On Moonlighting

This post was originally published on Core77

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.

A New Simple

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?

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.

The Future Mundane

Originally posted on Core77

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.

Redistillation

(First published on Core77)

I spent the first 36 years of my life living in the UK, more than half of which was spent in and around London. As such, I have a deep personal affinity to Gin, that wonderful, complex, delicious spirit made famous by the Dutch and infamous by Hogarth. Gin has recently enjoyed a significant resurgence in popularity, gradually extricating itself from the caustic syrups of the 70s and into the most sophisticated concoctions of mixologists worldwide.

There are numerous reasons why I like gin. It's incredibly versatile, and can be drunk in many forms: with a mixer such as tonic or soda, as a base for classic or contemporary cocktails such as negronis, martinis or gimlets, or even neat (try a glass of Old Tom over ice next time the nights draw longer). Primarily though, gin's allure lies in the glorious, deep variety of tastes. From the driest of London gins to the complex, tea-like Golden Moon, there really is nothing like it. I think gin should be regarded by the same sommelier standards as wines and whisky. It's on it's way, but it still has some distance to go.

So by now you should be wondering what this has to do with Industrial Design. It's an analogy that I've been mulling over for some time and it has to do with the ways in which we approach the creation of contemporary objects. Let me explain by way of vodka.

Vodka is made by pot-distilling a fermented grain mash from barley—though the process itself simply needs a starch, so potatoes, beets, etc., can be substituted—which is then filtered through charcoal and bottled. Throughout the process, the distiller aims to create the purest possible alcohol, removing any impurities, coloration or taste. Vodka is simply ethanol, and whilst it has its purpose, it significantly misses the mark in elegance or taste. Gin, however, undergoes another transformative process. Once the pure liquor is extracted, the master distiller adds a finely balanced recipe of extra ingredients. Typically this starts with juniper berries (which are not actually berries), and is followed by seeds, citrus rinds, fragrant barks, spices, wildflower blossoms and other botanicals. These extra ingredients are added to the ethanol and then redistilled a second time. The resulting mixture is a delicate, fragrant, wonderful liquid, with all the elegant balance of a fine perfume: Gin.

So, back to design...

Over the last decade or so, there has been a trend within industrial design to refine and reduce, borne from classic minimalist dogma trodden by Dieter Rams and redelivered by Ive. We have become attuned to reduction as a means of progress in our art. Everything is removed, streamlined and simplified to create an object pure in essence and interaction. We cherish such objects and marvel at their purity, but all too often they lack heart. They seem empty, perfunctory, cold. They are vodka.

By simply following a path of endless reduction we distill out every impurity, we filter every trace of individuality, every element that deviates from the drive towards that (false) grail: a simple singular expression of form and interaction. Whilst the technical prowess needed to achieve such simplicity is significant and admirable, I am often struck by just how dull the results can be.

By designing in a reductive manner, I believe there is often a necessity for a subsequent distillation process. Once the primary design cycle is complete, and prototypes begin arriving, it's vitally important to revisit the entire experience, to zoom out and re-examine what has been achieved. Following this examination we then have an opportunity to add our 'botanicals' to improve the stark proposition before us, then redistill the object for a second time.

I admit this is a strange and counterintuitive twist in the design process. It is preferable to define the entire object and experience at the outset, rather than add time, complexity and headaches later, but in my experience it's only when design work approaches a nadir of completion that the need for these 'botanicals' becomes evident. When presented with a 'nearly complete' object we should allow time for more complex thought patterns to emerge. These can be simple things: little changes or additions to software, hardware or tone, but they are vitally important to create depth in the final offering. In short, we turn vodka into gin, which results in a more rounded, elegant and satisfying experience.

The Perfect Negroni:

- Take one measure of Cocchi Vermouth, one measure of Campari and one measure of Dry Gin (try Leopolds or Sipsmiths).

- Pour over ice in a mixing glass.

- Stir for a moment.

- Take an Old Fashioned glass and strain the cocktail over a single large ice cube.

- Garnish with a slice of orange zest.

- Turn off the TV.

Weldtype

Whenever exploring a city, you’ll hear locals and guides encouraging you to ‘look up’. I’d argue that you learn an equal amount about a city from looking down. You see discarded litter, infrastructural markings on the tarmac, bus tickets and graffiti. You see past the towering monuments of man’s achievement and see the everyday remnants of regular life. I wrote a while ago about the curious multicolored dots beside San Francisco’s drains and I recently completed another short project in a similar vein. All across the Bay Areas are holes in the ground, some permanent, some temporary, each covered by a sheet of metal. Whilst there exists a small cadre of manhole afficionados they become almost invisible by their regularity. A closer look reveals that each of these metal coverings carries data, be it the company who owns the infrastructure below, the type of service, or the owner/manufacturer of the plate itself. Often this information is cast directly into the plate during manufacture, but from time to time this information is handwritten. Upon installation, a piece of text is added to the plate via a welding torch, leaving a permanent metal version of the creator’s handwriting. This tickles me for many reasons, but perhaps mostly as it’s a great example of finding humans. Many of the characters are wonky and malformed, perhaps evidence of a lack of care, or the difficulty I imagine comes with writing with a welding torch. Nearly all of the type is capitalized, but every now and then you will see a piece of cursive handwriting, which is lovely. A few covers around the city also seem to have been signed, although I could be wrong.

I began photographing these frozen characters about two years ago but recently accelerated the project (on account of the vlog). On Saturday I finally completed a full alphabet (I found a ‘B’, thank you Pac Bell) and I’ve gone through the somewhat awkward and painstaking process of creating a font. It’s far from usable, and definitely not pretty, but it’s crowdsourced, and that makes it modern. You can download the font here: WELDTYPE

If anyone has the required skills and inclination, it would be nice to cast around these welded letters in-situ and make printing blocks from them… maybe?

Peripheral ethnographies

(A follow-up to this blogpost, quick notes without the necessary academic framing, for the sake of putting this on the table)

Recently, in different contexts, I've been asked (both by researchers and students) about "my approach" in field research... which feels slightly weird because I wasn't sure I had a definite one. However, given recent projects with the Laboratory, as well as workshops in design schools and talks here and there, it seems there's a common way of doing things. I called it "peripheral ethnography" (or "ethnographie périphérique" in my language) because of my interest in marginal practices, peculiar behaviors, curious rituals, odd appropriation/repurposing of technologies, little things that people talk less about, situations in which technical objects age, things that do not fit, intriguing artifacts ("intriguing to whom?" one might say). All of those could be seen as what futures researchers call weak signals, and that designers might cherish in order to give direction to their work.

The term "peripheral" is relevant here because it means both "relating to or situated on the edge or periphery of something" and "of secondary or minor importance"... which is close to what French sociologist-turned-writer George Perec described as observing what is often overlooked (in "Species of space" back in 1974), what he referred to as the "infra-ordinary".

By saying that I'm interested in peripheral ethnographies, it means that my focus – on any topics I'm looking into – at these little details that seem avoided, weird or overlooked at first glance... as a complement to the diversity of practices (in a very Mauss-ian way). The hypothesis here being that addressing practices and things which be relatively peripheral (and discussing this aspect with informants), and contrasting this to more standard observations, helps to understand cultures "en devenir" (and eventually craft design fiction work).

(to be continued)

Documenting the State of Contemporary Technology

Or how the observations of mundane technological glitches and frictions offer a complementary form of inspiration to the multitude of glamorous utopian design visions.

At the Near Future Laboratory we are fascinated by the co-evolution of humans and technology, how technology is changing and how it is changing people. Practically, this means we constantly observe this interplay, and we love to question, design and create the future of this relationship. We are persistent stalkers of the partially broken, the tinkered, the seamful, the annoying, the absurd and any other awkward ways technologies surfaces in our modern lives. These observations offer us a complementary form of inspiration to the multitude of glamorous utopian design visions.

TV Control instruction for my fictional AirBnb guests. Courtesy of Nick Foster.
TV Control instruction for my fictional AirBnb guests. Courtesy of Nick Foster. #TUXSAX

In a recent project in the form of the fanzine TUXSAX: the user experience will be as shitty as expected we highlight that perfection, prediction and seamlessness are biased goals for the design of future technologies. They describe an ultimately unattainable and arguably undesirable world.

Our observations are not meant to accuse or mock the institutions or people that are behind all the little digital glitches and frictions that all connected humans must deal with in their daily life. Rather they act as documentation of the state of contemporary technology, how we as a society experience a constantly postponed future, how the promises of tech giants are never really met and more importantly how people deal with the implications: cleaning memories from a bulging cloud storage service, finding out that your USB cable was planned for obsolescence, entering a 16 characters password handwritten on a small piece of paper to access the hotel WiFi, mastering a living room system with 5 different remote controls…

Image courtesy of Nick Foster.
Image courtesy of Nick Foster. #TUXSAX

This work echoes with Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities a pamphlet that assembles photos and annotations we took here and there along our dérive through the many cities we lived in and visited. Published 8 years ago but still very contemporary, Sliding Friction was an attempt to showcase the curious aspects of contemporary urban spaces and question the visions of the ‘smart city’. Through 15 topics and 4 themes we focused our lenses on the sparkles generated by the many frictions between ideas, practices and infrastructures that populate cities.

sliding-friction

Both TUXSAX and Sliding Frictions, are invitations to engage with the knotty, gnarled edges of technology that say ‘there is humanity here’. We aim to provide some raw food for thoughts to consider the mundane frictions between people and technologies. Do we want to mitigate, or even eliminate these frictions? Or as Julian argues in the postface of Sliding Friction:

sliding_friction36

Friction is a force exhibited at the point of contact between two objects. As a metaphor, friction is a powerful image describing where life happens. The effect of contact between ideas, practices, infrastructures is seen at the points where that contact squeaks and groans or throws sparks. We operate from the perspective that friction is something that should be mitigated, even eliminated. But friction is absolutely necessary, especially even as a metaphor. Without friction, our shoes would not allow us to walk. Without friction, airplanes and birds would drop from the sky. Without accepting friction and its effects as necessary, we would be fooling ourselves into thinking perfection were the ideal.

Our aspirations should be to embrace the humanity that is imperfection — the humanity that friction echoes. Whether in the imperfection of broken and exposed wires that suggest net- works of communication, the faulty and imperfect WiFi zones that require a very human kind of improvisation or the rewriting of infrastructures with human faces, friction effects are an enduring mark of human and individual action, rather than systemic, technocratic and faceless agency.

Friction is the sinews of the world as we know it. It holds things together even in its messiness. Friction is the rough edge of planned social space and the mark of social activity — it is part of the lived social world where humans live, play, argue and pay taxes. Improvised trash bins in hollow tree stumps, and service personnel trying their best to keep street surfaces clean are evidence of these rough edges. Friction is part of the “real world” — the world of individual action resisting seamless, smooth perfection to inscribe the presence of its occupants. Perfect, planned, frictionless operation is a faulty perception that some hold as the goal for the future city. In my mind, it describes an ultimately unattainable world. I’d much rather see the knotty, gnarled edges as exhibitions that say “there is humanity here.”

Mobile Ordinary Gestures

As I explained few months ago, I'm working on a follow-up to the "Curious Rituals" project. The project focuses on an anthropological perspective on smartphone usage. It's basically a visual ethnography approach and I recently collaborated with Constance Delamadeleine (from Geneva-base design studio Future Neue) to publish this Print-On-demand booklet that describes a typology of gestures and postures adopted when using smartphones. It can be seen as an intermediary steps between the field research and the writing/crafting of a much more text-based documents... which I'm working on currently.

The book can be found at the following URL.