Words are design

There’s little surprise in the idea that a job description for a content designer at GDS would be well written. It’s matter-of-fact, it has clarity without over-simplification, it’s resigned without being obsequious and it manages to avoid being officious or patronising. It’s a language like that of pre-war, Reithian BBC- the voice of the establishment. Now that the BBC’s voice is that of impartiality and diversity, it feels that in our internet age, the words of GDS could become the voice of the establishment. It’s the kind of language that I would like the robots of the future to use. I want most of my communication with services to be utterly characterless. In fact, if I could just have a button on my browser that could ‘GDSify this’, I wouldn’t hesitate to use on most websites.

Content design isn’t a common job title. There isn’t a ready and able workforce of people already calling themselves Content Designers ready to take this work up. It’s a new role for linguists, designers, IAs, UX and CX folk, call them what you will, those people that still haven’t really found a role for themselves between strategy, planning, design and analysis. But the idea of someone actually taking the time to design (not just write) content is quite new. It’s not an opportunity for someone to express themselves creatively. It shows a serious belief in the structure of words and their absolutely inseparable purpose from the colours, fonts, layout and structure of pages on the internet that we use.

Another thing that jumps out at me about this description is the idea that design can be a framework for other design- there is a visual language of boxes and type sizes and colours and all that, but the words also need a standardised and structured and useful framework too.

Government is setting new standards of behaviour, like it probably should. The creation of public information isn’t an opportunity to emotionally engage with our audience. If only brands could understand that when someone takes the time to visit their website to read about their product, that’s often just what they want to do, they don’t want to bathe in adjectives that ’emotionally resonate’, usually they’re after facts- they probably just want to find out if they contain wheat or where the stuff is made.

Agile as a mindset, not methodology

It feels like there’s a huge backlash against Agile with a capital A recently, or more accurately Agile as methodology, as opposed to agile/agility as a mindset.

One example is the talk of #noestimates. Which could be summed up in this statement from Neil Killick on the topic;

“I believe teams ought to commit at the outset to building and delivering the best possible product by a given date and/or for a given amount of money”

In principle I like the idea. Estimation causes massive uncertainty and anxiety for everyone involved.

But I think, as ever, it depends on the context, whether you’re a team working within a large organisation, a well-funded startup, a bootstrapped startup or working with a client within an agency setting. In any situation where there’s a team delivering working software that’s intended to achieve a certain purpose, that team needs to get paid (excluding that pro-bono work you did for your aunt last summer). And in order to pay the team, there needs to be some capital raised in order to pay them. In order to raise capital, certain emotional concessions need to be made to those raising the capital (or providing the capital). The capital may come from re-investment of excess profit, a line of credit, angel investment, savings, whatever, it’s good if you can give some kind of indication of, given the information you have available right now, what that party might get in exchange for that.

Given that my context is usually to work for clients within an agency, my preference is to have the team make very loose estimates and to work hard to let the client know that they may get more of the stories they’ve want for or they may get less, depending on how it goes. When you say these stories are about x points, you’re creating an anchoring effect. Providing you are doing regular estimates (more flow, less stock), you can move up or down from your initial estimate, ensuring that the client is aware of the movement. This way, it’s not so painful, the client has a good way of understanding that their capital investment is worth something from the beginning and your estimates can move somewhere towards reality as you go.

It’s difficult to say with a straight face to a client “We’ll deliver the best we can in the time we’ve got” and, I find, the rare occasions when you can say that is when you’ve worked with them for years and they trust that you’ll create something that achieves their intended purpose in the time they’ve given you. After all, if you as a client are prepared to go without an estimate, you’re essentially getting somewhere between 4% and 10% extra working software because of the time you’re saving by not estimating.

So, I think the key to making #noestimates work may lie in being able to convince a client that ‘you’ll get what you get within the time you’ve given us’. If you can trust us, then you’ll get more value out of us.

I really don’t know whether #noestimates can work or not. I am keen to try it, but I just can’t get over the idea that someone somewhere has to get a rough idea of what they are actually going to get before they invest in the building of the thing before they invest.

Berg’s Cloudwash

Rachel Coldicutt did an excellent job of pointing out some of the problems of Berg’s Cloudwash concept. I think this is part of the magic of open design prototyping- if it’s interesting enough, you get to have smart people consult on your work for free.

I commented on it. I guess this is the second in a series of cynical brain farts I cannot prevent escaping in the presence of much smarter folk.

I lost a lot of sleep the night Berg’s Cloudwash video came out. It concerned me how much creativity and ingenuity a group of people can apply to a thing without actually improving it beyond what it offers today. It’s as if anything that’s remotely established and functional must be archaic so it’s fair game for anyone that thinks everything should be augmented by the Internet and pasted onto our mobile phones.

The big challenge for Washington Post’s 12 new hires

So the Washington Post is going to be hiring “More than a dozen new employees across design and tech…”. The group will “…rethink the web and make our site more dynamic, flexible and easy to use”. A whole 12 people! That’s like a football team right? This compact team seems typical of Jeff Bezos’ preference for pizza sized teams (he will only hire people who are as small as a pizza, or something). This is positive for an industry that in the past has been incapable of thinking small and nimble. Remember Project Euston? Yeah the project that was going to reimagine the future of news? They had a similar brief which sounded much more incendiary- “capitalise on cutting edge ideas” and “drive new revenue streams”. That was in late 2009, they recently absorbed the group back into the mothership after Lewis and MacLennan couldn’t decide where they wanted to go. Most press coverage of the Washington Post announcement has centred on how much it’s like the way in which BuzzFeed and Vice are doing all their own creative work now and how it’s the end of agencies, or something like that. There’s some merit to that argument, given that the group will be placed pretty much where all their big clients are and where the talent lives.

Except, I suspect it’s going to be hard for a small group of 12 people to do both the very creative advertorial work that ad agencies do e.g. understanding brands and briefs, creating clear propositions, media strategy and such and make fundamental improvements to the platform, which require editorial prototyping, workflow improvements, DevOps and such. But hell, it’s all digital right? I do wonder how separate the brand content and platform development teams are at places like Vice and BuzzFeed.

It sounds interesting and I am hopefully for what Bezos can add to the Washington Post, but it’s going to be interesting to see if they can pull off both an integrated creative offering and a platform improvement agenda with such a small team.

Empathy Mapping with Lego Figures | smithery

Here’s Mr. Smithery himself John V. Willshire with a nice idea for bringing empathy mapping to life with LEGO Minifigs.

Empathy Mapping with Lego Figures | smithery.

I commented on it, here it is.

I’ve tried empathy mapping a few times in the past, not with minifigs though (lovely idea). I think this is a brilliant way of engaging organisations in thinking critically about their customers- lots of room for serendipity, it gets people thinking outside of their day-to-day habits and constraints and most importantly it’s massive fun. Where I think it this has limitations is that it can compound our assumptions about customers which are surfaced in the nature of the characters* but without being challenged, these assumptions can be taken on board as fact and accepted by the group.

I would definitely think this approach could be improved by having your participants meet a handful of real customers before this activity maybe in a World Cafe approach or a ‘speed dating’ kind of format where they get to learn as much as possible about people within a short amount of time.

I realise, like you mentioned on twitter, that it’s difficult in some circumstances to get people to talk openly about particular topics. But I think this is worth over-coming. I’ve had these kinds of conversations with highly personal topics from puberty to finance to cancer and I’ve found people to be ridiculously open when you approach them in the right way e.g. explain why their opinion matter to you.

Anyway, that’s my two pence. I don’t mean to be too critical of what is essentially an excellent approach.

*now this is useful, if we can develop ways of surfacing assumptions in order to convert them into hunches, then that’s progress. 

Feels a bit odd quoting myself but there you go.

The inverted pyramid pitch

I came across this YouTube Hyundai ad recently featuring Anna Crilly.

Because you can skip after 5 seconds, they delivered something funny immediately, like delivering the punchline of a joke first or showing the best line of a film before playing the whole thing.

It’s not just a 30-second spot for TV that had been put onto the web, it was a 4 minute demonstration video with funny bits in it, proper web-native. There’s no laborious narrative or backstory, it’s just a product demonstration. I found it refreshing to just be told all about the car and what it can do. So often we get narratives and backstories forced down our throat, whether we want to hear them or not.

It reminds me of the way in which Kickstarter pages are incredibly detailed and long. You don’t have to be completist about it, you can just read and read until you’re convinced or you decide it’s not for you. They just prioritise the emotional pull first and then they deliver more and more of the functional stuff the more you watch or read.

Minute Cycles

Minute Cycles excited me, so much so that I actually pre-ordered #008. The bikes are really beautiful and small and light with little wheels and an unusual frame.

The method for selling the bikes is a brilliant idea and I really hope it catches on. I suppose they could easily have Kickstarted it but then they’d instantly be 10% down.

I don’t think this approach is for everyone but you could see it working for novel items where there’s significant capital outlay- unusual furniture, screen prints, artwork or very specific electronic devices.

The LEGO movie

The LEGO movie is really good, I went to see it on Saturday with Wilf (he loved it too). It’s funny and creative and reminds kids of the purpose of LEGO again. Of course, LEGO just wants to sell more LEGO. But it’s important because LEGO is a ‘system of play for children’ which, in recent years has actually become more of a ‘system for exploiting lucrative franchise opportunities’ (a la Star Wars and Harry Potter).

I love LEGO and I love the story of how they rescued their business from fuzzy thinking in the 90s by focusing on what LEGO really is– a system of play. And this movie is all about re-affirming that.

And yes it’s one long epic advert for that system, but like any advertising, if it’s good and the product is good, it’s good.

Where big thinking gets us

The ancient town of Dresden was razed to the ground in horrific fashion during the closing weeks of the second world war. It was witnessed by Kurt Vonnegut and described in vivid detail in Slaughterhouse 5. Prior to the firebombing by Allied forces, Dresden was so culturally significant that the United Nations declared a great chunk of it a UNESCO World Heritage Site – giving it the same ‘protection’ as the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal.

And after it was firebombed, over the following 50 years it was rebuilt- including the synagogue, the opera houses and the church that were destroyed.

Contrast this with Chinese ‘ghost cities’. These cities are the anti-Dresden.

The inhabitants of these cities haven’t been born yet. Chinese investors are playing the long game. But until the humans arrive, they are maintained by a skeleton staff of private police, cadres and caretakers who tidy up the confetti after the groups of bride and grooms who visit to have their pictures taken outside the British pub or the French Patisserie. Another example is the many abandoned amusement parks that are built but never visited, now only providing amusement to enthusiasts of pictures of abandoned places (porn).

So what’s a city without people? It’s just some drawings a few privileged individuals made and then some less privileged people were paid to build. Legacies of vanity. It’s happening right now in my own neighbourhoodOf course, it will be maintained there were ‘proper public consultation’. The planning notice was very clearly printed on A4 paper and glued to a lamppost nearby.

When a city evolves over a thousand years, it’s razed to the ground, it’s still a city. The city is the people.

Try to build a city in a couple of years and it’s desolate.

You see this pattern time and time again- systems built for big organisations like the NHS or the BBC. Gargantuan failures, without people, without usage, cast aside, ignored. Thousands, sometimes millions of hours of human endeavour expunged. Sure there are jobs created but what for? What’s the point of creating jobs without purpose?

That’s where big thinking gets us.


It’s self-assessment time again and I’ve never read so many people talking about tax.

After reading this I had a very brief sensation that even paying tax could almost be an enjoyable experience when it’s a big event that lots of people are involved in at the same time- a bit like the World Cup or Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure why HMRC don’t ever focus on making the payment of tax into a virtuous act where we’re all collaborating to boost the treasury to pay for education and hospitals.