Monthly archives of “April 2007

“You do not enumerate the freedoms you want”

'V' sign and hand in Englefield Green, Surrey

Crosbie Fitch, in the Atom feed summary for this post looking at how ‘freedom’ can and should be defined, says:

You see copyright’s suspension of your freedom to perform particular activities, and so for each activity you demand a specific freedom. This is how the GPL arose.
This is an inverted perspective from which to define ‘free culture’ (and free software).
To define freedom you define its constraints — you do not enumerate the freedoms you want.
This is because freedom is what we start off with in the first place. We constrain it to make it better. It is when we under or over-constrain it that we make it worse.

It’s the “To define freedom you define its constraints — you do not enumerate the freedoms you want” which especially stands out to me. This seems such an important principle, yet one which so many politicians entirely ignore when they talk about their commitments to ‘human rights’.

Am I being overly simplistic to equate this to the contrast between a ‘planned’ society – where everything is banned unless specifically permitted in an enumerated list of freedoms – and an ‘evolving’ society – where everything is permitted unless specifically banned? (Also: how does the contrast between codified Roman law and ‘evolving’ common law compare to this?)

Whatever the political and legal comparisons might be, the principle is certainly pertinent to the rise of architectures of control in technology. Up until just a few years ago, most technology was effectively ‘open’, assuming you could get hold of it. All of us had freedom to do what we wanted with it – take it apart, modify it, repurpose it, improve it, break it, even if the originators had never expressly intended anything like this, and even if it were ‘illegal’. Now, though, we have (some) technology into which intentions can be codified. We have products with hyper-restrictive End-User Licence Agreements which we must accept before we use them, and which can report back if we don’t abide by them. We have products which are intended to provide one-function-and-nothing-but-that-function, and are designed to frustrate or punish users who try anything different. We have politicians seeking to specify exactly what technology can and can’t do. How do I know what freedoms I want until I’ve experimented? How can I even explain them until I’ve experienced them? Should the progress of tomorrow really be shackled by registering as law the prejudices and errors of today?

Of course, in the context of this blog, I’m merely striking the key-note once again, and that can make for a very dull tune. But that phrase, “you do not enumerate the freedoms you want,” will stay with me. It’s important.

Friday quote: Writer’s Block

A great working environment

Scott Adams (via Seth Godin):

I think writer’s block is when you say to yourself, “I could write something, but it wouldn’t be good enough.” There’s no such thing as a complete inability to write a sentence.

He’s right, of course: it’s the fear of failure, of incompetence, or the fear of being perceived as incompetent, which stops so much useful work being done. If it’s sub-standard, will it actually drive readers/customers away? John S Rhodes has an interesting take on the issue.

Best get on with it, then.

Getting around

The TAXI Design network has syndicated* my post on the Nicostopper for its very interesting ‘The Driver Speaks’ strand of articles – perhaps not the most obvious choice of articles to choose, but I suppose it was relatively short and to-the-point compared with much on this blog. I should probably consider actually submitting some articles to TAXI directly rather than being entirely passive about it all.

Jeremy Schnitker of SoloGig News has also interviewed me about freelance work – bless him, he makes me sound a lot more successful than I really am! SoloGig News is a great site with some fascinating interviews and other information for independent practitioners – as described on the site, “news you can use for the ever-growing freelance set.”

Jordans, Bucks, April 2007

A note about the future

For the last couple of months, alongside some hectic work for clients, I’ve been putting together a proposal for postgraduate (i.e. PhD) research which involves both environmentally sensitive design and architectures of control. Nothing is certain at this stage but as soon as there’s something to report, I will of course blog the details. This could be a very exciting direction in which to head; there may be, indeed, a major road ahead.

*Note that the blockquotes in the original post have been removed without being replaced by any other formatting, so some of the quotes appear as if they’re part of my prose. Also, I’m not Steffen Jahn (if only I were…), nor in fact, Dan Stockton, but those are minor quibbles!

What I’ve learned so far as a freelance designer/engineer/maker: Part 2

Office and workshop door plaques

In part 1 of ‘What I’ve learned so far…’ I looked mostly at being a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and the idea of ‘Wexelblat’s scheduling algorithm’ (or the ‘good, fast, cheap: pick two’ theory) as it applies to a young freelancer starting out. There were some very insightful comments which are also well worth reading.

Before starting on Part 2, I feel I should apologise for the relative dearth of posts recently. This seems to be a recurring pattern, although this time it’s actually resulting in some people unsubscribing in Bloglines… The reason is primarily that I’ve had a series of projects which have taken a lot out of me, time-, sanity- and confidence-wise. I can’t really explain too much at this point, but referring to Client Breeds 6, 7, 8 and 11 as explained at the excellent FreelanceSwitch should give some hints! Suffice to say, I hope never to make the same series of mistakes again. A later part of this series will be my own take on the ‘Client Breeds’ idea and managing different clients’ expectations, but for the moment, on with Part 2:

The Portfolio Dip

When you’re at university, college, or working on design in your spare time, the rate at which you add new work to your portfolio can be equal to the rate you do the work. If you do three projects in the final year of your degree, you can add three projects. But when you start doing ‘real’ projects for companies, they’re likely to be confidential, at least until they reach production (if they even go this far), so you can’t show anyone. This applies, of course, to designers working full-time for a company as well as freelancers, but is more importnat for freelancers. (Incidentally, a friend of mine whom I’d classify as an extremely successful freelancer, suggests that only 1 out 10 potential products developed for clients are ever likely to reach mass production, and he makes that clear to the clients as he goes, which is something I’ve been far too reticent about doing.)

Back to the point: the confidentiality requirements mean that – superficially at least – your portfolio starts to look a bit stale (e.g. this). The rate of new work added drops sharply, and this can certainly have an effect on your own confidence quite apart from – we might expect – not being so persuasive to potential clients. (If you’re also, sensibly, weeding out some of the older projects of which you’re not quite so proud – too studenty, too weak – then as well as the size of the portfolio decreasing, the period it covers may also decrease to a narrow focus around, say, the final two years of your degree. And the rate of work added actually goes negative.) Roughly, you might end up with something like this:

The Portfolio Dip

If the most recent stuff you can show them is a student project, or even a speculative competition entry hacked together in your spare time (if any), then they may well treat you like a student or a speculative chancer rather than a professional designer. What they expect to pay you could also be in accordance with this.

Equally, even if the early freelance jobs you take on do reach production quickly, or can be shown without a confidentiality worry, they’re not necessarily going to be especially impressive. For example, I’m grateful for getting the job of making new signage (below) for a local sandwich shop, to the client’s design, but putting this into a portfolio primarily focusing on more technically innovative work may well dilute its appeal to certain prospective clients.

Nibbles signage, Datchet, BucksNibbles signage, Datchet, Bucks

All of the above reinforces something very important. Industrial experience during a degree – ideally a summer internship or an actual sandwich year placement – can be extremely valuable, especially if some of what you worked on has reached production by the time you graduate or start your freelance career. In effect, this work can help ‘plug’ the portfolio gap, with real-life, commercially viable products which may even be familiar to potential clients already. While choosing a sandwich course makes your degree longer – and that year’s wages may be very low – with the right choice of company and some hard work, you may have an asset which makes your portfolio work stand out above others’.

Tidying up the /cig-bin

Cigarette receptacle with sloping top
Cigarette receptacle with sloping top
Two types of cigarette receptacle with sloping tops to prevent cigarettes (and other litter) being put on top. Images from the New Pig catalogue pigalog.

These smokers’ bins from New Pig employ a very simple architecture of control – simply, sloping tops which prevent litter (including cigarette butts) accumulating. Compared with more conventional flat-topped cigarette receptacles this is presumably effective, although it does mean that anything placed on top will end up on the floor.

As with cone cups and wire-mesh bins, the success of the design in reducing the ‘undesirable’ behaviour must be down to people’s (conscious or otherwise) antipathy to an immediate ‘messy’ consequence of their actions. If you throw a cigarette butt on the ground straight-off, you can immediately forget about it. If you put it on top of a flat-topped bin, you can also immediately forget about it. But putting it on a sloping bin top and seeing it (or imagining it) falling off onto the ground somehow draws attention to your actions, just as leaving a paper cone cup with some liquid spilling out onto the table is rarely done, but leaving a conventional flat-bottomed paper cup is very common.

Incidentally, New Pig seems quite an interesting company with a playful approach to building its brand.