All posts tagged How-to

Competencies How to: brief a photographer

Talking to students recently I was asked "what do you really do?" A lot of the work is setting conditions and context so that people can do their thing. Most often this means getting contracts right so that collaborations can set off without friction. Briefings are also of critical importance.

Another big part of what our team does is give expression to things that are otherwise invisible. We do this so that these unseen aspects can become part of our conscious decision-making, and so we can tell stories that help others broaden their decision-making.

Showing our work is not always easy, or at least not in a way that makes it interesting. What we do usually invovles people sitting in a room talking. Sometimes they stand up.  Occasionally they scribble things on a whiteboard. So how do you show this in a compelling way—in a way that someone who wasn't there might actually want to pay attention to, and might actually glean something from?

In the spirit of legible practice below you will find the briefing that we sent to the photographer before HDL 2012. To see the outcomes of this brief interpeted by Johannes Romppanen a skillful photographer, you can check our gallery on Flickr or check here.

All shot suggestions are indicative rather than directives. In other words, they are to convey a sense of the 'story' we want to tell with the images, and I leave it up to you to stick to these suggestions where it makes sense, and contradict when you have a better idea.


THURSDAY 11th @ Helsinki Contemporary Gallery / Bulevardi 10

Best if you can come at the end of dinner, so that we can give people a head's up. Also good for them to get to know each other before being photographed.

We will begin dinner around 19:30-20:00. I propose that I text you when we are finishing mains and then you can come over.

1. GALLERY SEEN FROM AFAR. Perhaps from inside the park. A dark frame with a bright gallery in the middle, small but obviously alive.

2. PEOPLE! AT DINNER! Not sure how to do this, but maybe easiest if we actually get everyone to toast or something.

3. AFTERMATH. Either literally after everyone has left and the table is still set up with napkins on the floor and tipped over glasses and whatever, or perhaps when people are still around but done eating. Messier the better.


FRIDAY 12th @ Pajasali Suomenlinna

1. WALKING THROUGH KAUPPATORI. Our guests amidst the hustle and bustle, either as a string of people walking together, or as individuals. As if you were spying.

2. BOAT: People getting on, sitting and talking. A shot looking back towards city center, with people in foreground if they're out there, otherwise part of the boat in the frame so it's clear that you're not on an island, but actively in transit. Akin to:

3. SETTING. Some shots that establish the scene, the location, which may or may not have people in them. The entry to Pajasali is a small door on a massive facade, so it's nice to see small people in contrast to the structure. Possibly shots of the meeting happening, but seem from the outside, through the glass.

4. EVENT: Probably best if you sit for a while without taking any photos to let people get used to you being there. But use your judgement. No special directives here, but some shots of people discussing.

5. RING OF CHAIRS. We will have the chairs in a circle. Try to get a shot with the whole ring visible. Otherwise, please grab a series of shots that we can stitch together (I can do it so you're not bothered). This is a theme from last time:

6. PEOPLE STEALING A MOMENT AWAY: as individuals, pairs, or small groups, people will inevitably sneak away from the main part of the group to discuss something, have a phone call, etc. These are nice moment because they show a bit of humanity. The event is not consuming them. Example:

7. PROGRAMME BOOKLET: A shot of the book (ideally cover visible) in someone's hand, or just sitting somewhere. But an image of the book. Example:

8. FOOD: food is very important to us because it's a natural opportunity to talk to new people, or change the conversation. So somehow to show that while people are eating, or grabbing food, they are also still "working".


In 1968 Sitra had a design event on Suomenlinna, so this is a bit of a homecoming. Here are the photos from that. They're pretty amazing.

Photos from a previous event that we like:

And something random but nice:

In the grand scheme of our work, photography briefings are not among the most critical things that we do. But given that this was sitting in my email and it might be of use to someone somewhere I figured, why not, let's see what the internet finds to do with this.


Competencies How to: Legible Practice

During the past week or so we've been hosted visitors from three continents who are curious about strategic design at Sitra. In each of these discussions we've touched on something that we call "legible practice". I first used the term on this blog less than a year ago, but it worked its way into our daily vocabulary somewhat before that. We use it as a way to split hairs with all the hype around "openness". Open data, open innovation, etc.

At risk of sounding arch, "legibility" has become a core notion of how we think about innovation, or perhaps more specifically public innovation, and this post is an attempt to define the term and describe its value. Very simply, doing things in the open is not the best way to help them grow. To encourage scale, we must do work in ways that are inviting, easily read, and digestible.

Let's hop back to 1994.

The world wide web used to be a very different place. Much of what's available on this website was not possible twenty-some years ago. Few people knew how to make websites in 1994, and there were certainly no schools graduating students who were versed in the subject. Most people learned like I did, from a friend who taught them the basics of HTML and showed them the most important command in the history of the internet: view source.

"View Source" is a command that lets you see the code that makes a webpage work. This is unique to the web—your word processor, for instance, does not allow you to see the source code that makes it tick. That's proprietary code (unless it's open source).

Left: our website. Right: a portion of the code you will see if you view source. I've highlighted a bit of text in both so you can see how one connects to the other.
Left: our website. Right: a portion of the code you will see if you view source. I've highlighted a bit of text in both so you can see how one connects to the other.

But the ability to see the web page and the code that manifests it has been built into web browsers since the early days, and liberal use of the command is an invaluable tool for self-learning. HTML is a simple language, so as long as one can access the source code they can usually 'read' it without too much pain. I don't know why someone decided to add "view source" as a feature of the web browser, but it facilitated the spread of knowledge about how to make web pages. Here we unearth the imperative for legible practice.

Not only was the web new and rapidly evolving, but since there was not an in-built stock of Web Experts the group of people who happened to find themselves as members of a community building the web—and simultaneously learning how to build it—were all coming from different backgrounds. A lot of them were computer scientists, but there were also bored architects, distracted social scientists, news junkies, eager business students, and probably more than a few video gamers. The sheer diversity of the community meant that tropes and models from any particular tradition of knowledge could not be relied upon. Tutorials and other learning resources tended towards a more general audience because the community itself was more general in composition. The knowledge base and the community were in flux.

Innovation is in a similar moment of rapid development. The View-source paradigm implies that the more a developing practice enables and supports self-learning, the quicker it can grow and spread despite having a diverse composition. If you want something to go viral, you have to think about how it spreads. Practices tend to be a fair bit more dry than your average animated gif meme, so those of us who are invested in spreading a way of working have to think extra carefully about how they spread. We try to bring this concern into the core of our work.

As a public institution we enjoy the ability to do just about everything in the open, free for others to pick up and build upon. This comes in small gestures, like making our publications available under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license, but openness is not enough. As we aspire to maintain a legible practice, we're in the habit of not just sharing our work, but sharing how and why we do things in a particular way.

To invoke a bit of an infinite loop, this post is an example of what I'm describing, as are the rest of the how-tos. And we're not alone. Friends at Government Digital Services in the UK are conducting their own legible practice, and we would be happy to have other examples posted as comments below.

Other examples include our book In Studio, which features documentation of three studios we hosted side-by-side with a thorough how-to; full documentation of the Low2No competition including brief, process, and outcomes; and the Brickstarter project blog, where we're documenting every aspect of the project's development.

In each instance we are attempting to take a step back from the work itself and describe how we approached the problem as well as the methods, tools, or techniques we used to address it. We do this as an invitation to engage in a discussion about the work and its practices. In an ideal world, everything we produce would come with a "view source" regardless of medium.

The reason that we invest time in sharing in a legible way is twofold. Primarily, we feel that it's important to reflect upon the practices that we're developing, especially at a moment like this where knowledge is productively fluid. Doing so helps us hone our skills. It makes us smarter. Second, making our work legible enhances the likelihood that it will be copied.

An innovation fund is only as useful as it's innovations are influential. And what better way to be influential than to be as easy to copy and build upon as possible? Besides, when we see someone pick up a bit of our work and use it in their own way, we benefit by having our thinking reflected back to us in new ways. When describing practices, that reflecting-back is exactly what scale looks like.


HDL Studios Building In-House Commitment

Posts tagged with "How-To" contain reflections on designing, organizing, and operating the HDL Studios. This post was originally drafted as part of our In Studio book but was cut and has been lingering in draft mode ever since. As we're now spending more helping other public sector organizations boot up internal design capabilities the topic became relevant again. So here we go!

In a previous post we talked about Transferring Knowledge with regards to stakeholders who are outside of your organization. In this post I'd like to talk about the flip side of that: how knowledge is transferred internally. Or maybe it's more basic. How does one build commitment within their own organization?

A bit of explanation is due. Strategic design was a new thing at Sitra when we began preparing for HDL 2010. In fact, before Marco came to Sitra as the Director of Strategic Design the position didn't exist. For us the stakes of the studio were double—they had to serve a need for the external stakeholders while also helping to demonstrate to our colleagues here at Sitra what design is, what it looks like, and what benefits a design process can yield. The worst thing that could happen was that we end up as an 'internal service bureau,' offering turnkey services to disinterested 'clients.'

In fleshing out this aspect of the Studios we took a slightly oddball approach and sought to build internal partnerships that would yield financial (€€€), social (networks), and human capital (know-how). In other words, we thought of ourselves as a startup looking for seed funding within the broader umbrella of Sitra.

Financial capital

Money is always useful when beginning a project, but the motivations for seeking internal 'investment' go a bit deeper—after all, this is a question of moving money around internal accounting buckets, so it's mostly an imagined barrier. Money may be a flawed symbol of commitment, but it's a convenient one.

The reason we asked that our partners in the Public Leadership and Management Programme and the Energy Programmes to contribute to HDL studio budget was to make our shared commitment more tangible in the early phases of the project, when design was still mostly a magical black box for most of Sitra. It was a leap of faith that we're very thankful for!

Formalizing the partnership by re-allocating funds served as a reminder of the shared vision that we were developing. In a public organization like Sitra the accounting system is robust, requiring diligent structuring and sign offs, so we turned this into an asset by using the 'gatekeeping' nature of the accounting system as a way to regularly revisit our shared commitment both verbally and in writing.

Social Capital

With a bit of skin in the game, our internal partners also had increased incentive to be personally invested in the Studios. The first evidence of this deeper level of interest came through the sharing of networks. For each of the studios we conducted extensive research to create the challenge briefing, organized a day of field trips for the studio members, and brought a handful of guest speakers. This amounted to a significant network-building effort, especially considering that our knowledge and connections in the areas of education and ageing were limited at the outset.

We were obsessive about quality because the studio was limited to a one week on-the-ground window of opportunity, there wasn't a single minute to waste. In practical terms this translated to thorough vetting of all speakers and guests under consideration for the Studios. Our internal partnerships were instrumental in helping build long lists of possible studio members and guests, as well as making personal introductions and helping start those relationships off on the right foot.

In return, the promise that we made was to help the programmes develop their own networks. Since we were out in the field talking to people on a more or less daily basis, it was easy for Marco and I to keep in mind the needs of the programmes and make connections where they seemed valuable.

Looking back over the invite lists for each of the studios, it's clear that each of them is the result of a deep meshing of the various personal and professional networks within Sitra—and richer because of it. By using the broader networks as the basis for our recruiting we were able to introduce productive overlaps between studio members, guests, and others involved which would not have been possible with our own HDL network alone.

Human capital

Having the partner programmes on board with the Studios added resilience during crunch points when we had acute needs for extra help. For instance, being able to get an extra pair of eyeballs to review the challenge briefings at various stages of their creation was very helpful. This also served as an opportunity for our partners to be personally involved in the process, seeing for themselves how key parts of the design process are developed and fine tuned, and hopefully to take some of that experience back to their own teams. There's a delicate balance to be struck between asking too little of your partners and overwhelming them with requests. At the moment we don't have any grand insights into what that point is, other than to say you'll see it on the face of your coworkers when you're about to topple the balance!

Being Realistic

Given that there was no precedent for design within the organization, the level of support and trust that has been afforded to HDL within Sitra is remarkable. Starting from scratch, we knew that the Studios would be a good opportunity to help our leadership see for themselves what strategic design is all about, but we also knew that we had to be realistic about how much of their time we could hog. Everyone has packed schedules, and for top leadership that's doubly so.

For many reasons we are averse to memos and reports. Particularly when dealing with a topic such as strategic design, which can be quite abstract, we knew from the start that it's more productive to have conversations than put things immediately into writing. As much as possible we tried to create opportunities for in-house leadership to visit with Studio, to see it for themselves, and to hear from the Studio members what the experience was like.

On the other hand, we also had to be realistic. What's the minimal involvement that would be useful? Two or three brief visits each from a couple key individuals over the course of the entire Studio experience was effective in generating a deeper level of in-house understanding. As much as possible, we encouraged these visits to occur during active times (like the final jury discussions) to maximize their impact.

Making (and taking) Time

Having built strategic design at Sitra and the HDL Studios with a combination of financial, social, and human capital on a hunch that all three would be needed, this combo only becomes more critical the longer we work on these issues. As Sitra has now been practicing strategic design for coming on four years, the deep importance of strong partnerships—internal and external—can only be underscored.

Perhaps the reason for this is quite simple: partnerships take time. The longer we spent working with our internal partners the more we see saw strategic design taking root within Sitra. Patience and persistence might be the most important kinds of capital we have.


Competencies Helsinki Street Eats (and hacking Lulu)

This post is part Low2No project update and part design how-to delving into simple customization of the Print On Demand books as a format. First, the update. Low2No is about creating pathways for our current, high carbon economy and culture to transition to a neutral carbon footprint. An important aspect of that is what and how we eat.

Especially for a place with the northern climate and high meat & dairy consumption habits of Finland, food production and consumption are key concerns when you're interested in carbon.

Helsinki Street Eats, a new book about street food as a vehicle for innovation
Helsinki Street Eats, a new book about street food as a vehicle for innovation

We've been looking at street eats as an example of "everyday food", the stuff that's close at hand such as late night snacks, kiosks, bakeries, food trucks, and the like. In fact, let's take a slightly modified excerpt from the Low2No site:

Street food describes systems of everyday life. In its sheer everydayness we discover attitudes to public space, cultural diversity, health, regulation and governance, our habits and rituals, logistics and waste, and more. What we find most interesting is the intersection of all of these aspects: how they come to a balance and tenor that enables and encourages specific kind of outcomes in a specific place and time.

Street food can be an integral part of our public life, our civic spaces, our streets, our neighbourhoods. Street food can help us articulate our own culture, as well as enriching it by absorbing diverse influences. And it can enable innovation at an accelerated pace by offering a lower-risk environment for experimentation.

Street food can do all of these things, but it doesn't necessarily.

This book is an attempt to unpack what's working and what isn't in Helsinki, and sketch out some trajectories as to where it could go next. 

The full 98 page book is available for download, and you will also find links on that page to buy a printed copy from, a print-on-demand publishing service.

Readers of this blog may already know that we're a bit obsessed with formats. We are given to nerding out on the minutiae of publishing online and in print, which is probably no surprise since as a team we have direct experience in producing magazines, newspapers, books, radio, websites, buildings, and various other media. (Aside: this makes us an unusual public sector team, to say the least.)

It's nice to go all-in on a book and obsess over every tiny detail from writing to printing, as we did the In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change. With this most recent publication on Street Food we were interested in exploring a format that would be more ephemeral. One that could change and evolve as our work on the topic does; a paper document that could have different version numbers; and one that felt easier and more casual. We also wanted to self-service distribution model.

Print-on-demand seemed to fit the bill, offering flexibility along most of those axes, but print-on-demand books tend to be… dull. The easiness of the format shines through. How could a print-on-demand book be a bit more special—could we find some relish to serve it up with?

People have been hacking print-on-demand to do some interesting stuff, but it seems to be all on the software side. We wanted to hack the print in print-on-demand. Lulu hacking.

Surprisingly, there still does not seem to be an option that surpasses Lulu. I say surprisingly because the Lulu experience is quite terrible. Their tools are limited and the workflow is awkward. As one small example, you can set the country of publication only after you've published a book. According to Lulu all published books apparently come from the United States, at least at first. Blurb is another popular print-on-demand service and their quality is higher, but their document sizes are limited and it's mostly for photo books.

Over the past months Dan and I sketched lots of (sometimes ridiculous) ideas, including at one point the thought of laser cutting Lulu books into new shapes. Stepping back from that precipice, we've settled on a basic combination: a full-color 98 page print-on-demand book paired with an offset print fold-out poster, all bound together with a rubber band.

The books come straight from Lulu and the rubber bands can be found at any office supply shop and countless online sources so that only leaves the poster for us to source through a traditional print house.

Usually the spine of a print-on-demand book is a sore point because the alignment can be unpredictable. The rubber band nicely obscures alignment errors.
Usually the spine of a print-on-demand book is a sore point because the alignment can be unpredictable. The rubber band nicely obscures alignment errors.

The poster is designed to fold down into A5 format so that it fits neatly within the book. Right now we're waiting for the actual posters to come back from the print house, but they will be printed on 60gsm paper which means they're a good 25% thinner than standard printer paper, making them easier to fold up.

Various paper prototypes using the office printer and tape to craft posters and an old Lulu book as a stand-in.
Various paper prototypes using the office printer and tape to craft posters and an old Lulu book as a stand-in.

The binding pushes the poster out a few millimeters which creates a natural 'tab'. We discovered this on accident while making a prototype, but it was a nice discovery since we wanted to have a quick way to thumb to the Finnish language summary.

When we give out copies of the book they'll come with the poster and rubber band, but if you order a copy online or download the PDF you'll find the contents of the poster included as normal pages.

Because print-on-demand does not have any setup costs or minimum print runs, we can also offer the same book in multiple flavors. As we started working on the cover it was hard to settle on a single image, so we decided to let the user decide. There are four copies of the book available for download/print. All of the contents are the same, but you get to pick your own cover. My favorite features a scene of Kauppatori from 1901. What's yours?

Clockwise from top left: Ravintolapäivä August 21, 2011; 'The Great Saturday Market' at Kauppatori in 1901; Jaskan Grilli in August, 2011; Outside Stockmann in 1959.
Clockwise from top left: Ravintolapäivä August 21, 2011; 'The Great Saturday Market' at Kauppatori in 1901; Jaskan Grilli in August, 2011; Outside Stockmann in 1959.

Although the writing and research for this project has been on slow burn for about nine months now, the production of the book was pretty quick. Dan and I did all of the work in house, tossing files back and forth with occasional but insightful comments from Marco and Justin. One of the positive side effects of taking longer than expected to deliver this project was the opportunity to shoot extra photos around town, so it's richly illustrated.

The larger team included Ville and Nuppu of WeVolve on interviews and research; an investigation into the supply chain and geography of a typical hodari (hotdog) by Aalto University student Tea Tonnov; photography by the indefatigable Kaarle Hurtig; and tips and ciritique from too many people to mention.

Hope you enjoy! Hyvää ruokaa!


Weeknotes Week 156

That pile of snow from last week? Still there. And not only that, it's snowing as I type, so the thing is growing.

Dan remarked the other day that during this time of year it feels like everyone is booting up new projects. Could the surge be detected in the number of domain name registrations? We've booked one this week, with another to come once we settle on a name for it. Buying a domain name is a good inflection point. It means the project has solidified enough to be developed in public.

They come and they go. The domain name for a quick project from a couple years ago will be expiring soon, so we've moved it to this website for posterity. The permanent home for our Clues to Open Helsinki is now in the HDL dossiers. The grunt work of moving the project from one website to another was a nice opportunity to revisit the work and be reminded of the extent to which many of our current interests were there in nascent form. Food? Check. Community decision making? Yup. Design exchange? Sure enough!

Photo: Hertta Kiiski
Photo: Hertta Kiiski

During the last couple months we have been slowly building up two projects about food and community decision making, and this week they took the leap from more or less fuzzy interest areas to specific proposals. We forced ourselves to sit down and draft a one page description for each project.

Despite the awkward term—and please let us know if you have something better—we like one pagers around here because they are a simple way to bring a level of rigor in one's thinking: big ideas, small page. Here's how we do it. 

Working simultaneously in Google Docs or huddled around a Word document on a laptop, we take turns drafting sentences, phrases, and fragments. At an early stage the one pager is mostly about why and what, and the whohow, and when to be covered by a cursory sentence. Or left out for the moment.

It's hard to resist the urge to drop the document into InDesign and start fiddling with layouts and font sizes to make room for more words on the page, but point of writing the one pager is to work within rigid boundaries and take advantage of the fact that the format forces you to make tough decisions. To really test yourself, try using a bullet list or two. If you're as allergic to corporate speak as I am, this will be a true test of your mettle.

But bullet points were invented for a reason: done right, they should be distilled versions of your main points. In our case, it's also part of writing to our audience. The kind of people who we need to read our one pagers tend to be used to, even expect to see, bullet points in the documents that glide across their desk. Dan calls this method designing, which is a tactic that all of us on the team practice innately.

By the end of HDL Global 2010 we had drafted something like 39 different versions of the one page description that went out to everyone from invitees to press people. Those all grew out of a single document, so the process left us with a family tree of explanation.

With luck, the two single page documents that we drafted this week will grow similar trees as they develop. Here's the first couple paragraphs of the current draft of our document for 'Brickstarter', a project about community decision making:

Brickstarter is a 21st century social service. It enables everyday people, using everyday technology and culture, to articulate and progress sustainable ideas about their community. Brickstarter is a platform to turn possibilities into proposals into projects.

The interface between citizens and institutions can be slow, awkward and cumbersome. For years, this was just the way things were. Yet the tools and media that people now use to orchestrate their everyday lives rapidly outstrip those used by most municipalities, ministries, and other institutions. 

Brickstarter takes advantage of social media and mobile apps in order to address this disconnect, by developing a more articulate, more responsive, and more representative platform for citizens and institutions to work together.

What's missing here is an articulation of how Brickstarter connects community matters to dark matter but, you see, that's in a bullet list further down the page.

Never trust a website to design your book cover
Never trust a website to design your book cover

Yes, the food booklet is still coming. In fact, that should be available for download by tomorrow. The Print on Demand Service tried to design a cover for us, but we've decided to go a different direction.

The good part of friday was spent in Kalasatama in a workshop about food entrepreurship. The session culminated in three, at at times four, people around a laptop drafting the one page description of the project that we spent the day sketching out. It's trending in the right direction and now we need to work quickly to ensure that we can meet an ambitious timeline.

Sitra has been active on food topics for a while now, most recently by supporting the development of the wholesale market with an eye towards local and organic products. That was work on the 'platform', and our upcoming efforts will be building an 'application' to take advantage of that platform.

The centerpiece of the wholesale market is Kellohalli, an old butchery facility that is named for the clock on its facade. In a few months this space will be cleaned up and open to the public.
The centerpiece of the wholesale market is Kellohalli, an old butchery facility that is named for the clock on its facade. In a few months this space will be cleaned up and open to the public.

To close, an interview with Jonathan Ive in the London Evening Standard. He describes himself as "interested in being wrong." I think I like those words more than the things he and his team produce. The interview is full of good stuff, including this: 

We struggle with the right words to describe the design process at  Apple, but it is very much about designing and prototyping and making. When you separate those, I think the final result suffers. If something is going to be better, it is new, and if it’s new you are confronting problems and challenges you don’t have references for. To solve and address those requires a remarkable focus. There’s a sense of being inquisitive and optimistic, and you don’t see those in combination very often.


Weeknotes Week 113

With the sun glinting off the Baltic and a cloudless sky stretching to the horizon, this weeknote commemorates the beginning of summer in Helsinki. Amazing.

As much as the weather may entice us to spend the afternoons biking around town in search of the perfect corner of park, we've been busy... as we usually are just before summer.

Busy day in the harbor between Hernesaari and Jätkäsaari.
Busy day in the harbor between Hernesaari and Jätkäsaari.

Chrtistian Bason and his team from MindLab stopped by for a visit and a chat about the realities of practicing design within public sector organizations. We've been inspired by MindLab's excellent work in service design for the Ministries of Economic and Business Affairs, Taxation and Employment in Denmark. They're one of the true success stories of public sector design and as we continue our work in Finland we are looking at how to learn from MindLab while folding strategic and systemic opportunities into the mix.

We've also been reviewing and de-briefing after a very busy week with the three concurrent studios that Dan mentioned in his last post. As always, the studios were a great learning experience for us too—as the participants push and pull the boundaries of the studio 'model' we learn where the critical points are.

Riku Siivonen, a journalist who has been working with Sitra on the Synergize Finland programme, prepared a video of the week embedded below. It's in Finnish, but even if you can't understand the words you can get the gist of how things went.

At about 5:25 into the video you will find the beginning of day 5, which is the 'final review' of the studio work. One thing is conspicuously absent as the studio teams present their work: any kind of digital screen or projection.

As we sparred with the teams throughout the week we pushed them to visualize their ideas with the tools at hand. Especially as we all began to think about the final presentation from a goal oriented point of view: the idea is to conclude the studio with a conversation about the systemic understanding of the problem and a collection of action areas that the studio teams have identified as important opportunities.

It's difficult to have a strong conversation about a system when it's presented in a linear presentation (such as Powerpoint slides). What often happens is that the last thing on the screen gets a disproportionate amount of focus or there's an awkward shuffle back and forth through the slides as conversation moves from topic to topic in a nonlinear fashion. For this reason we pushed each of the teams to think about the strategic objective of the conversation and to use the walls around them—aided by giant prints—to create an environment for rich conversation that would help foster and develop their ideas.

Having the contents of the presentation on the wall enables the invited guests and the entire audience to walk themselves back through the whole collection of ideas and important points in their own order and at their own pace. Ultimately this helps the final review be more of a conversation and less of a presentation followed by response.

With encouragement (and a tiny bit of arm-twisting) each of the three teams to relied on the strength of their presentations and their public speaking skills to begin the conversation without the aid of a digital screen. This worked great and no one seemed to complain that they were without the PPT-prosthesis!

All in all it was a great week.

If I had a time machine and I could change one thing I would hop back to the beginning of last week and remove all of the post-it notes from the studio space (you'll see tons in the video). The reason for this is simple: post-it notes trick people into being lazy.

Let me explain. The way that post-it notes are commonly used in workshop settings is to capture an idea on a portable piece of paper. This paper can then be moved around at will and eventually accumulated on a bigger piece of paper and then rolled up and put into the closet and kept forever. Ideas captured. Success?

Post-it notes record ideas and allow them to be easily migrated and reorganized, but it's not a good medium for mutating and synthesizing ideas.

Evidence that we're not allergic to posti-it notes, just that we like their use to be a deliberate choice and not a coincidence of least resistance. This is from the HDL Ageing Studio last summer.
Evidence that we're not allergic to posti-it notes, just that we like their use to be a deliberate choice and not a coincidence of least resistance. This is from the HDL Ageing Studio last summer.

One of the reasons that we prefer large sheets of paper or whiteboards is that they encourage collaborative mutation. If you realize that something is drawn in the wrong place, it must be erased and re-drawn or somehow altered to meet the new intent. By drawing and redrawing, writing and rewriting, opportunities to adjust the content and format—to literally re-present the ideas—continually emerge.

When shuffling post-it notes these opportunites are lost.

Choices about how thoughts are committed to paper and in what format are the visual equivalent of tone of voice. Think about the dramatic differences in interpretation between a statement vocalized in an earnest tone of voice or a sacrastic one. The differences in perception are huge!

Collaborative writing session during the HDL Studio on Education (2010). Photo: Ivo Corda
Collaborative writing session during the HDL Studio on Education (2010). Photo: Ivo Corda

By literally re-writing a statement one is able to revisit the choice of wording, its relationship to other content on the board, the scale, the color, and many other factors of the format which will inflect how it is perceived both by the author and by others... In effect, to change the tone of voice.

Even when sketching something quickly we obsess over the small details of how an idea is comitted to paper because it's in this process that a new level of richness emerges.

Scene from the HDL Studio on Education (2010). Photo: Ivo Corda
Scene from the HDL Studio on Education (2010). Photo: Ivo Corda

If a person holding a hammer is tempted to see all problems as a nail, what does it say about situations where the answer to everything seems to be a flimsy, sticky-backed square of paper? When doing new work it's sometimes important to test out new tools as well. Next time we'll hide the Powerpoint and post-it notes.

Nevertheless, congratulations to the Synergize Finland studio teams on a job well done (even with some post-its)!


HDL Studios Transferring Knowledge

Posts tagged with "How-To" contain reflections on designing, organizing, and operating the HDL Studios, a series of three collaborative, multi-disciplinary problem solving experiments we held this summer. These posts are meant to be informative for others who may also be exploring ways to put the design process to use in new ways or those who find themselves struggling to work between disciplines or silos.

The best way to share ideas depends on the specific ideas and the audience you want to share with. In other words, the mechanisms of knowledge transfer are every bit as much a design project as is the development of whatever knowledge one aspires to share. This post is about some of the techniques we're using to share our work right now.

In the past, printed reports have been one of the dominant tools for sharing new information, be it research, analysis, or evaluation. For a number of reasons, these reports seem almost mandatory—or may even be legally mandated, depending on your organization's status. But what good is a report that no one reads? And how useful is a report that takes so long to produce it's out of date before the ink dries?

At this early stage in the work of Helsinki Design Lab we've taken a different path, which is to focus on conversations rather than reports. The printed (and online) documentation will come—we're beginning to work on them now—but at this stage the emphasis is on bringing people together with enough time, space, and quality input to have a good conversation.


The model we used in the HDL Studios is based on the "final review" concept which is borrowed from design education. In design school, a studio is comprised of 10-15 students working on their own individual response to a project assignment which is issued at the beginning of the semester. There are interim "pin ups" every couple weeks where the whole studio gathers around to look at in-progress work literally pined up on the wall, while the professor critiques, or "crits" for short, the students' projects in terms of what's working and what's not. The culmination of the design school semester is a "final review" where students present their projects to a panel of 4-6 professors who offer a more substantial critique of the work. This discussion is where the ideas of the semester are teased out, compared, and tested.

Finishing up slides just before the final review
Finishing up slides just before the final review

An HDL Studio works collaboratively on a single holistic proposal and then shares its findings in a final review similar to that discussed above. Months before the studio started we were working to secure a group of 3-5 high level guests from Finland and Brussels who have a vested interest in the theme of the studio. Having the right audience who is both committed to the topic and acutely aware of the nature of the challenge is very important because it makes them good critics, and ultimately good champions.

Indy Johar presents the HDL Studio on Ageing's findings. Photo: Ivo Corda
Indy Johar presents the HDL Studio on Ageing's findings. Photo: Ivo Corda

The studio gives a presentation of 30 minute or less sharing how they define the challenge, what opportunities they see, what barriers they perceive, and then outlines a collection of specific project ideas that coalesce into a "roadmap" towards strategic improvement. This is the synthesized outcome of their week in Finland and it may be accompanied by slides, videos, whiteboard drawings, handouts, or any other medium they see fit to use.

After the presentation concludes, we transition into a conversation. This is a moment where the specific nature of the physical space is very important. For these final reviews we pushed the main work table out of the way so that there's nothing between the person presenting and the audience. Once the formal presentation is over, the presenter can sit down and a conversation among peers flows easily. Would there have been a pedestal, table, or other barrier in between the interaction would be too rigid. Making these transitions seamless is important because they are the points where momentum can easily be lost.

As simple as it sounds, having the chairs in a circle really does yield a more active conversation
As simple as it sounds, having the chairs in a circle really does yield a more active conversation

The worst thing after a presentation is to leave too little time for conversation, condemning what dialog does happen to be mere platitudes and clarifications. Since the two-way exchange of ideas during conversation is our focus in these review sessions, we leave ample time to discuss. In the case of the HDL Studios this summer we had 60-90 minutes of conversation after the review, which is just about enough to process some of the new knowledge which has been shared by the team. 


The research office doubled as a field kitchen for the catering staff
The research office doubled as a field kitchen for the catering staff

After a good stretch of discussion about the presentation, we transitioned again from the review to dinner. Since the studio table had been pushed out of the way, the catering staff could set the table for dinner while things were wrapping up. Having dinner in the studio space with the studio, our guests, and HDL/Sitra team members allows the ideas of the week to settle in through a different, more casual mood. It's both a celebration of an incredible week of effort and a real working dinner wherein the review conversation is revisited and continued. Perhaps most importantly, moving from the review to dinner allows us to spend more time together stewing on the ideas without resorting to an awkwardly long meeting.

Dinner in the studio
Dinner in the studio

By the time everyone leaves on Friday night, there will have been a good four to five hours of intense conversation around the recommendations of the studio team. Especially when dealing with strategic questions that are often complicated and messy, having a solid bit of time to properly talk through things is important. The danger of a short conversation without enough opportunity for back and forth is that the participants use the same words without ever sharing a common understanding. It's a fact that understanding takes time, and that's what the review/dinner pairing is designed to deliver.

Next Steps

We'll address next steps more specifically in an upcoming post, but while we're on the topic of the Friday knowledge transfer it makes sense to discuss a bit of the practicalities of how the conversation moves forward. If the review and dinner are about developing a sense of shared commitment and understanding, next steps arise out of shared opportunities. To help narrow down and specify the nature of those opportunities, HDL will continue the conversation with our stakeholders in Finland over the coming months. To aid this longer phase of discussion, the review and ensuing "critique" were recorded and documented in a summary pamphlet by the studio assistants. We designed the review/dinner from the point of view of what would make that experience as effective of a knowledge transfer environment as possible and then added into the mix a documentary capacity which can add longevity.

Sample schedule

  • Months before review: identify and confirm guests
  • Weeks before review: set up dinner and other logistics
  • Friday 10:00: presentation "dry run" with Studio team and HDL to test the story and work out the bugs
  • 15:00: move studio table and arrange chairs for review
  • 15:45 guests arrive
  • 16:00 presentation starts
  • 16:30 presentation concludes and conversation begins
  • 17:45 conversation slows down as people get hungry 
  • 17:50 a short toast before sitting down to dinner
  • 18:00 dinner begins and the conversation continues, lasting as long as the table likes



HDL Studios Designing a week

Posts tagged with "How-To" contain reflections on designing, organizing, and operating the HDL Studios, a series of three collaborative, multi-disciplinary problem solving experiments we held this summer. These posts are meant to be informative for others who may also be exploring ways to put the design process to use in new ways or those who find themselves struggling to work between disciplines or silos.

Last time we discussed how to put together a great Studio team. The flip side of assembling a talented group of people is that they tend to be incredibly busy, meaning that we were lucky to get a solid week of their time.

In this short window of time, the studio members had to meet and get to know each other, acclimate to the culture and locality of Finland, soak up the specifics of the Studio challenge, and—oh yeah—they also needed some time to work together towards developing a holistic, integrated framework for thinking about the challenge and then document it in a way that would spur conversation. With only a week to accomplish all of this, we had to make every minute count.

The basic outline of the week starts with stuff HDL arranged ahead of time and ended with a self-directed schedule
The basic outline of the week starts with stuff HDL arranged ahead of time and ended with a self-directed schedule

The actual schedule for each of the studio weeks was something like this
The actual schedule for each of the studio weeks was something like this

The general scheme for the Studio week started with Monday and Tuesday full of pre-arranged meetings and visits, trailing off to allow the team to define their own schedule in the second half of the week.

On Sunday we gathered for a very casual, quick dinner in the evening to welcome everyone to Helsinki and give them a chance to get to know one another. This ended early so that everyone could catch up on sleep before the busy week, some guests having traveled from overseas.

Mondays began with an introductory session where Marco shared a bit of material to explain "what success looks like" and give the studio and the studio members had another opportunity to introduce themselves and their thoughts on the challenge as outlined by the challenge briefing.

The primary goal of Mondays, however, was to give the studio a solid overview of the context that they would be working within. This was conveyed through a series of 3 or 4 guest lectures, each followed by a discussion period of about an hour. For example, the education studio had speakers talk about the socioeconomic development of Finland, the Finnish bureaucracy, classroom education and teacher education, and policing and prevention related to at-risk youth.

Tuesday of each studio was then spent in the field, out and about around Finland seeing first hand the reality of the challenge. To continue using the education studio as an example, this included visits to a primary school and a youth culture NGO.

Wednesday and Thursday were left relatively un-scheduled for the studio to self-organize and use as they saw fit. During each of the three studios we found that there were requests for additional meetings, so we were able to quickly arrange additional site visits or bring in more speakers on an as-needed basis. Meanwhile, the bulk of these days were spent in deep discussion and debate as the studio team developed a synthetic and holistic response to the challenge.

The ultimate target for the week was a "final review," a brief presentation and conversation with key stakeholders that occurred at the end of the day on Fridays. To help keep things on track, Marco and I sat with the studios on Friday morning to hear a dry-run and provide some feedback on the clarity of the story.

At 4PM on Friday, a group of 3-5 guests arrived and we pushed the conference table out of the way to make room for a presentation and discussion. Afterwards, we continued the conversation over dinner in the studio space, with the work of the studio's intense week covering the walls.

One week disappears very quickly during such an intense experience, and the teams were all very conscientious people who dedicated the entirety of their mental facilities to the challenge we gave them. As a mental 'steam valve' we set the end of the day at 4PM so that everyone could have a chance to rest or relax before dinner (typically at 7PM).

Dinners were pre-booked for each night of the week with the agreement that studio members could opt-out if they needed to rest. However, the majority of the dinners were with the full studios and this proved to be a very important venue for fleshing out ideas and developing the team's social bond. With only four days to really develop the bulk of the work, the Monday-Thursday meals represent a total of about eight hours of conversation—essentially another full work day.

Our hightech solution to keeping the schedule up to date: a laminated poster and some whiteboard markers. We hung this live version of the schedule in a convenient corner of the studio
Our hightech solution to keeping the schedule up to date: a laminated poster and some whiteboard markers. We hung this live version of the schedule in a convenient corner of the studio

We also learned the hard way that it's very difficult to control a schedule that involves tons of moving parts. People change their arrival time, or become unavailable, things run late, etc. For this reason, the printed schedule that we handed out at the beginning of the week was just an overview, and we put up a wall-calendar which was updated as-needed the old fashioned way: with a marker.

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HDL Studios Building a team

Posts tagged with "How-To" contain reflections on designing, organizing, and operating the HDL Studios, a series of three collaborative, multi-disciplinary problem solving experiments we held this summer. These posts are meant to be informative for others who may also be exploring ways to put the design process to use in new ways or those who find themselves struggling to work between disciplines or silos.

This post is borrowed from Week 063's weeknote, which we've updated and expanded upon. Apologies for those who may have already read this entry.

One question we often get is "how do you pick the studio teams?" During the HDL Studio on Education someone went so far as to joke that they felt like they were participating in an Agatha Christie novel: a group of people are mysteriously pulled together out of thin air—why are they here and what will they do now? This post attempts to answer the first half of that question.

To begin, it's important to know that as the research for the Challenge Briefings developed, we created expertise profiles for each studio. These were running lists that identified what we consider to be key perspectives for each studio topic. This allowed us to target specific skill-sets and experience profiles.

Sustainability, one of three studio teams from the summer of 2010
Sustainability, one of three studio teams from the summer of 2010

For instance, in the Studio on Sustainability we knew that building physics, transit, and policy would be essential areas. These are quite predictable. But we also sought some perspectives that might at first be unexpected. The thought behind this is simple: if you only include the regular suspects you will only get regular results. The notion of an "X-factor" can certainly go too far. For instance, although juggling is certainly an unexpected perspective for a conversation about sustainability, it's probably not the most relevant. The X-factor works best when it's someone who has a demonstrated commitment to the studio theme even if their everyday work does not 100% overlap with it.

We wanted the Studio to be as autonomous as possible so that their recommendations would truly be their own. For this reason we decided from the start that Sitra's role would be to support the studio rather than play an active role such as facilitating or otherwise being part of the Studio team.

Here are the basic rules of thumb that we used when thinking about the mix of the team and how to select the right individuals: 

  • Keep it small: With too few people there's a danger that conversation will not be robust enough, but with too many people in the room it's difficult to have a single conversation. Based on experience, and a bit of advice from Dan Goldin, a team of eight is optimal and we've now seen that it works very well. Some things work in large groups, but strategy sessions are not one of them. Eight is also small enough that you can fit into two cars. Although this seems like a small thing, the logistics required to smoothly pull off an event like HDL Studios are not to be underestimated.
  • No room for duplicates: The studio team will be working quickly, which means that the collective expertise and experience in the room is the team's largest asset. Although team members may have some overlaps in their interests, it's best if each member is the master of their own domain and offers serious, focused expertise about their field. Each member becomes a 'representative' of their expertise and no one is redundant.
  • Only accept the best: When it comes to selecting individuals, we've gone straight to the top. Across the board, we feel that the studio members we've attracted are either at the top of their respective fields or upcoming talents. High quality input may not quite guarantee high quality output, but it's certainly a prerequisite.
  • Flexible expertise: It doesn't matter if you're the top expert on the planet in subject XYZ unless you're able to relate to others and convey your ideas in an open, productive manner. For this reason, we look for people who are at the top of their field, know their material inside and out, but are also naturally curious about the world around them and are able to sociably entertain models that conflict with—or even contradict—their own.
  • Be (a bit) local: One of the great strengths of the HDL Studio format is that it offers a very fast and focused infusion of international expertise. But bringing in a wholly international group can lead to fruitless conversations when the cultural context is not understood. We set a rule of thumb for ourselves that two of the studio members would be Finns so there would always be 'cultural ambassadors' in the core team.
  • Design is the glue: Each of the studios have two designers who work as facilitators amongst a group of peer-experts. It's their job to ensure that the conversation is balanced and holistic. Only a particular kind of designer will work in this context: they need to be able to apply their training to strategic issues. When recruiting the two designers for each studio we looked for one highly seasoned professional and one who was closer to the beginning of their career.

If these are the rules that guide our choices, one might ask how we first narrow the field. So far, the best indicator we have is that the kinds of people who succeed in collaborations with HDL are those who have significant experience in multiple cultures. Marco likes to use the term Third Culture Kid. This may be "culture" as it's typically defined or it may also refer to different cultures of expertise or work.

If I have the choice between an expert in astrophysics and an expert in astrophysics with a previous background in agriculture, my bet is on the latter. There's something about having lived in multiple cultures that prepares an individual for the kind of lateral thinking that is required in an HDL Studio.

Finally, the mix of the studio in terms of both expertise and personality is important. While one my be able to judge an individual's expertise by broswing a CV and reading some publications, it's very difficult to assess whether an individual will work well as part of a team unless you meet them in person. Sharing a phone call works too, but it's not as effective as having a face to face conversation with someone.

We also relied on our personal networks to recommend people who they thought would be right for this kind of experiment and followed up recommendations with phone conversations or, when possible, in-person visits.

For all of these reasons listed above, we devote a lot of time to sketching out the right mix for a team, courting a qualified pool of invitees, and working to secure their participation. As a reference, the process of defining the HDL Studio teams began eight months before the first studio, with the last three months of that period being the most intense. Without a solid team the entire Studio is moot, so it was worth it invest in taking the necessary time to ensure that the starting point would be strong.