Web Browser as Creative Catalyst: Chrome Experiments

Chrome Experiments Homepage

Google Creative Labs’ Creative Director Ji Lee emailed me the other day to tell me about Chrome Experiments, a new product Google Creative Labs has just launched. Now that I’ve had time to play with the site and many of the experiments, I have to report out that not only is it all good, but there’s also something particularly worthy about creative catalysts such as Chrome Experiments, as I’ll explain.

Chrome is, of course, a new open source web browser from Google. I’m a new tech addict, so when it first came out last year I fired up the old PC (the Mac version is “coming soon” says Ji), and after taking Chrome out for a ride, looking under the hood and kicking the tires, I dig Chrome.

Browsers are quickly becoming the OS of our computing lives. When I first log on early in the morning, I open the browser, work on projects with partners all over the world, email, chat, video conference, review designs and tweak images and documents, and never once leave my browser. It’s the platform for my work and global connectivity. And with Chrome Experiments, Google is extending it as a platform for creativity.

While Ji recommends “Browser Ball” and “Video Puzzle” as experiments to get things going, personally, I’d like to highlight the Monster experiment as a model of the Chrome Experiment’s creative potential. There are other experiments that are more dynamic and vibrant, but as Monster is a demonstration “of what can be done with browser web standards (without Flash)” it provides a window into another key element of creativity that is obsessing me at the moment: the creativity of constraints.

When you begin playing around with Monster, its functionality feels so much like you’re inside a Flash movie, run through the Flash plug-in. But this is straight-up Java, baby – toggle the background colour, rotate it, pan it, get right inside the creative process, with nothing but you, your keyboard, and the given functionality of the browser itself.

There’s a harmony here between experiments such as Monster, and many others within Chrome Experiments, that use only the given functionality of Java and browser standards, and the recent Wired feature Design Under Constraint: How Limits Boost Creativity. From magazine design’s constraints of a fixed page size and its 2D platform, to designing album covers for minuscule display on digital gadgets, across the board, constraints have always been a defining aspect of creativity. Today, however, as the general zeitgeist and the financial collapse turns all thoughts to one of constraints, those creatives who look at constraints, standards and fixed limitations as catalysts for expanding creative dialogue instead of choke points are well placed for a long ride upward through the downward economic cycle.

I recommend spending some time with Chrome Experiments and viewing your browser not only as a functional app, but as a platform for creativity. And for those of you who want to dig a bit deeper into Google’s platform philosophy, I recommend the book What Would Google Do?

Responding to a Crisis of Trust

“This is a crisis not only of credit, but a crisis of trust.”

– UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Davos 2009

Thanks to everyone who has emailed prodding for news of what’s coming up next. Those who know me realise I don’t really understand the concept of downtime, so when it’s quiet on the blog, that means there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, which has certainly been the case. Now it’s time to pull back the curtain a bit and announce one of my major projects for 2009: Design TRUST.

The majority of the crises crippling national and international economies, the environment, politics and culture can be distilled to a central problem – a crisis of trust. Trust is a complex notion – it is incredibly difficult to build, yet very easy to destroy. It is an allusive concept, yet an absolutely essential element in our communal, economic and personal lives. At times trust can feel almost like an emotion, a form of comfort, yet this fragile element of our lives carries a heavy economic burden, for as a society’s trust declines, so does its economic prosperity. This is where we are today. We clearly have a problem, and so in collaboration with The Premsela Foundation I created and am directing the global Design TRUST initiative to explore the contribution that design disciplines can make in solving our current crisis of trust. We have to ask these questions anew within our current context:

  • What are the ingredients of trust?
  • Can you design trust?
  • Can you trust design?

Design has a proud tradition of being driven by social and cultural responsibility and possessing an awareness of its role in our lives beyond being a vehicle for maximising profit. Along its historical journey however, design’s genetic code of directly serving our needs seems to have been mixed with too much marketing DNA, as suddenly the creation of the need became a design discipline, and the designed response to the perceived, rather than the actual, need its evil twin. To paraphrase Milton Glaser, good design at some point came to mean good business – and now it’s time to restore design’s relationship with the word good. As Glaser said in his “ten things I have learned” essay:

“It’s interesting to observe that in the new AIGA’s code of ethics there is a significant amount of useful information about appropriate behaviour towards clients and other designers, but not a word about a designer’s relationship to the public. We expect a butcher to sell us eatable meat and that he doesn’t misrepresent his wares… We can accept certain kinds of misrepresentation, such as fudging about the amount of fat in his hamburger but once a butcher knowingly sells us spoiled meat we go elsewhere. As a designer, do we have less responsibility to our public than a butcher?”

It is in this context that Design TRUST is launched. Design TRUST is an initiative to explore how to renew our trust in design, and ultimately how trust itself can be designed in the process. In a world so jaded by a lack of trust in our services, products and institutions, there is no route left but to strip trust and its relationship to design it down to its ingredients and rebuild it.

We are at the very early beginnings of the project, but as the inititial meetings just wrapped up in Amsterdam earlier this week, I wanted to share the news. The website, public forums, global thinktanks, new approaches, endless cycles of jetlag… it’s all to come. But at the heart of it all will be an open, transparent process hugely created, populated and informed by public contribution, both in and outside of established design practice, so watch this space for more info as it rolls out.

Best Advertising Poster Hacks

The excellent poster hack turning the ad into a Photoshop palette, above, by Mr. Tailon, Baveux Prod., Kone & Epoxy in Berlin has been getting a lot of play in recent days, and rightly so. Seeing it reminded me of the transformative power that a good poster/advertising hack holds, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to run-down what I consider to be the best poster hacks done in recent years. Disclaimer: this is a small and unique subset of poster/billboard hacks, where the original print/poster isn’t physically remixed or manipulated – for those hacks, the true masters are CutUp Collective and to a lesser extent, Billboard Liberation Front, and Poster Boy among others. But there’s something wonderfully simple and direct about paste-ups and stickers that transform the commercial vehicle of the advertisement, so strap in:

1. Photoshop Palette (by FTW Crew: Mr. Tailon, Baveux Prod., Kone & Epoxy)


More can be found here, and on each of the artist’s flickr sets:


2. Pop-Down Project (by F!L___)

“On the Internet, getting rid of unsolicited pop-ups is pretty easy. In real life, things are a tad more complicated. The Pop-Down Project aims at symbolically restoring everyone’s right to non-exposure: Just stick a “Close window” button on any public space pollution.” – Pop-Down Project



3. Citation Needed (numerous)

A superb hack drawing from Wikipedia culture and commenting on the boastful yet unqualified credentials ads attribute to themselves.



4. Docteur Gecko’s lightbox poster hacks

An old one, but a classic. Docteur Gecko‘s lightbox hacks, in which he slips an alternate transparency behind the advert – by day, normal advert. By night, when the lamps beneath turn on…



5. The Bubble Project (Ji Lee)

Ji Lee’s Bubble Project needs no introduction, but certainly deserves a place on this list. It was an honour to work with him on this in Amsterdam.



6. Image Missing (unknown)

Another classic playing with the absence of an image in the city’s visual landscape while referencing old school web icons.


Synchronicity of blogs, football and design

After my previous post on innovation in football strategy and its relationship to design and spatial awareness, some people sent me a few heads-up that there was an interesting convergence of people exploring similar themes in relation to football and its spatial relationships.

Geoff Manaugh of the exceptional bldgblog posted a twitter “tweet” last week, observing that “Football as a series of contradictory landscape strategies: analytic geometry. Competing ways of using and filling space.” This inspired Michael Surtees to expand on the thought in a post on his similarly impressive blog DesignNotes, weaving a highly suitable link to Bobby Fischer’s method of playing chess, as made by the New York Times, as noted in the image above from his flickr set.

Just a nice moment of synchronicity of ideas weaving their way ’round the net – variations on a theme, if you will – coming from two blogs I respect a lot, and recommend that you do yourself a favour and subscribe to their feeds for more brilliant writing on design and architecture.

Re-writing the playbook with new ideas: The A-11 Formation

Illustration by Thomas Porostocky via New York Times
Illustration by Thomas Porostocky; New York Times

Following the post on the value of cross-pollinated ideas, today’s comes from American Football.

The story here is about the A-11 formation, developed by a High School football coach in California who radically redefined what is possible on the American Football field. In its most simple definition, the A-11 allows all 11 players on the offensive line to potentially become eligible receivers, instead of five available ones the standard configuration allows. To the non-sports-inclined, I’ll put it in a more in-your-face statistics way: the standard offensive formation allows 36 potential combinations for plays to be made, whereas the A-11 allows 16,332 combinations.

I’m fascinated with this because it is both an example of a fresh and complete re-think of a system that has been taken for granted as locked down for decades, and a hack in the purest sense – the re-purposing of existing players, expanding their functionality while not compromising their basic purposes and legalities within the rules. There is a lot of inspiration to be gained here.

Of course huge comparisons can be made here between the A-11 formation and the revolutionary technique of Total Football (we’re back to football = soccer now) pioneered by Dutch football club Ajax Amsterdam in the mid to late 1900’s. Total Football is the tactical theory in which any player can take over the role of any other player in the team. In his excellent book “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football“, author David Winner explores Total Football at length as an exploration of space and the creation of it. As Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff says, “It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch.”

This is where the link with the A-11 formation comes home for me. In the same way that Total Football was about creating and re-organising existing space, which by its very nature is finite on the field, the A-11 represents the same thinking taking place in American Football – putting a small space to maximum use, using creativity and a blend of individualism and collectivity in entirely new ways. And while these are iconic traits of Dutch society, design and architecture, they are uncharacteristically American ones. Yet that’s what the A-11 represents – a shift in the way space is thought about on the football field by re-purposing and recycling the roles of its players, at the same time American architecture and design is beginning to think very seriously about maximising the use of small space and the re-use and recycling of existing space.

Two gems among many to take from here are:

Re-think what you already have
Whether it is your team, your possessions, or your work, hacking its original purpose and function within its existing space and role can lead to staggeringly beneficial results. (As shown above – simply change the role of 11 players, and 36 possible plays become 16,332 potential outcomes.)

Idea innovation is everywhere, particularly in sports
Whatever the sport, there is always a limitation of resources: a finite amount of time, a finite number of players, and a finite space. Thus, strategy, fresh thinking, hacks and idea execution is at its very core, and is a rich vein to tap, in a number of ways, for those of us outside the sporting world. I was at a primiere of a film that had an amazing, fast-paced dance sequence, which was captured beautifully on screen. I asked the director how he pulled the scene off. “It was easy,” he said. “The cameraman used to film games for the National Football League in America – there’s no one better at following moving sequences and judging where the people in motion are going to end up than those guys.”

“The next revolution is going to be a revolution of ideas”


For those of you who have attended one of my talks, you’ll have heard this quote before. It is from the late, great Bill Hicks and is usually the jumping off point from the foundation of my talk into the exploration of new ideas. So it’s a fitting quote to begin 2009 with here, as it serves the same function: pushing off from the past and into the new ideas ahead.

I’m becoming bored with pure aesthetic. That’s the sentiment the last gasps of 2008 left me with. We’ve reached our saturation point as commercial and cultural consumers of objects and visuals. What remains is for us to engage with our physical, economic and commercial realities in new ways – and ideas are the most powerful vehicle we have for engagement. They are perhaps the most enduring commodity we have as a society, and increase in value exponentially when they are:

For me, sustainability – in terms of ideas – is about the engagement with the idea behind a project, initiative or product, and its durability. If you create something that is only a beautiful aesthetic, then you have just another object or visual. More stuff. Create a powerful idea for ongoing engagement, whether physical or cerebral, and you’re creating sustainable relationships between individuals and the work. For example, IKEA is spreading popular, adequately designed furniture and products, but it’s just more stuff. IKEA Hacker, however, is the idea that keeps the brand and its products sustainable in terms of fresh engagement and independent connection. Yet the idea didn’t come from IKEA. And therein lies the beauty of this particular idea.

I once asked Choreographer Bill T Jones about the inspiration for one of his works I was particularly moved by. He said “I was in the Met and saw a painting by Hans Hofman, and thought ‘I’d like to create a dance that moves the way that painting looks’.” When you only get your ideas from your own field of reference or profession, you do nothing but work in loops that get tighter and smaller with each round of introspection. Regardless of your discipline, go outside of it to find the next idea.

I am endlessly enthused and shamelessly addicted to Make, Instructables, Readymade… the list goes on. The reason? At the heard of each project documented is a new idea generated by the public. Whether it is how to create a new object out of seemingly non-associated pieces, or instructions on how to modify Object A into an improved Object B, it is ideas made real – and with each engagement by the public, the project and idea grows, spreads and is developed more. Life is a 24/7 research and development workshop, and its on sites like these that you begin to see the product of the R&D.

So let’s have some fun in 2009 going after some new areas of thought and exploration. The focus of this blog will shift slightly to being a vehicle for highlighting ideas I want to share, along with the usual news, updates and the tragic bits of ego feeds. Project-wise, first up for me is a fairly bold new venture exploring ideas of trust in design as it applies across the board from the environment to the economy, summarised quite well by Paul Hawken’s statement in The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism:

“We don’t have an economic problem, we don’t have an ecological problem, we have a design problem.”

But more on that soon. For now, here’s to the promise of the New Year, and remember:

“The idea is the machine that makes the art” – Sol Lewitt

Strategies for Tough Times: Focus on the Micro-Entrepreneur

I recently gave a keynote lecture to the World Urban Congress in Riga, Latvia, on creative strategies for difficult economic times. The Congress provided a fantastic overview of what is taking place in urban development across the world, but what I saw and heard also left me a bit cold.

The reason is that largely, the old model is still at work – huge, expensive institutions are being built as vehicles for regeneration and as catalysts for the ‘creative economy’, but with very little attention being paid to the integration of these institutions into the creative fibre of the city or indeed to the business plans for the years to come. In short: a lot of hardware, and very little software. This isn’t a sustainable approach for the long-term, nor wise in the short-term in light of the global financial slowdown. So my approach, for both good times and bad, is to look in the opposite direction:

Focus on the Micro-Entrepreneur

Famed entrepreneur Mark Cuban said a very interesting thing when asked what his advice would be to President Elect Obama in steering the US out of its financial turmoil:

“Entrepreneurs that start and run small businesses will be the propellant in this economy. PE Obama needs to have the counsel of those who will take the real risk inherent in creating companies and jobs. Those who put their money and lives on the line with their business…Entrepreneurs will lead us out of this mess. Talk to them.”

The same principles apply to cities and their cultural and creative strategies. This isn’t the time to be investing in the urban macro, when the urban micro, specifically, the urban micro-entrepreneurs, are collectively a far more valid and adaptive force for change and revival in this climate. They are the software that’s needed to run the city’s hardware.

A prime example of how this hardware and software can combine to support the micro-entrepreneur is Sao Paulo’s Endossa.

Endossa is a collaborative store which caters to craftspeople, designers, independent musicians, inventors, foodmakers, and a wide cross-section of creatives “who devote their time to tactile ideas and need assistance to ‘publish’ them.” The principles of Endossa are as follows:

  • Rent empty shelf boxes to every micro-entrepreneur who wants some space to sell products, without asking for sales commission.
  • Any product can be sold in Endossa from bottles of chilies to handmade notebooks and its time on the shelf depends on demand: high sales means high visibility.
  • Create a micro-community of young entrepreneurs and curious people who visit Endossa to get fresh inspiration from the creative pieces inside the store.

In addition to its “real world” benefits, an interesting side effect of the store is its ability to cross-over with online culture.

As shown in A Cor do Brasil’s flickr photo above, people have begun to promote not only their work, but their physical positioning in Endossa online, promoting both their work and the store, and enabling a comments thread online that feeds back to the physical store. The integration with Web 2.0 philosophies is intentional, as Endossa explains:

“Endossa works more like blogger or digg than as a search engine. The store allows everyone to “publish” their products and then lets customers “sort and rank” them through sales… There´s an algorithm. We call it the ‘Every Purchase is an endorsement’ mechanism. Basically it compares the size and location of a rented space with its revenue, and decides if the space can be rented again by the same brand next month.”

Cementing Endossa as a model of a software sensibility within the Sao Paulo creative economy is the reality that within their retail system, “new modules are being added all the time, depending upon the necessities identified by the user.”

Endossa is an exceptional example of the Focus on the Micro-Entrepreneur strategy. Stay tuned or get in touch for more.