Playful 2013

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Sharna Jackson the compere for Playful 2013 called it ‘An amuse bouche of ludic geniosity’. I am not entirely sure what that means but I think it summed up the day perfectly. The sub heading for the conference was ‘playing with form’ and it focused on making and the materials used (A familiar pattern to my conference attendance lately). Here is my attempt to summarise my favourite talks of the day. I will probably not do them justice.


Duncan Fitzsimmons – Vitamin Design

Duncan is a designer at a firm made up of a random mix of people, electrical engineers alongside more traditional designers etc. an intriguing mix that informs and shapes their work. He spoke of using bananas to get elderly people to design their ideal mobile phone. The ‘silver phones’ as they are called today are usually Fisher price looking things with massive buttons and limited functions (he showed some that did not even have enough numbers to dial a new number, just store numbers. They took a different approach due to the fact they could see that elderly people were getting the exact same smartphones we all are. The problem is that no one reads the manual as it is more often than not, useless. They built the ideal manual, a book that the phone and its parts e.g. the SIM card, sat in the middle of. Each page revealed the next step in setting up the device, it then had pointers to the areas on the screen and instructions to follow. Building the device into a book meant it formed a much tighter bond with the device and increased the knowledge of the user to a different level. Watch the video.

The second project he showed was sensor design for snowboarders, he showed how they prototyped things in their labs, trying out the most Heath Robinson of contraptions and refining as they went until they actually tested them out at the snow centre in Leicester. The closer the sensors got to the real world and snow the more challenges presented themselves, they managed to make a kind of speedometer that tracked actual movement over snow, when they tested it on snow it worked perfectly up to about 4mph. Duncan then showed a video of it in real use. Watch it. Imagine what it would be like to hook it up to FX traders (while they trade FX rather than hurtle down a mountain)

Thirdly he showed how they designed a foldable wheel, a problem that has been tackled many times before but never truly cracked. They had been challenged with making a folding wheel to form part of a folding wheelchair to make travel easier. Again it was fascinating to see the prototypes and their progression from almost string and lollipop sticks through to printed metal forms and different types of solid tyre and innertube. The end result was amazing, award winning and in production now.


Anne Hollowday – The Makers of things

The talk I was most looking forward to was this one. Anne made a series of films about the makers of things which were released earlier this year. She interviewed a series of gentlemen who were part of the SMEE. They are dyed in the wool makers, electrical engineers, woodworkers, tinkerers and hobbyists with garages and workshops that had grown over a life time of making. One of the makers filmed, George, said he had been ‘making sawdust since he was 11’. I urge you to go and watch all the films, they are only 5-6 minutes long, there are 5 of them and they are beautiful.

The quote that came out from those films and a similar thing was mentioned in other talks, was a quote from one of the makers featured, Mike Crisp and he said ‘Make what it is you want build and learn as you go’. There is a wonderful moment in the woodworker film where he talks about the grain of wood ‘Each bit of wood has its own destiny, which you don’t really know until you start digging into it and find out what’s inside there’

One of the downsides with playful is that they don’t film the talks (a purposeful decision to do with your own memory of things) but I really wish they did as I would have liked to watch this one again.

The films also made me think of James Bridle’s working shop where he tried to frame coding in a similar way (probably becasue the film is also by Anne). These digital things that we make might not have the same feel or the same detritus as wood or metal that shows work is being done here but they are one in the same.


John Wilshire – Putting things in things

John did a great talk that was about boxes both the physical and the metaphorical that was smart, witty, Scottish and featured molten brass being poured dangerously into a tin mould. Thankfully John himself has written his talk up over here. Go and read that.


Ben Reade – Nordic Food Lab

Ben strode onto the stage and he was a massive and blonde haired Nordic sterotype. Turns out he is Scottish but he has a weird scandianglo brogue that was as bemusing and mind bending as his brilliant talk. The Nordic Food Lab is a place where people experiment with food. Part funded by the famous Noma restaurant in Denmark it is a place where, in Ben’s words, people were free to experiment without judgement. I love that description. His first job upon joining the lab was to trap the smells created during the making of chicken stock. His experiments lead him to build a still, as in the type used to create alcohol, turns out this is illegal in Denmark unless you have a license but as he was distilling chicken and not alcohol he got round the rules.

In Denmark they have more than one word for play. They have the word ‘Spille’ which means play within the rules and they have the word ‘Lege’ which means to play with no rules. Ben’s work was certainly more about the latter.

His other experiments were even more bizarre. The food lab has a Nobel Rotting Room. This is a place where they play with fermentation, and mould growth and other forms of naturally occurring things in the hunt for new flavours and textures and experiences.

Ben spoke of his research into mummification ‘We could not easily get access to Egyptians but we did have some dear’. Using specific kinds of bacteria that make fruit break down in certain ways that would allow them to be coated in wax and preserved and infused with flavour as part of the process. They ended up making a kind of faux olive that was actually unripened plums that were waxed. From one of their experiments they discovered a form of wild spinach that when left to ferment with an odd mixture of other things tasted exactly like fine fois gras.

‘Zero method and all the madness’ was a memorable line Ben used to try and explain a whole host of failed techniques they had tried but that did not stop them trying over and over again with new combinations.

I will leave the last word to well known food critic/explorer, Anthony Bourdain, on a visit to the food lab and his encounters in the Nobel Rotting Room

‘You guys have got some seriously f***** up s*** down there’


Stef Posavec – Dancing at Facebook

Of all the people I have seen speak at conferences Stef might be the person I have seen the most and she is always brilliant. This time her talk was primarily about her recent stint at Facebook working at their analog research lab.

‘I had a guy who could basically get me any Facebook data I wanted’ was the position Stef found herself in and while I can imagine having something that vast must have been tempting to go big Stef did the opposite and went small. Stef mapped the Facebook campus bars…on a bar chart of course, looked at smaller and more personal interactions and visualised those using dance notation.


Stef had some smart rules for data visualisation

1. Represent data truthfully;

2. Always try to show subtle insight;

3. Provide an explanation;

4. Use meaningful data;

5. Context


Stef is one of those people that I would love to be able to say ‘If you had access to any banking data what would you choose and what would you make?’ one day perhaps.


Rev Dan Catt – The perfect game of snakes and ladders

Dan Catt is someone’s whose work and writing I have admired for some time. He is an ex-employee of Flickr and the Guardian and is now freelance building lots of wonderful things for money or fun or both.

For his talk he wanted to tell us about the best snakes and ladders board. This is it below.

Rev Dan Catt

What is so good about it is that this board allows him to play with his children and the game last round about 10 minutes each time, the perfect amount of time to have a fun time and keep your children’s attention span. The board was not created by hand in any traditional manner but by code and algorithms and cloud computing.

The inspiration for this came from the now defunct Kindle DX, The large screen kindle Amazon released for a short period in the US. Dan inspired by friends wondered if you could use it to create infinite game board. Taking traditional games and generating an infinite amount of new layouts but within controlled boundaries. For example for Snakes and Ladders he had to code rules that said do not place two snakes too closely together or to make sure the angle of the ladders was not too horizontal, code that returned both aesthetically pleasing and nice to game boards.

Dan ran nine free instances on Amazon Web Services to generate the boards and then one further machine to grade the boards. He had created over a billion boards so far. All this computing power for free (he keeps under the daily limits) means he can run these things continuously (I think he said he wanted to run it for five years to create perfection). A brilliant mind.

Another great day at Conway Hall.

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