My most recent bout of fan-stalking took me to London for the Thrilling Wonder Stories 2 symposium last month at the Architecture Association, where before interrogating the organisers Geoff and Liam, I managed to corner Matt Webb, Principal and CEO of BERG London.
Matt’s presentation formed part of the ‘Near Futures’ chapter of the day, jumping from definitions of design, power sockets that look like faces, two-dimensional tomatoes in space (seriously), and of course a dash of BERG’s own design projects. It was a fantastic and fascinating lecture, you can catch the video of a similar delivery from the Reboot conference earlier in the year.
Matt refers to BERG as a ‘product invention company’, a fairly modest description for a studio which often seems to be making nothing short of magic. They created a compelling vision of a tablet magazine before the iPad even existed; they turned the presumably dull calculation of the readable volume of a RFID card into a viral video; and exposed the league tables of Britain’s public schools with little smiling buildings.
Many of their ideas or projects are communicated in short films which have arguably become BERG’s trademark, being endlessly embedded and discussed all over the web. Mixing matter-of-fact descriptions and beautiful imagery with elegant production design, the films reveal the studio’s generous approach to sharing their ideas beyond the office.
My image from the outside is of a group of thinkers and tinkerers, playing with technology, reading widely, taking things apart, drinking lots of coffee, and putting them back together again, only better. To think of BERG as our contemporary Eameses (that’s not mine, somebody said it on the tweets, but I have no idea who), is a useful comparison,Â if not one that places unwieldy expectations on such a young studio.
Like the work of the Eameses for Polaroid for instance, where the explanation and narrative is indistinguishable from the product for sale, BERG’s commercial work feels like an experiment they want to share with us. Their Making Future Magic project even spawned an app released by their collaboratorsÂ Dentsu, so you too can wave words of light about at home, if that’s your thing, and judging by the Flickr group, it turns out to be quite a few people’s thing.
My attempt at a hovering love heart using theÂ Penki app for iPhone. Developed by BERG and Dentsu London.
But what really seems to separate them is their ability to transgress disciplinary boundaries. The projects above aren’t exclusively web, product, interaction design or software, but a fluid combination. To explore this idea of an emerging discipline or new model of the designer further, I started by asking Matt about his favoured definition of design by his partner Jack Schulz, which simply states that ‘Design is about cultural invention.’
Matt Webb: I don’t have a design background, so one of the things I’m curious about running this design studio is what is design anyway? To break it apart for myself I started keeping a list of every time somebody used ‘designer’ as their job role, and I got up to seven mutually incompatible descriptions. So I started looking for other definitions of what design could be. There’s communication, product invention, understanding the world, design fiction – all these are valid. But the one that best describes the thing that we do, is we attempt to invent things and create culture. It’s not just enough to invent something and see it once, you have to change the world around you, get underneath it, interfere with it somehow, because otherwise you’re just problem solving. And I wont say that design has an exclusive hold over this – you can invent things and change culture with art, music, business practices, ethnography, market research; all of these are valid too – design just happens to be the way we do it.
Olinda, one of the most product-y projects by BERG, a digital radio hooked up to social networks that subtly displays when and what your friends are listening to.
Rory Hyde: I like this model of the designer that doesn’t solve problems but that creates culture. Are you thinking about value when you are doing this, or are you more thinking about interestingness, or things that make you smile? Are you consciously out there trying to make products, or does that just happen by accident?
MW: I think the idea of products is really important. I have these things I look for in our work; one is hope, I think our things should be hopeful, and not just functional. Another is that it should be beautiful, inventive and mainstream. I think mainstream is important because otherwise you’re just affecting a few people. A product is a good gate because you start to ask ‘how is this going to be consumed by the market?’ We don’t have many ways of judging whether something is really good, and money is one of them. And that’s kind of what products do.
I will say something about why to invent as well. Because you could see our work as experimental, or science-fiction, or futuristic; but I would say – and others in the studio may not agree with me – that our design is essentially a political act. We design ‘normative’ products, normative being that you design for the world as it should be. Invention is always for the world as it should be, and not for the world you are in. By designing it, it’s a bit like the way the Earth attracts the moon, and the moon attracts the Earth just a tiny bit. Design these products and you’ll move the world just slightly in that direction.
Availabot, a small character plugged into your computer who stands up when a particular friend comes online, and falls over when they go – a more human indicator of being able to chat with a friend on Skype.
RH: It also feels as though you’re building on a long history, I mean, you talk about the practice being about the future, but a lot of slides you showed were of the history of design fiction – such as HAL from 2001, the film War Games, and the incredible speculative images of a suburban future in space as imagined by NASA in the 70s. What role does history play in the studio?
MW: I try not to make a distinction between things that are true and things that are fictional, because they all hang together in the same human brains. Anything whether it’s 2001, or the history of Levittown, or what’s on the market right now in the Argos catalogue is ripe for research. We’re mining the same fields. Some things are conscious probes, so 2001 is a conscious probe into what it would be like to have a world where we’re surrounded by artificial intelligence. Kubrick said that very specifically. War Games probably isn’t the same kind of intellectual probe, but it works all the same because it hangs together as a story, and that means it’s true, in a certain kind of way. I don’t like to make a distinction between these things as research.
The incredible Making Future Magic video by BERG and Dentsu London.
RH: Just to explore this Argos example further, in your presentation you said that ‘the future is happening right now under our noses, and it’s in the Argos catalogue’, which you also referred to as the ‘evolutionary soup’ of product development. In particular you focused on cheap toys which employed what you termed as ‘fractional AI’. What is fractional AI and how is it different to what we understand as regular artificial intelligence?
MW: The first thing I’ll say is that the idea of Chinese manufacturers as an evolutionary soup is an idea of Bruce Sterling’s from a short story. When you read the Argos catalogue, you get the feeling that things aren’t being designed deliberately, but they’re just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, and that is a system for natural selection.
About ‘fractional AI’, I reference two things there, one is artificial intelligence as it is seen in movies of the mid twentieth century; human scale or larger intelligences as seen in books by Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov for instance. But then there’s this idea which emerged in the early 1900s of fractional horsepower. Horsepower used to be the thing that we measured factories by, but fractional horsepower says that instead of motors that are as big as buildings, we could have motors that were as big as fists. So we could take the fruits of these factories, make them really really tiny, and put them in our homes. Fractional horsepower enabled genuine improvements in quality of life, through appliances like washing machines, refrigerators and hairdryers. And we had half a million fractional horsepower motors in the US by the 1920s, it was an incredible explosion that made domestic life better.
My belief is that we’re going to have the same explosion with artificial intelligence. And we wont see it as was depicted in films as controlling nuclear weapons (War Games), or controlling space ships (2001). Fractional AI means that the tiny things around us will be smarter. And the very first place you see this in a very tiny way is in children’s toys. It used to be that children played with Meccano or Lego, now they play The Sims. The Sims is a representation of a world in which everything is intelligent in really tiny ways, and we’ll be seeing more of that I think in conventional products. What does an intelligent car look like? It maybe only will be as intelligent as a puppy, so what does that mean?
RH: How much of the intelligence of an object or device do we bring to it ourselves? You also showed these photos of taps, power sockets or curtain rails which we read as faces, applying a personality at some deep emotional level toÂ random inanimate stuff in the world. It seems like this step to making things smarter or more human or more magical is a very small one.
MW: We’re already doing this, if you look at the fronts of cars, they look like faces. The arrangement of a bumper and two headlights can make a happy face, or a demanding face, or an exciting face, or an ‘I want to go faster’ face. We bring to these things our expectations of what faces mean, so yes, we bring a lot to it by our expectations. But it also points to the idea that there is a role for someone in the design of the personality, which is increasingly the behaviour of an object. So when we’re designing a computer game, or a car, or an appliance, do we want it to make us feel like we can get involved more? Or that we have to be humble to it? Or that we’re in a collaborative relationship? It used to be that we didn’t think about these things, but we’re going to have to think about how to design them soon. And I think that’s happening right now.
RH: As someone trained in architecture – a literally very ‘concrete’ and often serious disciplineÂ -Â this idea that we need to design the emotions seems kind of exciting, and potentially frivolous. But I also feel like it shouldn’t be. Is functionalism still far too dominant in how we approach design?
MW: We’ve experienced a shift in the last fifty years, in that the bleeding edge of technology used to be industry, so the objects we got in our homes were the off-cuts of industry; look at computers, or the mobile phone, or the internet; those came from industrial mainframes, or battlefield communications, or decentralised information systems. We’ve experienced a flip now, the technology we have starts on the desktop, in games consoles, or from texting your mates. That is the bleeding edge of technology, and it is leading the way. And it’s quite unsurprising that the world we were trained to be in -Â the industrial one – was one that’s a bit soulless, where you had to follow orders, be a cog in the machine. So maybe we’re not quite trained right for the things we’re being asked to design now, which start from the domestic sphere. Now that’s incredibly exciting, because we get to look at other disciplines for where we should learn our craft, and maybe that’s character animators, child psychologists, cartoonists, or architects of intimate domestic spaces instead of office buildings.
RH: Just to wrap up with one final question, we’re here in the Architectural Association, have you got any advice for young designers about to graduate into the big wide world?
MW: One of the things that impressed me when I discovered the web was the number of architects who work on it. And I started asking them why they were so well adapted to work on the web, in this brand new medium. I got lots of different answers, but one of the things that struck me was that architects reallyÂ understand how people -Â and specifically groups of people -Â respond to the structures and spaces around them and how they move through different spaces that have different expectations on them. We’re going to be in a world where there’s going to be brand new technology around us which responds to our expectations, and responds to our behaviour, which we will experience in groups. Architecture is fantastic training for that, so,Â know no boundaries.
A big thank you to Matt for his time.
Thrilling Wonder Stories 2 was held at the Architecture Association on Friday the 26th of November, 2010. If you missed it, a video archive of the presentations is available in four parts (1,Â 2,Â 3,Â 4) on the AA website. See also my interview with organisers Geoff Manaugh and Liam Young.Posted: December 20th, 2010
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