• year[0]: The Year of Tinkering Dangerously

    24 December 2013

    Weeknotes are indexed from zero. So are yearnotes, then.

    Last year, I wrote yearnotes on my personal site. This year, it’s time to start them professionally, too. So even though these aren’t the first ever yearnotes I’ve written, they’re the first professional ones. So we’ll call this year[0].

    It’s actually 14 months since I started freelance life, and “write yearnotes“ has been in my to-do list since September. Now it’s the Christmas break, there’s time to clear my head and think about what those notes might be.

    How have things gone? Well, I think. I’ve certainly maintained the breadth of work I wanted to cover: from architecting and engineering reasonable-scale web/software projects, to more creative, esoteric one-off projects in more diverse materials. There’s been a nice balance of both, and I’m not sacrificing one for the other.

    There’s been a nice range of clients, too: large corporations, small companies, some grant-funded work, and some creative work with no client, like the RSC project and my collaboration with Jeff Noon.

    And it’s not just been engineering: there’s also been a healthy amount of pure interaction design consultancy, and some workshops.

    Three nice pillars for the year, then: design, engineering, invention.

    As well as a diverse range of clients and projects, there’s been a diverse range of materials to work in: some very familiar, some new. For instance, software languages I’ve worked in (by which I mean: worked for a client, for pay, in) this year were Ruby, PHP, HTML/CSS, Javascript/JQuery/D3, Coffeescript/Node, Java/Processing, C/Arduino. I think that’s it. And on top of digital materials, then also: the web, electronics, wood, plastic, paper, embedded electronics, telephony.

    It wasn’t all abstract ideas and prototypes; several projects were deployed and maintained at a decent scale; one installation held up to repeated public interactions throughout long viewings. Hello Lamp Post in particular was a great success: thousands of players over two months in the summer, a widely enjoyed project, and super-visible; a real honour to get the chance to create it.

    I spoke at a variety of conferences and events; most notably, Webdagene in Oslo, Wearable Futures in London, PlayArk in Cardiff, Improving Reality in Brighton. New material at all of them, along with demos or illustrations of new work at each; it’s always good to not be trotting out the same material each year. I mentored some course attendees at the Open Data Institute.

    And: shipped a lot of projects. I need to finish up the portfolio page on this site, but it’s been great to keep up weeknotes and remind myself on the quiet weeks – which are really always the busy weeks in the studio – that I’ve achieved a lot.

    Lots to like, then. And it all met one of my major goals when I started out: that the work had to be sustainable. By which I mean not just financially, but also mentally. Last January was a bit rocky, but by and large, it’s been sustainable in all the ways I hoped.

    There’s no great story about exponential growth here; there’s no remarkable start-up idea, no evidence of anything that resembles “growth hacking”. And it’s not always work that will change millions of lives; I was never going to be curing cancer. But: it is good craft, good work. There is value beyond flipping into millions of dollars of income. A lot of my work has made people smile, or think, or respond in their own work, and those are just as valuable actions to encourage as spending money. I’ve made some art, and I’ve made some functional work, and I’ve done a lot of imbuing one with the spirit of the other. I think that will continue: why can’t we have good commercial projects that are charming, delightful, and thought-provoking? Why can’t we have creative work that really follows through on its haeccity, on not just being a vague notion but a working artefact? Questions to keep thinking about in 2014.

    What did I find hard? As I expected, managing risk. I’m not a risk-taker, and so found fallow periods expectedly frightening – and sometimes rushed into decisions through fear of having downtime. In fact, what this usually meant was that space for my own projects was always pushed away. Next year, I’m going to calendar in personal projects more aggressively, and give myself the respect I give a client. I note looking at last year’s notes the number of personal projects – but also remind myself that many things I took on this year overlap into that territory. Work is now this sort of thing too, so I shouldn’t feel disappointed. Also, I still have a few other things to write up – including ghostme, a project I’ve spoken about but not properly described online. I’ll try to rectify that soon.

    What did I learn? The sort of scale of things I like – I tended to be very cautious and not want to commit to things that were too long, but I would always inevitably find that once I was into a project, it never felt long enough. I’m still not one for big contracts, but am learning that three months (rather than two) is a nice “decent length”, and one month is never as long as you think.

    I learned that risk is not just financial; there’s also risk within projects, that needs to be managed – not just the risk of the components of the project, but also of it affecting other work (which I of course have to bear myself).

    I learned how to trust my gut – what to pay attention to, what to ignore. I am beginning to learn how to feel confident about the things I’m actually good at – I understand what experience really feels like, and I need to remember not to be too shy with that.

    And I learned how much I like being busy, and being productive. Whilst freelance life can be hard, some of my happiest days were the ones where I had my head down, comms management offloaded to one side, and spent a day thinking and making (the two are usually the same): hunched over a soldering iron or neck-deep in Javascript. They were often tough days, but the fiero at the end of them was huge, and it was worth clearing the decks for them. Being more in control of meetings – fewer, more productive ones – has been good for me.

    Tips I’d pass on to other people, based on my experiences: primarily business ones. Calendar in your own personal projects or you’ll never do them. Sales on a Beermat is a useful reference guide to something you might not have done before; if you take anything away from it, it’s the way it sets up a Pipeline. My Pipeline hasn’t been touched for a while – it’s been static for a bit – but it was great early on to have visibility on what might happen. I learned everything I needed to know about accounting – well, almost everything – through Freeagent. I filled in a lot of blanks, it taught me how self-assessment worked, saved me a bit of money, and was great for tracking time, invoices, expenses, and estimates. One of the few pieces of software I still evangelise about. I also got a real accountant, who, whilst they didn’t have much to do (thankfully) still saved me roughly what they cost, and is now a contact to have. Get an accountant, no matter how little they do for you or how little you spend on them.

    And keep weeknotes. Yes, they’re a bit of a pain to write, and I never know when to do them – Friday night? Monday morning? It usually happens on Sunday night, for reference. Their value is not in the week-to-week: it’s in seeing the big picture a few months later, understanding the patterns of your work. I’ll keep this practice up.

    What’s in line for next year?

    More. More design, more engineering, more invention. I’ve got a few small projects ticking away, and some consultancy on the horizon. I’m taking a holiday in January. I’ve got a bit more mentoring at the ODI, and am continuing to think about more ways to teach, because it’s a subject important to my heart, and it’s something I like to see done well – and a thing I love doing. I’ve got a few interesting pitches and proposals that I’m waiting to hear more about, and which I’ll be able to talk more about in the New Year if they come off. I’m going to calendar in time for self-initiated projects – some web-based stuff, some games, I think. I’m going to continue to be available for work, and if any of the above – software, connected objects, interaction design – feels like a fit, do get in touch.

    Year[0] has been very good to me. Here’s to Year1.