• year[1]: how difficult was the Difficult Second Album?

    9 January 2015

    The second full year of independent work, which means it’s time for yearnotes again.

    I looked back at last year’s notes to see what I planned:

    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 think it roughly came off, though I’m definitely going to note that this year’s “what’s next“ column feels a bit same-y, so perhaps it’s worth looking into why.


    2014 was a decent year, work-wise: a variety of length and scope of projects, in a variety of different fields.

    There was a small amount of workshopping/design consultancy, particularly in the early part of the year, taking part in workshops with After the Flood, BBC R&D, and Caper (the latter in a innovation lab for the National Maritime Museum).

    I continued to do interesting work in and around the cultural sector. I helped Longplayer with its new website; helped a poet and theatre maker think about the digital aspect of a show; and started work on a project with the composer Richard Birkin.

    In the summer, I ran a three-day workshop in Newcastle for CreateInnovate with David Varela, teaching filmmakers about digital media, and continued to mentor one of the teams for the autumn and winter.

    The two largest projects I worked on were at the Guardian. Firstly, I continued work until around March on Contributoria, working with the team on getting it to launch. Since then, the project has really rocketed forward: lots of stories commissioned, and lots of great continual improvements to the software.

    Probably the project I’m proudest of this year is Swarmize, for which our tiny team got funding from the Knight News Challenge. Over five months, we built up a tight, useful platform for editors and journalists gathering data. Working on-site at the Guardian made gathering feedback from our target users really easy, and I think the tool got to a great 1.0. I’m hoping it’ll get continued use, and perhaps grow even further, in 2015.

    At the very end of the year, I worked on the V&A Spelunker with George Oates at Good, Form and Spectacle. We spent a few days exploring the V&A’s entire collection dataset, initially building just enough code to help explore it, and then beginning to tell stories about it through its facets and through visualisations. I always enjoy this sort of material exploration, and hope to do more of it next year.

    Finally, I built Columba, a prototype of a compass for hire-bikes in London, that integrates the data provided by the supplier of what docking stations are free into the bike itself. It was an exploration into what connected objects for shared use might be. I’d been thinking a bit and orbiting around “connected objects” (“the Internet of Things”) for a while. This felt like the next step in my ruminations around what connected objects beyond Expensive White Goods might be: I had a point I wanted to quite literally make. It turned out well: both as an initial experiment, as a tool for thinking with, and also a talking point. I might return to it – or at least some of the ideas within it – in 2015.

    Speaking and Events

    I spoke at a few conferences and events around the world this year. I used to insist on writing brand new talks for each engagement, but my professional life has changed: I don’t quite have time for that, but my work is also solidfying into patterns, making repetition a bit more relevant. There’s always new material for each audience, though, so over the course of the year, talks continued to develop: even if they had the same title, they had moved on each time.

    Broadly, there were 4 main talks:

    A Lamppost Is A Thing Too/Some of these Things are not like the others: this began at FutureEverything in Manchester, after which I built Columba explicitly to talk about within it. I then gave it at Solid in San Francisco this summer, before delivering probably the final revision of it at Web Directions South in Sydney. The whole talk is online, and I think it probably won’t get any more outings. This was probably the big piece of new writing this year.

    At Random String, I gave a new version of my “technology as a material” spiel, called Technology As An Artist’s Material. I should probably put that online at some point, even though it’s largely old content – there’s a nice anecdote about Richard Hamilton in it.

    Making the City Playable, in Bristol, saw an updated version of Driftwood.

    And, towards the end of the year, I gave the final version of an unpublished talk at the Mysociety Data Breakfast. Called Spreadsheets and Weathervanes, it’s some notes on designing data-driven visualisations and products.

    That’s easily enough talking for one year. Most of those talks are, I think, retired in their current form, and I think there’ll be a bit more cranking the handle of work before I’ll have new things to say. That’s often how it goes: I’m happier talking about work I’ve done, and it’s important to both do the work and keep the spoken matter fresh. So perhaps a quieter year on the talking front next year, which I’m fine with.

    Looking back, what have I noticed about 2014?

    Pleasingly, there were a few more longer projects: three-six months is a nice length, and I’m coming to appreciate the latter, especially if it’s ‘staged’ a bit to give space for other work.

    That said, between the longer projects, the small projects were a bit more scattered and spread out – and took longer for me to complete. Finding a way to keep the balance of big and small is going to be important in 2015.

    There was a bit more speaking – not quite intentionally – but that was tempered with an increase in ‘repeats’, kept relevant and fresh enough, but building on the same backbone. That was sensible from a time management perspective.

    Probably my greatest failing was still being dreadful at self-initiated projects: even if I booked time out in the calendar for them, they’d slip, either out of prioritising client work (that wasn’t necessarily in need of a rush job) or out of fear I wasn’t doing the right thing. I managed to start the Unity project I meant to begin 12 months ago, and Columba was a good example of how to merge a self-initiated project with professional requirements (building something to feature in a talk) but this is clearly a thing I still need to work on, as space to explore, tinker, and make things to my own brief is an important component of work. Learning smile!


    I still think 2014 was a good year: solid, settled, and diverse. I’m noting that my complaints/desires are echoes of last year, though, because it’s important to move forward, however gently, and I hope this year I can give my own practice the same space I give my clients, colleagues and collaborators.

    If this sort of work – software, technology, interaction design, and the seams between it – is what you’re looking for, I’m available for work in early 2015, and I’d love to hear from you.