• Yearnotes, 2019

    24 January 2020

    Another year - the seventh full one of working for myself. Just enough distance from the 31st of December makes for a good time to review what I got up to in 2019, and match up some codenames to projects.

    Clients

    Client work is, as ever, the major focus of my work.

    I wrapped up my engagement with Captionhub at the beginning of the year. CaptionHub had been a highly successful project for me. I took the technology aspect of the project from a prototype to a fully-fledged product. The small team grew; the client built a technology capacity; I learned a great deal in the process. I finally had a chance to write this work up at length, and I’m glad I’ve done so.

    I spent much of 2019 working at Bulb as Lead Technologist inside their Labs department. I’d summarise Labs’ role as “product invention and business development”. That is to say: we did R&D around future products and the business units they might spawn. We then worked out what would be necessary to bring those to fruition, from both a business and customer perspective. My role was to understand, explain, and prototype technology, leading technology inside Labs, working with the designers in the unit, as well as other developers, and colleagues throughout the business.

    I learned a great deal about the nature of the power and energy industry, a little the specifics of high-voltage electricity, and a fair chunk about electric cars along the way! I greatly enjoyed everyone I worked with inside Labs - Alex, Claire, James, Jenna, Lachie, and Daphne - as well as colleagues throughout the organisation, many of whom went above and beyond to assist us with our projects and research. We also got to partner with some great people outside the business, and in particular, I enjoyed working on prototypes with Pam and Ling from Intellicharge; Bulb’s trial with Intellicharge kicked off in November, a little while after I left.

    My engagement at Bulb wrapped up around Week 322 of last year. My time there was codenamed Highrigg.

    Since then, client work has included work with After The Flood, IF, and the New Left Review.

    Teaching

    There’s been more teaching this year. With Hyper Island, I delivered the Digital Technologies module on their Digital Management MA for two cohorts: at the beginning of the year, in January, for the part-time cohort (who’d meet in London every month). This year, I also performed this role for the full-time students, in Manchester, in March.

    I also worked on three courses for the Institute of Coding that will launch on Futurelearn in January 2020. Targeting beginners, they are two-week introductions to programming, web development in HTML/CSS, and UX design. I’ll write about them more very shortly. These courses were codenamed Longridge.

    Products

    In the background, I continued to explore a few avenues around physical products.

    I continued to ship kits under the Foxfield label, although I’ve not introduced any more projects. Being honest, I find product support much harder than product development, and adding new products just adds new things to support. So I’m thinking hard about what to do there: how to simplify.

    The big product I worked on was 16n. This had been rolling in the background for a while in 2018; in January 2019, I decided to stop dawdling and release it to the world. 16n is a hardware-and-firmware product, sure - but it’s also an open-source product. I don’t actually make any. (Well, that’s not quite true: I have hand-built a few. But in general, I don’t make them). Instead, other people - hobbyists, small businesses - around the world have built their own - and, because of licensing, sold them to others.

    I’m happy with that trade-off. The thing is in the world; other people are enjoying it and making music with it. Every time I see a picture of one in somebody’s setup, I’m happy. Also, Richie Hawtin has one.

    I continued to support and provide firmware patches for 16n through the year. And now I’m thinking about what successors to it might be in 2020: I have a few ideas about how to improve the core experience of the product. How I get those to market remains to be seen.

    Still: without shipping very much beyond data, I shipped a thing.

    There were also perhaps a few too many prototypes behind the scenes, which fitted around work during downtime. Some of these were no-goes; a few stalled at around 90%, as I baulked at what it might take to push them over the top. Next yea,r a lesson has to be only working on things with a more defined goal, and a commitment to make them real. If it looks like it’s fun, but might not go anywhere… probably something to stop sooner. A lesson learned.

    And, of course, physical/electronic products are a small part of my practice. It’s often easy to chat about them in weeknotes when other, larger work is harder to talk about - and that doesn’t always present an accurate picture of my work’s balance. Again, something to think about next year.


    And that was 2019. 2020 begins by wrapping up a few pieces of client work. And then it’s time to look for new projects!

    As ever, do get in touch if you’re looking for someone to work with on the shape of projects - technology (particularly on the web), invention, R&D, prototyping and strategy, playful interaction, the boundary between digital and physical - that you read about here.

    Onwards!

  • 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.

    Projects

    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!

    Overall

    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.

  • 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.