Choosenick. Notes and observations on service design, as well as other interesting things/thinking. By Nick Marsh.

Posts tagged with “design”...

Brain explosions and how to have them

Cross posted from the Sidekick blog


I often ask people who come to interviews where they get their inspiration, or who inspires them.

I am always looking for answers that aren't obvious, and that say something about the quality of a persons curiosity more than the quality of their RSS collection.

If people struggle you can ask them 'which companies do you admire?', 'what products do you love?' and so on, but by then they've already got minus points.

I especially like it when people give you a real blinder like, 'so, where do you get yours?' (as long as they've had a good go at answering it first. Otherwise it's just lazy.)

Which is why I'm writing this.

If course, it's impossible to say exactly where your inspiration comes from. Its always the sum total of all your experiences.

However, I think I can pinpoint two really important types of inspiration, both of which are kind of brain explosions. When you get really good ones, its amazing.

The first type is the type that pushes whole sections of your brain forward, and gives you lots of new ideas across all the things that you do, and in my experience it always comes from sources outside your current interests. You know when you see this inspiration because you suddenly see things differently. I'm going to call this brain explosion inspiration.

The second type is the type that consolidates lots of the different things floating around in your brain already, crystallises them and helps you tell a story to yourself and others that had been lurking there for a while. You know when you see this because you suddenly start explaining things differently. I'm going to call this brain implosion inspiration.

There is a third type, which is the more mundane, everyday inspiration, that is often less about ideas and more about artefacts - wow, that's a beautiful poster. Or, I'm going to copy that interface component. These are really numerous. I'm not writing about these today.

So, what are some good brain explosion and implosions I've had? I'll list a few:

Brain Explosion #1 - The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Wow. This is a killer book. Its about science, but its also deeply philosophical. Its perhaps the greatest ever treatise on the importance of having strong ideas but holding them weakly. Kuhn takes this concept up to the meta level, and shows how science is an ever evolving description of the truth behind Nature. This book makes you feel both in awe at mankind and also deeply empowered as a human to better understand yourself and nature. Amazing.

Brain Explosion #2 - Understanding Comics.

Double wow. As a kid I grew up reading and drawing comics. I also loved art, and reading stories. Still do. But reading Scott McCloud just BLEW MY MIND, as suddenly, there on the page in a beautiful meta method was a super concise explanation of how drawings and words can come together to tell the most sophisticated stories ever. This book is absolutely required reading for anyone working in any field that requires them to explain things to other people. This book pushed me forward in so many ways.

Brain Explosion #3 - The Ascent of Man.

Triple wow. Brunowski's legendary series was introduced to me on a summer camp I went on with a bunch of other designers. Its a beautiful, polymathematical explanation of what makes human beings unique in the world. he takes us on a tour of science, but also all human history. You just have to watch it. What made my brain explode was not just the content but also the amazingly daring way he connects together different ideas. The final scene of him wading into a marsh outside a concentration camp, up to his knees in water explaining how the Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies to human affairs as much as atoms is just mind blowing.

Brain Implosion #1 - The Story of Art

This is a beast of a book. But amazing, as it connects together all artistic traditions into one super narrative. You can quibble with the method and who's in and who's out, but what is so cool about it is that it creates a shared tradition for all creative thought. It made me realise that everything I do is connected to everything that other people had done before me. Which is a profound thought, and something I'm always aware of when designing.

Brain Implosion #2 - In the shadow of the moon

This film basically makes you cry with happiness at being a human. Its amazing. Interviews with all the surviving people who have walked on the moon. Its a epic tale of what humans can achieve if they work together. Its also a fantastic look behind the scenes about how complex systems and products are designed, and what it takes to bring things together. It makes you proud to be person, and it puts every endeavour in perspective - if you believe you can do something, you probably can.

Brain Implosion #3 - Lean Startup

This is my most recent implosion. Eric Ries book and ideas have brought together so many different threads of my work over the pat few years - user centred design, innovation, startups, mixing strategy and delivery, growth, getting people with different skills working together, the power of great product and service design. Wow. Its really consolidated so much of what I was saying, and just made it all stack up. Its so good. Please read it.

The post of this title is a bit misleading, as I haven't explained how to have good brain explosions, but in writing this I realised that the answer is less interesting than examples. Its probably something about making sure you are always meeting new people, reading widely and trying to work on stuff that you haven't done before.

Anyway, what are your greatest brain explosion/implosion moments? How can we have more of them? Do you want to have too many? What order should they come in? Can you have a simultaneous brain explosion with someone?! All good questions, I'd love to hear your answers!
February 9th, 2012 / Tags: design, inspiration, innovation, creativity / Trackback / Comments

The role of conversation in designing

I was saying to Johanna the other day that I wanted to do a talk on the role of talking/conversation in designing. She's put me in touch with Matthew Solle from London IA and hopefully we'll do an event/seminar/workshop/dojo/powwow or something.

I'm especially interested where verbalising is similar to drawing as a way of figuring stuff out, in the open, away from your pure imagination.

I think its interesting because I do a lot of talking when I'm working. And, although its an over generalisation, I think that almost all my good ideas have come from conversations / moments when I'm talking.

Weirdly, for something that seems so important to designing good stuff, I haven't really heard anyone talk/write about it. I'd like to explore this as a series of prompts and get a discussion going. I've written some stuff here, and then as I said I'll hopefully do an event soon. Things I'd like to explore/understand is:

How to have good conversations during creative group discussions. These are like little talking ballets. You know when its going well, and people know when to cut in, when not to. When to ask questions, when to plough ahead. When to allow silence. Etc. And when it doesn't work its a nightmare. We've all been there when someone says 'let me finish!' or something, and everyone's kind of annoyed.

How to be good at kind of half describing unfinished stuff. This is when you are informally presenting ideas (sometimes within the above activity) and you are kind of describing your design idea loosely, hoping that other people will fill in the blanks. Kind of the verbal version of Bill Buxton's wobbly lines (the only google search I get for those wobbly lines is an old comment thread on this post from my days of service designing).

How to be good at knowing when talking about your design will help you make a decision. This is even more vague, but I was thinking about how sometimes you have to get someone over and say, 'can I tell you what I'm working on?', and then you tell them, and then, well, that's it. During the process of verbalising it you answer a question that's been in your mind. Kind of the same as sketching an idea to answer a question. Some people would call this 'bouncing ideas off you'. Maybe.

How to effectively combine drawing and talking. This is something we do a lot at Sidekick. In a jokey way we call it 'sketchy fun time' and it involves sitting down with paper, pens, coffee and doing a kind of half individual, half group based drawing activity. Done well, you draw ideas and then talk about them in a loose way at the same time, and the talking prompts other people to draw different stuff, and the drawing prompts more talking.

Is this all too vague? I'm sure there is lots more. The problem is that conversation during design activity is always so ephemeral. Everything else gets recorded, from the most humble sketch up to the most detailed specification document, even formal presentations are documented, but the talking bit is not.

There's a PhD in this for sure, but in the meantime I think a bit of open space style facilitation between some thoughtful people who design things and enjoy conversation would be good. Who's in?!
January 25th, 2012 / Tags: design, thinking, practice / Trackback / Comments

My friend Paul asked me to come and give a talk about Sidekick and our work at Cardiff Design Festival.

I like Paul, and I like Cardiff so I said yes. The deck below is a rapid fire, very simplified, summary of where my head is at the moment in terms of what 'startup as a process' is and can do.

The interesting bit, and the bit that needs developing a lot, is the bit about mixing the three different process styles of design-led, tech-led and business-led approaches to project leadership. For me, this is very exciting as it feels like genuine methodological innovation. Its not Design Thinking/Human-Centred Design. Its not Agile. Its not Customer Development. Its all three/four, rolled into one.

Anyway, check it out. Would love to get comments on twitter
November 1st, 2011 / Tags: design, innovation, startup / Trackback

Startup as a process for solving hard business problems

Startup startup startup. That's all I hear in the London tech and design scene at the moment. Well, the tiny bit I get to hang out with now I'm a parent.

There's a bubble going on right now, which is ace, as bubbles mean irrational exuberance (anyone ever figured out why this is always considered a BAD thing!? Irrational exuberance sounds amazing!).

Anyway, amid all the chat and so on about startups, I've come to a realisation - Startup is a process, not a thing. And to me, it seems like the closest to a new process for value creation and solving hard problems since everyone figured out how to formalise innovation. Essentially, Startup is the process of properly, genuinely figuring out the answer to the question, what is actually valuable? What product or service will people actually pay for?

This is a question that is often asked of lots of different types of business consultants in vary levels of detail and lots of different forms - from market researchers to innovation consultants to design agencies to straight up business advisory services. And all of them deliver half baked answers in powerpoint decks - the only way to really find out if they are right is to try it. By which time you've wasted lots of money and time (same thing) on fees and powerpoint decks.

The thing is, is that the process of Startup answers the question very quickly, at very low cost, away from your brand and existing customers in a 'safe space' - Startup is all about figuring out what will people use and pay for - Right now?!

Right now, it is still the case the process of startup is being tamed to make investing in traditional, entrepreneur led web/tech startups more efficient. Effectively, this is just an investment strategy - people like 500 Startups, Y Combinator, Techstars etc are getting good at investing in lots and lots of little bets.

Surrounding this is an emerging set of practices for how to make it more likely that your bet will pay off - Lean startup, the pivot, customer discovery, sales learning curve to name a few - that taken together have the smell of a new type of process for creating value.

Apart from startups just being the most totally exciting place to be a designer of the New Product (which is why at Sidekick we're doing about seven at once), the thing that I think is about to happen is the emergence of Startup as an agency offer - its something we're thinking about at Sidekick, and to me, its super interesting as a solution for established businesses looking for ways out of the cul-de-sacs that their legacy businesses, legacy customers and general inability to do stuff that compromises existing profit centres gets them stuck in.

This is not lean agency, which as far as I can see is just very iterative product development. Instead its about offering a service that helps companies take risks and explore new routes to growth outside of their existing product portfolios and development processes.

The cost of doing a web startup has now fallen well below the cost of doing a reasonable campaign. In addition, doing a startup has the potential to return a lot more to the business than just ROI from the new company - it can help them understand the future customer, the future market and the routes their competition will be taking.

The trick to selling startup as a business process is to be good at the process. That's my next post.
August 2nd, 2011 / Tags: design, innovation, sartups / Trackback / Comments

Service design is Dead. The New Product is Alive.

So, I changed my job title a few months ago. I dropped the ’service’ bit. I’m now just Sidekick’s Design Director. I’m now MASSIVELY EXCITED about a new thing – designing products.

But not your old products. No, I’m excited about designing a new type of evolving, networked product that requires a multi-disciplinary team just to keep it alive, let alone make it awesome. I’m calling this the New Product. Let me explain.

Service design is dead

Ok, it’s not that I think service design is dead, its just that its pretty much used up its interest for me, and I think for Sidekick. There’s two reasons for this I think. One interesting, the other less so.

First, the uninteresting bit. The problem with service design is not the practice as such, but more the way its practised. I’ve basically become a bit bored with the way in which the service design community is constantly trying to legitimise and define the central-vital-most-important-ultimate-more-strategic-than-whatever-you-do role of design in innovating and managing services. I’ve been guilty of doing this a bit in the past. Sorry about that.

Its quite an isolating view, and not very helpful for actually making change happen, and creating new cool stuff.

Second, the interesting bit. The flipside to this is that I’ve become really interested in the actual role of design in bringing new stuff to market, and creating useful things that people want (in particular digital services that solve social problems, which is what we do at Sidekick). Really importantly, I’m getting a good sense of how design fits in the mix with other disciplines in doing this, in particular technical skills, marketing skills and financial skills.

Probably this is just me getting older and more experienced, but I think its also a bit that I’m reaping the rewards of moving away from strategic consulting, and towards making and inventing new things.

As part of this shift I’ve come to the conclusion that organising the invention and making process around products is a really good way to get focused on creating good work – and ironically can help solve strategic questions along the way. Let me explain.

The New Product is alive

Everywhere I look, but basically on the web, the people I am inspired by are talking about products – product incubation, product design, product management. But this is a New type of Product, born and growing up on the web. When people talk about the New Product they’re generally describing businesses that provide a mix of content, service and experience. But the way they make that tangible is by focusing on product.

The UKs most important online property, the BBC, recently reorganised its entire online strategy around the idea of products. Writing about the change, Eric Huggers, the digital boss, says:

“The product management role [is] ‘a multi-disciplined person who operates at the intersection of technology, design and editorial and is able to bring all of these elements together’ to deliver products whose lifecycle is managed. We’ll no longer build websites which are published and which sit unattended and slowly degrade; products will be managed.”

Jack Dorsey, probably my biggest crush on the internet, and wearer of great suits, head of product for Twitter and Square (and CEO to boot) says (in an awesome video) “So, my point here is, this company is not going to be known by one person or by five people or by multiple people. It’s going to be known by the product that we put out… Support and feedback is what our customers are telling us. Product is what we are telling our customers.”

Finally, Denis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, says “I’ve always looked up to the people who went from being unemployed to doing interesting things with product.” Doing things with product. I love the active sense of this sentence. Doing things. Sounds like designing and making to me!

The New Product design is the new rave

When big, established and admired properties like the BBC, and small, ambitious, and equally admired startups like Square are talking about the same thing, its worth listening. Essentially, these businesses are using the idea of ‘product’ as a way to coordinate their digital service development activities across engineering, design, marketing and even organisational management.

The interesting thing here is that the role that sits at the heart of all of this, the product manager/designer, really sounds a lot like the stuff I’m interested in, some of which I was calling service design. In this world good product managers/designers focus relentlessly on user experiences, have a clear vision for where they want that experience to evolve to, they get that from close liaison with customers and users, they are able to translate this into briefs for technical, marketing and interface design teams – and they can wrap all of it up and sell it in to management.

Above all, they know where their product begins and ends – at the point of use. They are the ‘bring it all together’ people, but in a real, hands-on way. Because what they bring it all together into is a real, live product you can experience and use right now, just by connecting to the web. Right now. Go to, and

At Sidekick we’re embracing the new product design and management wholeheartedly. And since we’ve done that (and ditched service design!), our business has really taken off. All our current projects (bar one small research piece) have the idea of creating a ‘product’ at their heart. And once we’ve created product, we’re starting to get really good at managing it. Watch this space for big news on Buddy, our most developed product. We’ll be launching a client product in September, and there’s lots more to come over the next six months.

We’re doing a lot more at Sidekick – not least we’re really starting to nail a lot of the process stuff behind the business aspects of social innovation (but that’s another post/book) – but the thing I am getting most excited about is our products. They are the place where it all comes together. The place where you can touch, use and experience everything we’re learning about how design, technology and business can change the way social innovation happens.

All we have to do now is ship. Which we will, because we have to.
July 1st, 2011 / Tags: design, servicedesign, designthinking, innovation, productdesign / Trackback / Comments

Two moments that are really important in creative careers

Cross posted from the Sidekick blog.

The other day I had one of those a-ha moments where you realise something really obvious, but quite profound.

I was chatting with my friend Steve, and we were talking about people and moments in our professional and academic lives that had left a big impact on us. When we stopped to think about patterns, there were basically two categories of moments with people that had stuck with us:

1. When someone you admire gives you something to aim for that’s at the very edge of the path you are thinking about going down

This category is about seeing a vision of your future self in someone else. Its definitely not envy, because the moments that matter are when you see that they have done general stuff, or achieved approximate things that you would like to achieve – if you really want to. I’ve had a few of these moments.

One that really sticks in mind is when Richard Eisermann sat me down during my internship at the Design Council and told me about his career in design – he’d worked as a lighting designer for Sottsass, been design director at Whirlpool, headed up a practice at IDEO and was now ‘head of design and innovation’ for the UK Design Council. He told me all about his story, and I basically thought – that’s what I want.

That’s not to say that I want to be Richard, or that I wanted his exact career. Years later Steve actually went to work with him at his new company Prospect (but is now leaving to go and work at Ziba). Its more that I saw the kind of stuff, the types of projects, that you can get involved with as a multi-disciplinary designer if you work hard. And I thought, I’ll have some of that please. So, thanks Richard for giving me a vision.

The second category of important moments is the exact opposite. Instead of it being about wanting something external, its all about internal validation.

2. When someone you admire totally, unconditionally believes in you.

This category is all about giving you complete confidence in yourself, right now. Where as the first category gives you confidence that other people can achieve great things, and you could do the same, in the future, this is just all about being sure that what you are doing right now is great, so you should keep doing it.

An example I had of this was at college, I was doing a project that was going nowhere fast. For some reason I’d ended up trying to do some metal casting or something, and I was feeling pretty crap about the whole thing, to the point of thinking I’d be better of doing a normal degree.

Anyway, one of my tutors, Mike Waller, who wasn’t even that much my friend, saw that I was pretty depressed and he said to me “Nick, don’t worry about this project. There’ll be lots more. After this degree course, some people will go different ways. But I know that you will be a successful designer. So stop worrying.” Or at least, he said something like that. Whatever it was, I remember holding on to what he said, or the sentiment, for the rest of my degree course. I know you will be a success. So, thanks Mike for giving me a rock of confidence. I bet you never knew how much that meant to me.

The point of this post isn’t meant to be really deep – its pretty simple. Basically, I think I’m saying that good leadership in creative fields is about two things. Giving people great big goals to aim for, and giving them complete confidence that they are going to get there. The two moments above have stuck with me for ages, much more so than other ‘normal’ highlights like wining competitions, or seeing my designs being used by loads of people.

However, if you think this is a useful insight around leadership, I’m sorry but I think its going to disappoint. The problem is that I’m not sure that either of these kind of moments can really be planned, because they only work when both people are in just the right place emotionally, and you don’t realise that they are important moments till ages afterwards. Which means I doubt I can engineer ways for people I work with to have them – but I can try to help them find the people who they will have them with at some point. And I can say thanks to the people that have done it for me. So that’s what I’m going to do.
July 1st, 2011 / Tags: design, thinking / Trackback / Comments

picture-2o0z.png I've been selected to take art in the 2008 RSA/RDI summer school - I'm super excited, and I'll report back on what we get up to. Can't wait!
August 18th, 2008 / Tags: design, work / Trackback / Comments

Goldsmiths Design Degree Show 2008: Processed

I went to my college's degree show over the the weekend. The Goldsmiths show is always a surprising and innovative affair, and this year I was very impressed with the quality of the work, as well as the maturity of the thinking. I personally find the work more challenging and though provoking than most MA course projects.

The show was called 'processed', and the students have curated the space in the Boiler House of the Truman brewery to show of the varigated design processes they've been thorugh to get to their final designs. This is in refreshing contrast to the tedium of many degree shows, where students are only keen to show off how brilliantly they can do what everyone else in the design industry does - i.e slick, commercial and with little sense of storytelling.

Some of the highlights included Niel Hubbard's investigation into the use of personal gravity fields to create new forms of interactive architecture, Emma Jones's weird attempt to use real hearts to create sentimental jewellery designs and Philip Havlin's witty furniture that makes you look twice.

My favourite though was Sam Hill's exploration of the value of experience (video below), who deservedly won the annual Duvel prize for his simultaniously considered and light hearted investigation into the meaning of experience design.



In all a very inspiring exhibition, and good luck to all the students - lets hope they can keep some of the idealism going as they head out to find (well deserved) work for the man.


June 1st, 2008 / Tags: design, education / Trackback / Comments