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Living and working in bubbles

Oblique Strategies and thinking outside the bubble

I was watching Tim Cook and his team roll out the Apple updates last week and was struck by a few thoughts. Bubble was my first thought. Technology companies beget technology writers and Wired did a good job of live blogging, but hey, it’s Wired. And then Cook told of the number of iPads sold – 170 million sold – not merely shipped like some other companies measure “sales.” Sales of mobile devices are not slowing and within societies that are completely comfortable with personal technology, demand will remain strong.

That spurred a thought about the agency world. In the current advertising world agency can mean brand shop, design shop or development shop and also a mix of all of the above. We produce our work on desktop and laptop computers for the most part. We test our designs and digital products on iPads and the plethora of mobile devices in the world, but we still build on big machines.

There are obvious reasons for this. Today’s desktop and laptop computers are pure state-of-the-art machines that (mostly) deliver what their designers and engineers promise. Yet that tech-savvy society I mention is moving rapidly to small devices. People who work in creative agencies use those devices too. That’s a tell.

I’m not saying desktop computers are becoming obsolete or that we should not use them, although I do sense that we are moving towards post-web when we consider consumer/user-facing digital products. Building digital “things” on iPhones and iPads is not exactly easy, (I won’t say impossible because there are some useful creative Apps available and everything can be hacked,) but a lot depends on what the design requirement is. Another approach might be to say that designing within limits might help design solve problems in a different way.

Much of the above had already been sparked by me ruminating on last month’s XOXO Festival, re-reading Frank Chimero’s wonderful write up of his experience there, and serendipitously catching a re-tweet fromStephen Landau that linked to a post by John Lax of Teehan + Lax – 11 Years of Teehan + Lax.

I love what John Lax has written and I want to see more of it. His post is as soul-searching as Frank Chimero’s essay. It is an open book, a wonderfully transparent appraisal for us all to digest. A non-hyperbolic parable.

Lax begins by considering whether “digital” describes correctly the space he works in. He then looks back to a party he attended noticing at the time that the majority of attendees all worked in advertising and marketing. He later realized “…my entire generation had grown up to go into professions focused around selling things to other people.” And then he considers what Made By Many has called “Digital landfill” and asks, are Teehan + Lax making work that adds value to the world? Is it sustainable?

Lax decided to steer the company into one that made things that people actually want and enjoy using. That journey began with their new website. They soon discovered that clients didn’t understand what they did, but then came Medium and soon afterwards they launched Hyperlapse, a free tool that creates Google street view hyper-lapse animations. They made something that people could use, and use it they did.

And then came business struggles which all companies run into eventually. Everything is cyclical. In this case Lax notes that “…it is possible at our current scale to experience a fatal event.” You should read the post. What Lax has written, and Frank Chimero too, reminds us that we can use those big machines to make something of value to society that runs on small devices. As Tim Cook said after introducing the new iPads “When you make a great product, this is how you know it: People use it.”

What about that party though? We all must have experienced that at some point in our careers? We live and work in bubbles if we don’t take care to remind ourselves that there is a very large world beyond our cohort. I have friends who are authors, film and music critics, photographers, bloggers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, professors – the list is long. Outside the office I mix with them. Many of them have no idea what I do. If I say I work in advertising that covers it, blithely. I hardly ever go deep in describing what a digital strategist does. One answer to this is to step outside the confines of one’s working world. We can’t all be Thoreau but we can in small ways take note of our daily lives and surroundings better. John Lax is apparently being aware.

We could also use different tools; Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards might be useful. I have a set and two days ago while writing this post I randomly picked out five cards. This is what was printed on them:

State the problem in words as clearly as possible

Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency

Abandon normal instruments

Bridges: Build - burn

Discard an axiom

So, who will you invite to your next party?


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