, those tangible skills struggle to find a grounding from which they can start to build a solution.

And I am unconvinced that pure strategy has the answer either (think-tanks anyone?). As that method seems to start in the abstract and stay there – struggling to come out of the clouds except in the form of 'recommendations' – which notoriously hard to design against.

So, imagine if the vertical part of a designers T is strategic thinking.

Making strategy actionable is the most important vertical skill in any T these days and people who can translate between the clouds and the ground are becoming the key member of any design team these days.


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Friday, 30 April 2010

User led can mean users last.

So I have just finished possibly one of the hardest projects I have taken on so far. 

Phew ...

And it reinforced something I had been vaguely aware of for a while. Which is that sometimes it is easy to confuse the logistical version of user led design, with the philosophical version – with the result of delivering a well thought and soundly backed-up 'me too' run of the mill solution, rather than something truly different. 

In other words, it is sometimes better to speak to your users at the end of a piece of work, when you really understand the challenge and know what to ask them, rather than at the beginning, when you might be more likely to ask the wrong questions. 

The challenge of course is recognising when you are in that situation, and finding a way to get to the right set of questions (for example, in this case we spoke to sociologists to help us through the fog).

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