A fictional newspaper from 2018 that imagines possible futures of data and football

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How will the so-called beautiful game of global football be different in a world where sport itself, and the culture of the fans who love it, is altered by the rush of data, quantification, analytics and digital delivery? What might a high-stakes match of the near future be like when every move is measured, and every tactic forecast by silicon? What will the technologically savvy supporter and the lifelong fan alike experience differently when Big Data takes on the game?

Launched at the National Football Museum in Manchester last week, our latest project, Winning Formula, explores these questions and some of the more unreal features of data-driven football future.

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Winning Formula touches on more easily seen aspects of performance analytics, and new ways to depict and consume football in media, but also explores near-future possibilities hiding just below the surface, possible phenomena such as data manipulation as a kind of doping, the impacts of high-frequency sport betting, or politics related to data-based services like media, measurement and reporting. Commissioned by National Football Museum, Future Everything and CCCB, the result of our investigation takes the form of a newspaper sports section from April 2018. This hypothetical daily European tabloid called ‘Today’ is an exemplar of the way we use narrative and Design Fiction to create an engaging, thought-provoking perspective on a possible, plausible near future world that need not result in either a PowerPoint deck nor corporate white paper. The mundane form of a disposable daily newspaper, coming to you from April 2018 puts into the hands of everybody a possible day in the future when data, both large and small, alters some aspects of sports, from training to commentary, enhancements to prosthetics, rulings to viewing.

Winning Fomula

Some implications that the newspaper highlights are:

  • New measures of player and team performances
  • Data manipulation as a form of doping
  • High-frequency betting
  • Communication (sensors, images) hacking
  • Enhanced data services (TV and games)
  • New language to describe players and their roles
  • Tactics, micro-strategies and their readability
  • A resurgence of the local, artisanal, working-class lager


When parents purchase the DNA kit that their kid’s route to athletic excellence


The Molecular Football™ algorithm automatically produces snapshots of systems and micro-tactics such as: The Born Again Christmas Tree, The Spinal Trap, Perpetual Motion, or Zugzwang

In this project we mixed foresight techniques such as horizon scanning and scenario development to capture weak signals and posit disruptions in technology and society with a design approach to create fictional narratives of the future that focus on the implications behind the signals. We applied unusual approaches to interweaving everything from raw videogame datasets to rich description of artifacts and advertising from a hypothetical future to forecasts about politics, genomics, law, finance, technology, ethics, and climate change informed our design of both narrative and visuals contained within the quotidian vessel of the newspaper frame.

Winning Fomula

The project will be exhibited at the National Football Museum in Manchester until April 3, 2014 as part of the Future Everything festival. Last Friday, it was inserted in 130,000 copies of the Manchester Evening News. It will be part of the Big Bang Data exhibition at CCCB in Barcelona from May 9 to October 26, 2014, and at Fundación Telefónica in Madrid in 2015.

Credits
Winning Formula is a Near Future Laboratory project commissioned and produced by FutureEverything, National Football Museum, Centre for Contemporary Culture Barcelona – CCCB, and Fundación Telefónica, supported by ECAS, a European Commission Culture Fund project and MEDIAPRO.

It is international, transdisciplinary effort that involved futurists, technologists, designers, and writers stretching from Europe, South America to the US, and is an example of a number of small practices and studios working in close collaboration. The project was conceived and directed by Fabien Girardin of Near Future Laboratory, and developed in tight collaboration with futurists Scott Smith of Changeist and Philippe Gargov of Seeklup. It was designed with Bestiario and includes the writing of Natalie Kane, Margot Baldassi, Christophe Kuchly and Valéry Mba Aboghe, and the translations of Eva Fernández García, Raphael Cosmidis with the help of Fanny Negre.

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A Delightful Design Fiction Evening in San Francisco

Last October we gathered for a Laboratory day retreat and decided — so long as we’re all together — why don’t we make a thing of it. So, we arranged to do an evening’s gathering with our friends at IDEO. Scott Paterson from IDEO facilitated our way into IDEO’s splendid waterfront facility. We brought beer, IDEO brought beer, we had lots of beer and, most importantly, we shared with our audience some perspectives on Design Fiction. Our friend Ed Finn from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination helped us set the metaphorical table. Sharing thoughts were Julian Bleecker, James Bridle, Nick Foster and Cliff Kuang from Wired facilitated the conversation.

It was “delightful”, as the kids are fond of saying nowadays. But, more delightful than the most delightful UX. Properly delightful in the way that a gathering of humans in a room can be delightful. A gathering to think, debate, discuss and laugh. Like a salon. We will be hosting more of these around the globe, as our Bureau of Delightful Design Fiction Evening Events spins-up and makes it Napoleonic plans.

Design & Fiction

D&F

Hello dear readers, a quick heads up… I’ll be talking at a little evening event here in San Francisco next week, alongside Julian and James. Should be good. If you fancy coming along, you will need to register though, which you can do here.


D&F: A Design & Fiction Evening

Design & Fiction

https://designandfiction.eventbrite.com

We are the Near Future Laboratory. Welcome to us.

On Thursday October 24th we would like to meet up with you to talk about design. And fiction. And the ways of approaching the challenge of all challenges, whatever it may be. We’ll talk about expressing the opportunities those challenges raise as distinctly new tangible forms. As well as the essential value of mundane design.

We’ll talk about clarifying the present. We’ll talk about designing the future. And doing both of these things with design. And fiction.

Come and enjoy. We’ll be us, and we’ll also be James Bridle, a friend of ours.
There will be two and a half free regional beers for everyone.
Space is limited because we’re in a room. Sign up on Eventbrite, or you may become deflated.

WE'RE SERIOUS: EVEN THOUGH THIS IS A FREE EVENT, YOU MUST BE TICKETED TO ENTER. PLEASE DON'T SHOW UP WITHOUT A TICKET AS WE PROBABLY WON'T BE ABLE TO LET YOU IN.

The Future Mundane

Originally posted on Core77

moon

Broadly speaking, design projects may be split into three categories: now, next and future. Most of our time as designers is concerned with the now or next, but occasionally we are called upon to embrace projects which are overtly future facing in nature. These projects are typically used as a platform to tell a story, be that a business projection, a socio-cultural exploration, or an illustration of new materials or technologies, so it comes as no surprise that one of the more significant inputs for many designers is science fiction cinema.

Science fiction works in the space between people and technology in much the same way as industrial design, and the two have an influential effect upon each other. If you have visited any design tumblr in the last six months you will no doubt have seen countless sketches and production stills from Oblivion, and design’s (sometimes literal) impact on science fiction cinema is well documented. In some respects, it’s difficult to divorce the two industries, but there is a key difference which often gets missed: For the sake of brevity, I need to be reductive, so if there is a line to be drawn between industrial design futurism and science fiction cinema, then that’s the line between narrative, story and plot.

Industrial design futures require a story, a sequence of events that happen. In some cases they require a narrative—a way in which the story is told—but they almost never need a plot. Science fiction cinema, which has an implicit role as entertainment, requires a plot. Plots are difficult, complex and involved. Plots require significant development of character and space, leading to an aesthetic that drives the narrative forward. When creating future visions, industrial designers have a habit of grabbing at cinematic aesthetics without a plot, leading to images, products and movies such as this:

Videos and presentations of this sort are plentiful indeed, and in some respects they have a place, yet they invariably seem banal, twee and idealistic to the point of fantasy. For this reason, it’s often easy to scoff at such work and dismiss it out of hand. In 2002, at the Clarion writing workshop, science fiction novelist Geoff Ryman expressed similar concerns about the prevalence of fantasy elements in his genre. Warp drives, invisibility and interstellar travel were becoming the norm in science fiction writing, distracting readers from critical subjects closer to home. He introduced the concept of ‘Mundane Science Fiction,’ which aimed to generate literature based on or near earth with a believable use of technology as it exists in the time the story is written.

As a counter to the fantasy-laden future worlds generated by our industry, I’d like to propose a design approach which I call ‘The Future Mundane.’ The approach consists of three major elements, which I will outline below.

1. The Future Mundane is filled with background talent.

Science fiction cinema needs to be entertaining in order to keep the attention of the audience. For a movie to be entertaining, it needs a narrative arc—a story of hope, despair, triumph or love. It needs a protagonist, hero or anti-hero. It typically needs something unusual to happen, an extraordinary event, something which drives the plot forward. As such, Hollywood typically pushes the narrative towards character extremes which provide clear roles: the hero, the villain, the femme fatale etc. The uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of people don’t come close to these caricatures, and it’s fair to expect that they never will. Your customer won’t need to save the world, they won’t see a real gunfight, they won’t win the lottery or fight a bad guy on the roof of a runaway train.

When designing for the future, designers regularly design for the hero, a trickle-down aspirational super-user intended to give us all something to hope for. But perhaps we could, for once, design for those innumerable, un-named characters of Hollywood, the extras or ‘background talent.’ Perhaps we should look past Bruce Willis and design for the ‘man at bus stop’, ‘girl at bar’ or ‘taxi driver.’ While this approach is less aspirational or sexy, these characters are much closer to the humans to whom you are telling your story. When your goal isn’t entertainment, you don’t need a hero.

So those are our characters, but what about the design itself? Spaceships, weapons and computers are plentiful in science fiction cinema, but what about corkscrews, soccer cleats, milk packaging or garden hoses? In the world of contemporary design awards (for what they are worth), we celebrate the design of background objects, but when we are asked to decipher and create the future we tend to revert back to whizz-bang items of wonder. When I encounter everyday design in science fiction cinema, I get a chill of excitement. From Korben’s cigarettes in the Fifth Element, the parole officer in Elysium, and countless examples in Blade Runner, these pieces of design help us get a much better hold on our future than any holographic interface ever could. The future we design should understand this. The characters in our future will not necessarily need to save the world at every turn—most of them will simply live in it, quietly enjoying each day.

2. The Future Mundane is an accretive space

Take a look around you, it’s likely that you’re interacting with a contemporary piece of technology, be that a smartphone, tablet or laptop, but take a look further around the room. There may be things which are older, things which come from another time—an LED TV atop a vintage table, a Playstation next to a 60′s vase, an iPad in a leather bag. If industrial design is in the business of making stuff, then we need to understand that this stuff piles up, favela-like. Humans are covetous, sentimental and resourceful; they cling to things.

When we render the future as a unique visual singularity, we remove from it any contemporary hooks. When designing a new screwdriver, it’s important to remember that it will probably sit in a toolbox filled with other tools, perhaps inherited from a previous generation.

In order to communicate our vision, it may be helpful to incorporate the existing designed space in parallel with the new. On a very practical level, we should embrace legacy technologies when conceiving new ones. Ethnographic studies constantly highlight technology accretion: the drawer full of cables, the old interaction behaviors, the dusty hard drives, the mouse mats and inherited hardware. Rather than avoid this complexity, good science fiction embraces accretive spaces, where contemporary design and technology sits side by side with older artifacts. In some cases, this technique can be used to show potential disconnects between the new and established, places where technology sticks out like a sore thumb. This is a useful tool for all designers and using it well can help us depict a more tangible future.

3. The Future Mundane is a partly broken space.

As mentioned, the structure of science fiction cinema calls for extremes of character, event and environment. These are often visible through utopian or dystopian tropes in costume, architecture and design. At one end of the spectrum, we have seamless computer interactions, bright spacious architecture and glossy white surfaces. At the other, we have the dustbowl, the hacker slums and the gritty laboratory in the sewer.

These two categories are useful for building entertaining narrative structure, but the future probably won’t be either of these things… at least not entirely. It’ll be somewhere disappointingly middling: a partly broken space.

We often assume that the world of today would stun a visitor from fifty years ago. In truth, for every miraculous iPad there are countless partly broken realities: WiFi passwords, connectivity, battery life, privacy and compatibility amongst others. The real skill of creating a compelling and engaging view of the future lies not in designing the gloss, but in seeing beyond the gloss to the truths behind it. As Frederik Pohl famously said, “a good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

There are good examples in cinema, notably the cereal box from which John Anderton eats in Minority Report. As he puts it down, the singing cartoon on the front refuses to stop. He tries again but the animation continues, eventually leading him to throw the box across the room in frustration.

In the future, things will fail, but for the vast majority of the world this failure won’t be ‘the rocket is gonna crash into the planet,’ but ‘I can’t get the audio to work on Skype.’ The future will include taxes, illness, weather, transport delays and allergies. Things will break, things will fail to perform as promised, things will need fixing. Rendering the future as a partly broken space gives an audience something to hold onto, something relatable.

In parallel, we should consider how quickly our ‘amazing new innovation’ will become a normalized. Once technology finds it’s way into mass communities it ceases to amaze, ceases to be seen as technology at all, it becomes a regular part of the tapestry of life. In truth, our most common reaction to technology is to focus on its failures, the frustrations, what it can’t do or what we’d prefer it to do. Showing people smiling at their device as it reminds them about the arrival of their taxi is disingenuous. By isolating, understanding and portraying a partly broken space we are on the way to creating a more credible future.


Towards The Future Mundane

As part of a workshop I ran with Julian Bleecker at the Emerge conference in Arizona last year, we worked with a group of students to write, cast and shoot a short movie set in a mundane future. For us, the most logical place for this to take place was the liquor store, a place filled to the brim with technology once deemed incredible but now so fully absorbed into society that it becomes almost invisible. The ability to make fire instantly, digital time on your wrist, instant headache remedies, disposable writing tools, chemical power… all for under a dollar. This, to us, says much more about the future of design than any glossy proto-futuristic movie ever could. The movie was fun and challenging to produce (the whole project took just two days), but points at a future which we rarely see embraced in our industry. More recently, Nicolas Nova and his team of students created a series of short films based around curious rituals, those digitally generated behaviors which come hand in hand with emerging technology. The ‘Gerardo’ segment is particularly pertinent to our discussion.

Let’s be clear, this is not necessarily a new concept. There are many science fiction movies, or at least moments within them, which embrace a mundane approach. The British TV miniseries “Black Mirror” contains some excellent moments of The Future Mundane. Whilst the series as a whole is designed as satire, often stepping into cautionary dystopian territory, there are some moments of genuine beauty, particularly in the episodes ‘Be Right Back’ and ‘The Entire History of You.’ The new Spike Jonze movie Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, feels like it could be right on the button, not really feeling like a science fiction movie at all, concentrating more on the relationship between people and technology (literally).

In closing, I’ll address a couple of key counter arguments which may have been raised in this piece:

Counter one: What about visionary projects which act as a north star, an unattainable but exciting future?

Everyone has a different approach to their design work, and their process varies accordingly. Certain designers produce concepts and future visions that are deliberately unattainable, but give a strong thematic direction to their work. This is fine, and can be a useful tool as long as the audience is prepared to embrace it as such. If we start to view our dreams as reality, we may be doing little more than feeding the Walter Mitty within. Which is not to say the two approaches are mutually exclusive; one can sit within the other. Elon Musk, the Bay area’s very own Tony Stark, recently released his vision for the Hyperloop, a 760mph passenger device which purports to move people from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Whilst most people see the concept as difficult to the point of impossibility, what made it so compelling was not the sexy renders of passenger compartments and vehicle designs but the 57-page PDF that went with it. The document doesn’t make it any more achievable, but by embracing of the mundane practicalities of such a project, Musk was able to make it more believable. The Future Mundane doesn’t seek to curtail dreams, just to ensure that dreams are rendered as vividly as possible.

Counter two: By assuming that the future will proceed as today, we won’t embrace anything out of the ordinary.

Big things happen in the world. There are energy concerns, world wars, population problems, famines, information explosions and many more huge events peppering the history of mankind, but let’s not fall into the trap of rendering extremes. Let’s remember that against a backdrop of any future world shift, there will still be the common cold, there will still be breakfast, there will still be sport, there will still be work, there will still be almost every aspect of human life visible in some form. It may be strained or broken, but by approaching these mundane facets of life, we may actually be better prepared to tackle the larger issues.

In parallel, and on a more cautionary note, we should be wary of the tendency to assume that the future will be in some way better than today. Whilst many aspects of life are considerably improved from even forty years ago, it could be argued that other areas of life are significantly worse. The design industry has been creating utopian visions for over a hundred years, and it’s clearly not working out. Maybe we should give it a rest, or at least come to accept that utopias are unachievable in every respect, a literal ‘no place.’

Counter three: Not all design needs to so pragmatic.

I agree. Design tools can be used to develop not just products, but thinking. In this case design can indeed indulge in fantasy and storytelling, but it must be understood as such. Design has a very powerful role in creating stories from the future, not with the intent to produce artifacts but to act as a driver for critical discourse, conversation or thought. Just make sure this is clear beforehand.


The Future Mundane is not a manifesto nor a dogma: It is intended as an approach to help expand our notion of design for the future. As designers, we have a huge opportunity to play with time, technology and people. In designing the future, we are able to play with ideas and dreams in a way that very few people are able. For every fantasy fiction piece of design, I would love to see a counter concept. A concept for the everyman; a concept that knows what might not work and what might break; a concept that delivers amazing future technology whilst comfortably sitting atop a Victorian chest of drawers.

That’d be compelling. I’d watch that.


The Simple Truth

Originally posted on Core77

sewing room

Note: Throughout this piece, I refer to simplicity in relation to the operation of devices or the experience of use, as opposed to a reductive or minimalist aesthetic.

As with everything involving language, a design brief brings with it a host of cultural nuances which reveal the true meaning of the request, a design direction that is rarely explicit but resides just below the surface, unspoken but evident. One of these unspoken standards is the drive towards simplicity.

In the world of manufacturing, productivity is king. The more one makes, the more one can sell, and the more one sells the more profitable the endeavor. At some point, one faces the limits of human ability, and we engage the services of tools and devices to bridge the gaps of effort and time. A lean system takes the critical path between volition and goal. This, in essence, is the machine ethic, the driving force behind industrial simplification, a force so intoxicating that it has found its way into almost every element of contemporary design.

Taskification

Without wanting to be too binary, there are two types of activity: those which may be considered ‘compressive’ (chores, tasks) and those which are ‘donative’ (fun and hobbies).

Tools have been a part of domestic life for hundreds of years, but it was the proliferation of labor-saving devices in the 20th Century that brought the machine ethic to the fore. Washing machines, vacuum cleaners and electric appliances became commonplace tools to help complete tasks around the home. This expansion was facilitated in part by the spread of domestic electricity (a U.S. growth of 46% between 1917 and 1930), and partly by the convenient nature of simplicity as a marketing tool. ‘Simpler’ is a useful metric for comparison, it shows a clear progression with the promise of an improved quality of life, and thus the drive towards ease of use became part of our collective conscience.

Every design cycle brought simpler and simpler solutions. Wrinkles were ironed out, generating new devices that promised to get things done in half the time or with half the effort. Over time, traditionally donative activities began to be approached with a compressive mindset. Designers and engineers began to focus on performance and efficiency – adjectives usually reserved for industrial projects. Almost every aspect of life underwent a process of taskification, and success was judged as such.

This notion persists today, with simplicity and ease going hand in hand with progress. By portraying an activity as a task, we can help drive products into use by focusing on their compressive performance. Convergent digital devices are particularly prone to taskification, given their multiple uses. For a device with which you watch movies, play games and converse with friends, ‘multi-tasking’ ‘task switching’ and ‘taskbar’ seem strange terms indeed, yet they pass by without a thought.

“…but, why wouldn’t we make something simpler if we could?” seems like a perfectly reasonable question, and one which you may be asking right now, but we could also make that same thing taller, softer or more purple… Can it be that we have spent so long under the spell of the machine ethic, that we have become blinded by it?

PremierDuplex

The Leisure Illusion

The advertisement shown above neatly illustrates the utopian manifesto of a simplified home: by compressing chores with design and industrialization, we allow for more leisure time. In More work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan illustrates how less work and more free time through mechanization has never been the case. In manufacturing, the machine ethic is adopted in order to compress work with the aim of increased productivity, rather than allowing the employees to leave earlier each day. It’s entirely logical that if we adopt the same ethic in domestic spaces, the result remains constant: our expectations just keep pace with the current reality. Simplification does not lead to leisure credit, it allows for more work to be completed in a similar timeframe. Ultimately this exerts a productivity pressure upon humans as they try to keep pace with the machines, a phenomenon that James Gleick characterizes as ‘hurry sickness.’

There will never be a fixed quota of work to be done, and compressing the work we need to do today will simply make room for more work tomorrow.

Complexity displacement

At the dawn of the industrial computer age, facing a future of workplace robotics and simplified manufacturing systems many people (most notably Mike Cooley) warned of a future where humans would no longer be required. This technological unemployment dystopia never actually occurred, instead becoming a Luddite fallacy. The employment didn’t disappear, it just moved elsewhere—the robots may do the work, but the robots also become work. This acts as a useful parallel when considering simplification:

We cannot truly create simplicity, rather we displace complexity.

When the machine ethic is inserted into an effort chain, it generates ripples as the complexity is displaced elsewhere. A drive towards simplicity needs to be considered in the most encompassing manner: how does it affect not only the goal in hand, but other elements of the system? The new iPhone connector is indeed simpler than it’s predecessor. In removing the top and bottom bias the connector may be inserted blind, but in creating this simpler solution Apple has generated significant complexity elsewhere in the ecosystem. The home audio systems, the third party adaptors, the existing chargers dotted throughout the home, car and in multiple kitchen drawers all need to be changed or upgraded. Apple will have debated this change at length, and are probably happy with the compromise in the name of general progress, but the effects of this simplification will have significant impact on other manufacturers and users for years to come.

Outside of a single industry silo, simplicity in one field may have significant effects elsewhere. Years of innovation in simplifying the preparation and delivery of food has created significant complexities in the health and waste industries as we now struggle with the very real problems of obesity, diabetes, landfill and pollution. Simplicity is intoxicating and preys upon the laziest of our genes, but as designers we should begin to approach simplification with the same end-to-end understanding that we currently afford to ecological or sustainable issues.

Effort Entropy

So where does that leave design? What if we continue to simplify every activity, to strip away any elements of complexity, to remove all manuals, all strange procedural elements, to remove all the effort. What does success look like?

Are we able to operate every object perfectly without any learning, to move towards no UI? Are we able to spend the vast majority of our lives engaging in fun, donative activities? Do we feel better? Do products make us happy? The available evidence shows the contrary, or as Louis CK says: “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.”

I’ve written at length about what I call the Olde Aesthetic, the pervasive mood in contemporary society for a simulacra of heritage: handmade belts, the slow food movement, ‘artisanal’ clothing and organic farming. One of the drivers behind this movement (there are many) may be an increasing sensitivity to skills which take time to master. There is an admiration for production methods which are slow, difficult and complex, largely in contrast to the simplicity, availability and homogeneity that we have seen for the last 40 years or so. By blindly simplifying systems, we may be at risk of removing all traces of joy, of removing any element of mastery, or triumph over adversity. I believe humans love complexity in the right places. We love to expend energy, to learn and to master complicated systems. We bake cakes from scratch, we climb mountains, we learn the piano. All of these things can be significantly compressed through the application of a machine ethic, yet are they improved? Hardly.

Towards a New Simple

Every designer knows to question their brief, but the notion of ‘simpler is better’ still prevails. It would be churlish to suggest that designers take steps to deliberately make any product more difficult to use than it’s predecessor, or to adopt an Anabaptist outlook on progress and technology. What we should understand is the balance between destination and journey. Be aware of the differences between compressive and donative actions, and apply different thinking to each. Be alert to taskification.

Perhaps replacing ‘simpler’ with ‘more rewarding’ might take us some of the way to a new approach, embracing productivity where needed while leaving room for mastery, enjoyment and satisfaction in use.

As a wider subject, we should begin to embrace the notion of complexity displacement. In making a particular product or service simpler, we should be sensitive to the effects elsewhere. Is it right? Is it ethical? Does it have negative effects on someone other than our target user? The beautiful simplicity of many of the products and services we enjoy today may actually make other lives significantly more complex and potentially more miserable. An end-to-end appreciation of simplification is perhaps the boldest new horizon in our collective design conscience.

As designers we have an opportunity to shape the world how we see fit. We should design for the benefit of humans, with all our complexities. We should embrace learning in products, revealing new layers of understanding over time—then, perhaps, we will begin to design products which create a lasting bond with their users.


From the right

texts

Above is a quick snapshot of a few texts I’ve sent to my wife since the beginning of 2013. I guess this is how we communicate now: staccato questions, quick bursts of information, snarky comments. Nothing too profound here, other than it’s a good illustration of how quickly we become accustomed to new technology, how it becomes part of the daily fabric of life, how rapidly it becomes banal. How long before we stop referring to SMS as ‘technology’ anyhow? Do we still do that?


On Moonlighting

This post was originally published on Core77

cybill and bruce

In every job there is a line between personal time and employment. In some roles, the line is very clear, announced by a klaxon, punch card or timesheet. In other fields of work, the line is blurred, sometimes to the point of vanishing altogether. Design is one of those fields.

Every designer is a cultural voyeur—a perpetual sponge for inspiration and a running faucet for ideas. When we design, we draw on experiences from our private lives, from our travels and observations. Design is a lifestyle, the method acting of careers. Design doesn’t stop at 5pm.

When individuals take jobs with design firms, they sign contracts and begin to serve their clients. With that step comes a disconnect between employment and personal time. Contracts typically draw hard lines around the two with a variety of privacy and commitment clauses. Personal projects are often relegated to second place in the hierarchy of creativity, and referred to euphemistically as moonlighting. This is a thorny issue with some Paleolithic attitudes, but one which would benefit from open discussion.

Genera of Moonlighting

As I see it, all moonlighting work sits upon a sliding scale:
- A blog or other public writing
- Public speaking or conference appearances
- Work for friends, family or self
- External client work

Every case is different, but at some point in the scale, every company draws a line. Some are more flexible, some are more regimented, but every contract has a clause referring to this behavior. Let’s take a quick look at the key drivers behind these clauses (followed by a quick debunking of each):

1.) Primary company work will be disrupted - When you take on a contract with a design firm, you are making a commitment to them. There is an understanding that you work for that organization, with the goal of capital growth. This is design as industry. Companies are keen that your focus is the work which brings in revenue, and rightly so. – You owe it to your employer to give 100% of your effort to them. We’ll address how exactly how this manifests itself later, but let’s just say that as an employer, if an individual is not giving 100%, then you have a problem. If they are not giving 100% because they are doing other design work, you have less of a problem.

2.) Intellectual property and leaks -In any design business, there are secrets to be kept. Particularly in the design of hi-tech products, secrecy is king and companies work very hard to protect their intellectual property. Every contract has with it a promise to keep these secrets in the form of an NDA. By further restricting the design freedoms of employees, the hope is that these secrets will be maintained. – Every NDA implicitly outlines the terms of secrecy for a project, client or company, and the employee is expected to abide by these terms. The fear of leaks is real and present, but here’s the rub: most leaks don’t come from within large organizations, they come from subcontractors, suppliers or manufacturers. Designers themselves are very aware of the potential damage caused by leaks or conflicts of interest, and most act diligently to prevent them.

3. The name of the company may be brought into disrepute by misrepresentation - Companies aim to protect their brand and associated values at all costs. When an employee appears publicly they represent that brand, which is a risk. – This is an easy fix. As in Hollywood, the distinction between actor and studio is clarified by the small statement ‘the opinions expressed are those of the individual and do not represent those of the studio.’ If talking at a conference or similar, this should be your first slide.

4. Moonlighting is somehow disloyal, or an exit strategy. - Moonlighting projects may be the start of something bigger. An individual may be working on building their own business after hours. They may be preparing to move elsewhere and using the resources of this company to do so. – This probably pokes at the real fear behind those who attempt to prevent moonlighting. The standard practice of most design firms is to restrict the activity, but if your employees are willingly engaging in external work, perhaps you should look at their motivation rather than question their loyalty.

Why Moonlighting Persists

It would be naïve to believe that all moonlighting projects are undertaken for financial gain. This may be true for some work, but there is often a deeper driver behind extracurricular projects. There may be an itch which needs scratching, a new technique which needs testing or simply that external projects give a mental break. It has long been understood that monotony is a killer to productivity, working on the same thing day after day isn’t good for self worth or personal growth, and any decent employer needs to understand this. (This is the part where I insert a telling statistic about work/life balance. Picture it in your head. Got it? Good.)

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt splits employment into three categories: Job, Career and Calling. All too often employers are overly concerned with ensuring the ‘Job’ category is fulfilled, but in order to retain an employee for an extended period there is a necessity to embrace the other two. Loyalty is earned, not forced. By curtailing a designers Calling, employers may be at risk of losing employees altogether. In many cases external project work offers a release valve, allowing employees to feel liberated and free, ticking some of the boxes in their Career or Calling columns. It allows designers to expand their thinking and experience, to try new things and remain inquisitive. Here’s the thing: it’s not a one way street. A satisfied employee is fantastic from a loyalty and retention perspective. Not only that, but designers who are exposed to new challenges build new skills and knowledge, all of which they will bring back into their daily work. Everyone’s a winner.

Finally, by restricting public appearances, writing or similar engagements we may also be damaging our industry. Design is a community. We thrive in groups and discussions, and have a loose peer review system. By locking your designers away from personal expression, investigation or engagement, you are preventing them from becoming part of the wider debate, and I think Design suffers. Apple are notoriously draconian about the freedom of their team and many talented speakers, writers and thinkers have all but disappeared following their Cupertino contract, which is a shame.

Integrated Moonlighting Strategies

Many companies build in systems and structures to break monotony. 3M famously began their 80/20 program in 1948, where engineers were given 20% of their time to pursue personal projects. This program had notable successes (such as the Post-it note), and has since been mimicked by HP and Google. Even Apple recently introduced a similar system with their Blue Sky initiative for ‘selected’ employees. Whilst this is a good practice, it’s markedly different to moonlighting. It does allow for personal investigation, but with the explicit goal of progressing the aims of the corporation, rather than the aims of the individual.

The sabbatical is an interesting model. Stefan Sagmeister’s wonderful TED talk (which I urge you to watch) explains his process. Every seven years he closes his studio for twelve months to escape, experiment and play, returning energized, refreshed and inspired with new viewpoints and approaches. In my career, many of my colleagues have taken sabbaticals with varying rates of success. Whilst I relish the thought of a year of personal reflection, the lump sum approach to moonlighting is slightly uncomfortable. Firstly, seven years is a long time, (do you fancy waiting until 2020 to get that project out of your system?) Secondly, sabbaticals are nearly always unpaid. The only support your company gives you is the guarantee that you have a job to return to, which really isn’t much.

There may be a softer approach to sabbaticals: intermittent pauses in corporate productivity to pursue external projects without fully cutting ties with the mothership. Many sabbaticals stall as the infrastructure needed to pursue their goals is withdrawn. A progressive organization could allow individuals to pursue their dreams for a short while, providing a location and resources for them to use. This may seem a one-sided deal, but aside from the personal development benefits of such a practice there may be financial gains. If the organization stipulates a percentage stake in any financial proceeds of the activity then they stand to benefit. This model pitches the design organization as angel investor.

An even more progressive model integrates personal work into the everyday work of the organization so that differentiation becomes impossible. A blooming, engaged and educated employee is a great benefit to any company. Even if project work is sometimes sidelined, it is important for all concerned that designers are encouraged to experiment with new ways of working, to try new things and to learn. This is an odd approach to employment, and has very few examples of use, but I feel that there needs to be continued experimentation with the blurred line, the Venn diagram of work, play and personal time fully overlapping into a cohesive creative structure. Moonlighting at work, as work. It may seem odd and counter-productive to suggest that design organizations encourage their employees to undertake personal projects, but when compared to the many millions of dollars spent annually on formal training, I would argue that the benefits are actually more tangible to the company in the long run.

This model would require a very mature attitude within a team. Within any such system there needs to be a bi-directional budget of trust, which needs to be accrued over time. Mutual tests of character need to be completed before such a deal has a hope of working. Managing the different opportunities within a team is also a complex problem, and one which has the potential to cause instability and resentment, but all of these problems are surmountable.

Conclusion

There are clear opportunities for progressive ways to blend the Calling and Career aspects of an individual in parallel with the demands of the Job. The industry of design revolves around financial gain and focused productivity but also around long term intellectual development of designers. Too often the latter is neglected, to the detriment of the individual and the organization.

Also, I’ve used it throughout, but we should kill the term ‘moonlighting.’ It’s derogatory and conjurs up images of illicit activity, of sneakery and duplicity. What employers should be doing is embracing, encouraging and promoting creative exploration and self development wherever possible, at any time. That’s not moonlighting, that’s design.


Digital Creativity on design fictions

Constellations: design fiction about objects from the past For people interested in design fictions, the latest issue of Digital Creativity is a special issue about design fiction. It features papers by people like James Auger or Andrew Morrison, Ragnhild Tronstad and Einar Sneve Martinussen. As proposed by the editor of this issue, Derek Hales, in his introduction entitled "Design fictions an introduction and provisional taxonomy":

"In crafting this issue we were interested in reflecting on design fictions as a methodology and on the ways in which fictional constructs, such as future scenarios and ‘diegetic prototypes’ (D. Kirby 2009), might open design discourse. As much as we might perhaps simplistically suggest that the fictions of non-linear narrative, the achronological and asynchronous, have been central to contemporary media design and to media art, we might also say that the convergence of narrative and technology is central to design fictions: as we will see, design fictions exploit the power of media design to craft and deploy compelling visions of the future. Further than this, though, design fictions have become a significant means through which designers are exploring the ‘present’ condition of interface culture."

Why do I blog this? Gathering material about design fiction for the upcoming Laboratory retreat and for next Friday's workshops in Annecy, France.

Missed Opportunity – A Crank on a Camera

An idiomatic miss here with this little, darling, silly little camera. First read says to me that crank+camera equals either, like..advance-the-image or, like..crank-the-moving-film through.

The Sun & Cloud is a unique and innovative lo-fi camera designed to take simple and creative images. The creator said it best: “We never wanted cameras as precision machines, rather we imagine the camera as a sort of sketchbook, something with which you easily record bits of your life.”

What strikes you immediately about the Sun & Cloud is its unusually cubic shape and the the folding hand crank and solar panel, already making this a camera not like others you have seen. Superheadz wanted to give users ultimate freedom, so they built a camera that can be charged without needing to be tethered to a wall. Even with a completely dead battery, crank the Sun & Cloud for just one minute and you’ll have enough juice for between 4 and 8 pictures. With three customizable quick access buttons, you can easily select your favorite color and B&W filters. The Sun & Cloud is philosophically pure, and the lo-fi photos it takes reflect just that.

I’d much rather that if my imaging thing is going to have a crank on it. Like a moving film camera. Or even a still image camera with a crank..that advances the film. A bit heavy with irony, but a better start at the least. There are all sorts of new practices for image making that would come from enforcing old, relevant mechanical rituals in the age of digital things.

The hug-chest-palmss-on-cheeks // isn’t it darling? sensibility of a camera that needs the sun to see makes me want to throw up forever.

I suppose the fact that this darling little thing lets me crank a bit to take a photo when, otherwise — a camera’s battery may’ve gone flat is a bit of a thing. Like, when I used to shoot with an old Nikon F2A, I always knew I could take a photo even if the meter battery went out because it’s 100% mechanical otherwise. But, still..

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