Anybody Home? Where did design dissapear off to?

Here is the transcript for my talk at IXDA in Helsinki on March 2nd.

Il faut confronter les idées vagues avec des images claires. – Jean-Luc Godard

I want to talk about the areas that were abandoned by design and designers and why they are worth rediscovering.

Hello. On good days I describe myself an industrial designer & an interaction designer. This is what I was trained as and that’s what my degree certificates would say for all the world to see if I ever bothered to frame and hang them. On bad days I say that I’m an internet of things designer. This means nothing to most of the people, I say it because it feels clearer to me than what industrial or interaction design stands for within the internet of things community that has grown worldwide over the last five years.

Making not Designing

Between 2007 and 2010 I was CEO and Co-Founder of later renamed Tinker London, the first UK distributor of the Arduino boards. At the time I was fresh off an interaction design course where I had come up with the Good Night Lamp. Gillian Crampton Smith who is sitting in the room is responsible for this and I would like to thank her for that. We helped promote the use of the Arduino to computer science students. flash developers, web developers, jewellerers, graphic designers and researchers. We ran workshops around the world for the public and for clients. People never thought of the Arduino as supporting a design effort, but it should have been. It should have been the tool that industrial designers would learn about and design higher resolution prototypes so they could own more of the design pie in a project. So that they could stop complaining that people came to them at the last minute with crappy products people just wanted to pretty up. So that they could quit their day jobs and start product companies everywhere. But that wasn’t to be. The Arduino became about other things, about ’making’, about open source, about empowerment, about knowledge barriers were being broken. Not about design. It featured the story of a web developer who had grown a little tired of screens could pick up some electronics skills easily and ‘make something’. Making and designing became separate activities.

A growing community of non-designers designing 

Our workshops always attracted more technically savvy  people than industrial designers, architects, graphic designers or UX designers. The timing was terrible of course, as the Arduino came out the iPhone was launched so UX designers left the table and went to distract themselves with smaller screens. And the industrial designers didn’t engage much at all, preferring to design things for others however frustrating that was than to spend a bit of time understanding how to code and engage with designing electronics. Knowing how to prototype electronics is still not as prevalent as knowing how to draw 10 years on, because we still see more value in someone being able to draw us a scenario of someone using a connected object than build us a prototype to figure out how an interaction feels with the constraints of connectivity and technology. Because oh my god are there constraints. And if you’d prototyped with the technology you’d end up really understanding that making lights switch on and off from around the world seems easy but turns out to be incredibly difficult.

Technical founders, not designers

So between the iPhone and Nest being acquired in early 2014, the internet of things grew slowly and with minimal design community engagement. It’s almost as if designers were waiting to be called up to the table. Design courses might run one or two introductory Arduino classes but nothing that stuck to a designer’s head and more importantly to their fingers. In London, the founders of internet-connected startups have continued to come from technically-savvy professions or graduate program: engineering, electronics engineering, computer science, industrial automation, military applications, sometimes (rarely) advertising. All of them were told about designing for users and user-centric design, but they were not told how. They weren’t even told that design and user-centered research are one and the same. I co-ran a workshop with Dott studio yesterday in London where we invited internet of things startups to come and share their process from coming up with an idea to whatever stage they were at. They were all able to articulate their process and the reasoning behind business decisions, but design was almost completely absent in the first 6 months of development. It was all about the prototyping and testing. No questioning of the ‘why’ not paper prototyping, not user interviews, no personas, nothing.  At best agile software development processes were attempted inside of a mashup of other processes. Forget the double diamond, this was more like the spaghetti plate. And these are the bravest people, they quit their day job, are wrestling to find funding, join incubators, spend a LOT of time on their ideas, but don’t work with designers from the word go. This is crazy when you consider that in London we now have 11 iot meetups and that cities like Prague attracted hundreds of people at its first iot meetup a few months ago.

Screens that hide a world of design opportunities

So if designers aren’t working with startups, maybe they’re working with corporations. But then it’s 2016 and Samsung have released a smart fridge which they call the Home Hub. I had to check my watch to make sure I hadn’t been sent back to the 1950s. Home. Hub. Who spends enough time in the kitchen to think that it is the be all and end all of their home life? 1950s housewives. Noone else. I don’t know a single woman who would have the money to buy this fridge and would spend any time at all in her kitchen. Maybe out of guilt of buying a Home Hub for a while. Where were the designers when this was manufacturered?

Designers go around the world and talk about user-centered design with anger because we don’t understand why people could create such horrors. But that’s because they never showed  in the first place. They didn’t want to become middle managers, then proper managers, they wanted to stay close to the craft of design. So that’s what happens when you dissapear inside a company, when you stop inspiring people about what you do and what values you bring. People design fridges with screens on them because we never told them not to. Designers weren’t important enough, the technologists were.

Designers were given the job of designing the screen’s user experience. Noone stepped up and said: maybe we should rethinking shopping interactions, not the fucking fridge. Not the end point of interaction. But that’s the trouble of the internet of things, there are too many touch points that need designing so we start with the easiest: the screen.

Exciting, shiny screens! Nevermind the systems and the injustice they enable. Screens can be designed! Interactions can be designed. Some interactions.  People’s micro-interactions can be observed without building a physical object, without seeing how quickly they throw your product in the bin or stop using it. Big data up to a point.

Changes can be made on the fly (sortof). Oh the flexibility, oh the addictiveness. Oh the design possibilities. But not for the dying or the bed-ridden. For the middle class who watched a bit too much Downton Abbey. For people who would never want to have an au pair or a cleaner full time living at home, but still want access to those ‘services’. So we designed the glossy touch point of the so-called the sharing economy. The economy of job insecurity, exploitation, property bubble, car-obsession and people who are always hungry but can’t cook. We buy crappy furniture off eBay, we leave the seal on our mobile phones so we can sell them on eBay. We get delivery from our favorite restaurants, we stopped going to hotels, we started renting out our apartment to pay for our retirement or our holidays. We went from designing interiors like they really mattered, like people were going to judge us if our napkins didn’t match our plates, to designing our digital wallpapers. Design now allows us to create social value elsewhere, so why bother with interiors and communities.  So we engage less with our local community or our local councils. We become the high class citizens of nowhere in particular. High-class migrants with an addiction to television shows, craft hamburgers, expensive coffee and personality-less interiors on instagram.

But what about all this stuff we’re designing?

So how can we even start to think about an industrial revolution which would require us to care about our homes and interiors again? Most of the internet of things is about ‘smart home’ or ‘smart city’ service product experiences that feature someone stable, in the 1950s, who will always live in their home.  Someone who knows their neighbours, and organises PTA meetings. Someone uses that fridge’s screen to check the weather and the news. Someone who doesn’t have flatmates because they are too poor to live on their own. Someone who is going to care about the napkins matching the plates. Someone who is going to buy fabric napkins in the first place. Someone who doesn’t exist anymore.

Even Ikea’s Steve Howard says we’ve reached peak stuff, peak home furnishings. Because those things have lost their appeal for us. We’re bored of them, things are much more important online even if that’s not true, it feels true.

Where can design go now?

It’s not true because where we have peaked is in the pointless stuff. We have yet to design the stuff that matters actually. The stuff that is going to permeate our lives soon. We still haven’t seen or thought about the products we’ll need to buy to see if our water is clean, our air is breathable, our family safe and healthy. We still haven’t designed the interactions that will convince our governments that these are important issues and policies need to change. We’ve not even begun to think about how we will deal with the disposal of all the stuff that we’ve decided to through away because we’re reading Marie Kondo. Those are the products and interactions that are going to be really worth designing.

Those companies of course already exist but they don’t do well, they barely exist on the fringes of what you might call success, mostly because designers don’t get involved or they don’t show up to help. It’s too hard, too techy. But that’s precisely why it’s interesting. Why it’s worth doing. Why it’s worth coming out of your comfort zone, why being a designer should be not only about doing total design, both online and offline. The world is changing and you have to change with it too.


IoT Insurance Startup Competition

We’re working in collaboration with Imago Techmedia on a startup friendly competition which will run alongside their IoT Big Data: Insurance conference early next year. We’re looking for companies who are building IoT products for the insurance industry:

Are you developing a connected product that is suited to the insurance sector? Then this is your chance to showcase your work on January 29th at the IOT Big Data: Insurance conference in London.

This unique industry conference will feature a selection of fifteen startups during the day who will get a chance to win three cash prizes.

You have until December 15th to apply to be one of the startups who showcases on the day.

What is IOT Big Data: Insurance

IOT Big Data: Insurance is the first conference dedicated to bringing together the insurance sector with the world of the Internet of Things. Connected devices, cars, wearables and homes will change the way the industry engages with its consumer and industrial customers. The data generated by these devices will bring with it, great change, challenges and opportunities. On January 29th, 2015, Imago TechMedia, the conference originators, will bring the best technology leaders and most promising startups together to share their knowledge and vision with the best of the insurance sector in London and beyond.

For startups this is an opportunity to meet insurance professionals in an exclusive context, get their feedback and create business opportunities.

Application Process

You can apply to be one of the fifteen startups selected to attend the showcase and pitch event by answering a few simple questions on our F6S page

If you’re selected to go to the next phase, you’ll have a quick call with designswarm who will ask a few questions about your product/idea.

Once you’ve been selected to attend the showcase and pitch event, you’ll receive careful coaching from designswarm to make sure you’re ready for the day and understand everything involved in attending.

Who can apply?

Startups or SMEs with less than £1 million investment and staff of less than 25 employees
You can be based anywhere in the world as long as you can attend the event on the 29th of January in London
You must be developing an internet-connected hardware + software product that is particularly suited  to the insurance sector

What does the showcase and pitch event entail?

If you’re selected to attend on the 29th of January, you will be showcasing your work all day at the conference and give a short pitch if you are one of the five startups shortlisted. The winners will be announced at the end of the conference around 5pm.

Follow us using #insureiot 

The cost and time to make things

So last week I launched sales for a limited edition of the Good Night Lamp. This is both an exercise in pig-headedness and a suicidal financial exercise. What prompted this? Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of this idea. There’s only so much time you can spend trying to turn lights on and off, but in those ten years, I’ve learnt a lot about the conditions that need to take place in order to make things.

So I’m making them with an M2M partner Eseye and Tom Cecil who has been making our prototypes since mid-2012. Noone else.

They are retailing for £279 which is shocking some but the truth is that making small batches of things costs a lot more than people think, especially when there’s wood involved which is why we’ll move on, if those 100 sell, to cheaper materials. Why sell 100? Well mostly to live up to expectations, PR during all those years, and for myself as a designer.

Financially, it’s a ridiculous exercise in a way. The average product on a John lewis shelf costs 25% of retail price to make. Retailers usually take a 50-60% cut to place the product on a shelf. This set of lamps is costing between 86% (for EU customers) & 96% (for UK customers) of the retail price in costs and doesn’t include any assembly time. Here’s a handy and honest breakdown.


It’s pretty silly really, but I think they’ll make people happy and work really well. Yes I’ll be assembling them myself or with friends probably, but hey I started Tinker by selling Arduinos in the front room of a flat in Hackney in 2007. Been there, done that. It might become a collectable item, who knows. I’ve got 36 sets left to sell on that batch so tell your friends and head to the website for more details.

Behind and in front of the curtains.

I’ve been producing events on occasion and it was my great pleasure to produce the Mozilla Festival for the second year in a row. The event was very well reviewed but the most pleasurable part of it is being able to plan an event in a very small team of 5 women, Michelle Thorne the Festival Lead, Diana Proca who leads the army of volunteers who make this a really unique event and Ravensbourne College’s leading ladies of events Claire Selby and Laura Lillepruun. Directly after the Festival I flew over to Barcelona to talk about smart cities and the Good Night Lamp on a panel at the Smart City Expo World Congress.

There’s something important in being able to exist on both sides of the equation as a woman in technology. Producing an event of around 1K attendees in a small team, it’s like running a small company for a short period of time. Speaking at events on the other hand is an opportunity to distill professional experiences and share it with others. I would hope that projects like Lady Ada Day and Articulate are the starting point of a generation of women who are certain that what they make is also worth sharing with others in a public context. It takes confidence, but there is no other way.


Somehow, I seem to be in the middle of organising 4 different events. Thought I’d share.

1. Lirec Secret Robot House evening which gives me an opportunity to invite my good friend Nicolas Nova (very excited to turn the tables on him for once). I’m not afraid to admit his blog is the reason why I got into Internet of Things in the first place. It’s free, it’s secret and there will be drinks and food and robots.

2. Co-curating the return of This Happened in London. I went to the first one on the evening of the day I moved to London in 2007 and it’s with real pride that I’m co-curating the revival of this unique free event about interaction design, creativity and technology with Russell Davies and Ben Hammersley. It will be fun. We’ll start with a pre-summer event on June 7th and then have a few events in the autumn.

3. A nice future-making afternoon workshop (arduino + product design + presentations) in Berlin in a few weeks. It’s nice to run these as they feel quite comfortable now after so many years and I get to work with friends.

4. Giving a tour of Silicon Roundabout tomorrow to 20 journalists from Denmark. I’ve invited lots of nice people from the surrounding area to come and talk to them about the work they do and share the reasons why they set up shop in East London. It should be totally awesome. I’ll blog about it later. We’ll be having drinks at Strongroom from 6h15pm if you’re around.

Things are good and interesting.

The Next 10 years in the “future” of science.


Took part in a panel on the next 10 years of science to celebrate Centre for Life’s 10 year anniversary. I was thrilled and terrified all at the same time as people with a significant impact on how science is perceived were taking part in this panel. People who fund science, write books about science, or write about technology in the media and have radio shows about science. I’d like to think I was on the “doing” side of that conversation even if I have a background in Pure and Applied Science education (before I became a designer).

I’m more and more careful about making predictions as the amount of future-casting done in my field (already a nebulous one) could fill books. I think the future is best defined by what we do now, that’s the only hope we have really. The rest is speculation, which I often leave to trends publications, bankers, science-fiction writers, palm readers & scientists (who actually know what they are talking about).

My esteemed panelists were decidedly careful too and so at the last minute, I thought I’d make some bold statements.

Dystopian Internet of Things (or of people)

I started by talking a little bit about a pre-panel encounter with some brilliant young 17-18 year olds from the North East. Around some tea and scones, they were asked to make their own predictions and we sat in and challenged them a little.

Mostly young men, they were perfectly happy to look me in the eye and ascertain that they didn’t understand why people in the future should interact face to face. Texting and Facebook was replacing things surely!

I gasped, alarmed about our future as a society and then remembered that 17-18 year olds live in an environment of constant contact with each other in school already. Once out of that environment, face to face will become incredibly important again. I have to believe that this will be the case, otherwise the burden we will place on personal technologies will be one of not only helping us be more efficient, but to help us retain our human qualities. Non-verbal communication and face-to-face interactions are what makes us social creatures to begin with. If we lose that contact and lose our ability to understand and read social signals, interact socially, argue, fight, flirt, etc, then we will have become like the ever-charismatic founder of Facebook: sufferings from slight Aspergers syndrome. The internet-of-things will become a way for us to avoid talking to each other because our objects do all the talking for us. I’d like to think we are smarter than this and this is a dystopian point of view. But we have to be prepared for every scenario right?

Sharing the Science Journey

Out of the corner of my eye, I’ve been keeping an eye on things like Pink Army, Nobellini,, galaxyzoo, and other citizen scientist projects and there’s something there that scientists and science funding do not understand: the expert is not the only one engaged in a conversation about science.

The expert is of course the guy in the lab, but his peers can be people “out there” and I believe there are economic models which can be explored where instead of sending spam to earn some pocket money or putting pamphlets through the door, the less wealthy could earn money by helping out on science research. This would do wonders for communication of the value of science as it would be tied to economic growth instead of being perceived as national R&D. It could become part of science lessons in school. Mechanical Turk for science 101. I don’t think it’s new to anyone who has been using the internet for a while, but it’s not an easy conversation to have with universities who are desperate for funding, science communication bodies who don’t know where to put their money and other publicly funded projects who will suffer in the next fortnight.

This comes back to the idea that scientists should feel comfortable sharing process with the outside world and in science, that’s not really done. Publication is what you share, not work-in-progress. Not unlike the magazine and newspaper industries, journals have their flaws: old and elitist models of distribution. Right now, after finding someone to publish your article, paying for the article to be published and then having it published, it’s still behind the journal’s paywall so the work is only shared with that readership. Kind of old school in light of the Internet Age. I’d like to think that publishing your work was always based on the idea of retaining your rights and share the work with others in your field and beyond. If Creative Commons-like licences start developing for science research and publication, the work wouldn’t suffer, and people would share more and cross-pollination would be happening more frequently. The type of cross-disciplinary conversations that fosters innovation and allows companies like ours to exist and come up with new things to talk about. Peer-reviewed content and curation will still exist as it does with online content generally, but it’s focus will be on quality content and not feeling pressured to print on dead trees and distribute to all the scientific libraries of the world. Again, all this felt familiar to me, but there were some frowns on the panel.

If anything the next 10 years of science has to be about the world of science embracing the technologies its own people helped develop and for us to keep being human with technologies there to support us, not to be used as crutches.

Thoughts for better conferences

Good conferences are about managing expectations: the speakers’ and the audience’s. They’ve paid to attend, the speaker has probably paid to fly over and add their professional profile to making the event worth going to in the first place. Both parties should be cared for.

At the end of a realllly long year and looking at Dopplr I’ve spoken or organised workshops at 12 different conferences this year and thought I’d come up with a few points about what I know makes me a better speaker. This might not apply to others, but I know it would make a world of difference to me.

1. Don’t ask for the presentation in advance. Chances are you’ll never get it. I’m usually juggling running my business and thinking about your event about 2 days before it starts, writing my talk in the plane/train on the way there and ready about 20 seconds before going live. So don’t bully me or treat me like a child on email with reminders. I’ll delete them.

2. Tell me who is in the room. Out of the 12 conferences only 1 gave me a spreadsheet with details about the attendees. Simple, efficient and got me to tailor my presentation to the crowd. Online communities for the conferences are only good for the attendees themselves, I don’t have the time to engage.

3. Don’t give me one of those awkward neck microphones. I’m a woman with short hair. I care about how my hair will look with your contraption on which is usually shitty.

4. Keep emails short. Just like you would if you were emailing someone you work with. I just want to know where to go and when I’m on.

5. Introduce me to people. I’ve just spoken, everyone knows about me, I don’t know them. Take me around and think about who I would get along with. This is incredibly important and I’ve found that the number of times I’ve been approached after a talk has decreased steadily as people consider adding me to twitter as a way to connect. I’m here, I’m present, this should be an opportunity to make a real connection. Help me out.

6. Pay for my travel and accomodation if you can. If you can’t, give me reasons for my I should go especially if you’re charging attendees a ton of cash. (Back to number 2 really)

7. Don’t do the whole backchannel projected behind me thing. Super distracting because people just can’t listen to you , look at your slides, a live twitter stream and their own laptop without getting totally distracted, laugh at the wrong moments and therefore totally putting me off. danah’s post is more than enough regarding that particular issue.

8. Make my badge readable and don’t make it too long. I don’t want people staring at my navel or crotch to read my already unreadable name. Actually, this applies to all badges for any conference ever made. The only 2 pieces of information you need to show is someone’s name and their company. That’s it. In BIG. No logo, no funky colours, maybe a distinction between a speaker and an attendee but make that easy too. It’s such an important piece of communication but so many conferences get it wrong or over-think it. Here’s a suggestion of what it could look like:


As we move towards an ever increasing professional connectedness and conference fatigue sets in, I think these could really make a difference.

Public failure at Interesting 09


I had the great honour of speaking this Saturday at what I can only describe as a great British institution and cocked up massively trying to talk 300 people into making an origami box. Failure is a good thing, it’s something you can learn from, it makes you humble and since it was only the top of the iceberg of what I wanted to talk about, I thought I’d do it here and apologise for screwing up in a totally public way.

First things first, the theme was paper and since I’d done a 15 minute session at Papercamp last Feb, Russell thought it was a good idea to invite me back. I’m sure he regrets it now. This is what I would have talked about if given a second chance (these thoughts were enhanced from speaking with the lovely Georgina Voss):

– Paper as a tool for 2D to 3D thinking in design and creativity.

The invention of the paper bag

How paper was soaked with a vinegar-based solution during the plague

– Ransom letters, public ads, confession postcards, shopping lists, found magazines, sketch books, scrap booking, notes left behind.

– The new world of Kindle and what it means for paper.

– Quotes from Books vs Cigarettes.

– Lots and lots of images from Un/Folded.

– The myth of the paperless office and consumption of paper and paperboard per capita in the UK:
In 2005: 201.20 KG/person/year
In 1985: 138.41
In 1975: 108.66

– The reassurance of paper

– Humphrey Bogart for good measure (don’t ask)

Instead of all of that, i decided to pick from what I thought was the simplest origami I’d seen (after staring at books my friends lent me for months). It turns out you learn so much about language, signs, importance of steps and procedural thinking in origami, that taking 300 people cold turkey through about 20 different steps in 10 minutes was a rather bad idea. I enjoyed trying though and I hope people won’t be too cross with me. I was tired of giving talks and at the time, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea, until half way through when only 10 people were still tagging along…oh well. Next time.