The innovator’s imperative: pissing about with tech

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Boy did we get innovative recently. Or did we?

Look at the graph above and you might say we’ve been riding a wave of ingenuity and invention for the last couple of generations. The moon landings, the Roland TR-808, 2G mobile tech, Deliveroo…

And few would argue with you. But a safer claim (and I do love a safer claim) would be to say that we’ve been doing a lot of talking about innovation.

In fact, the only thing I’m certain of is that talk of innovation in tech markets will always outstrip its practice. And that, while the uplift you see in the graph happens to come when NASA is tinkering with Apollo 11 or when Steve Jobs is making hardware innovation sexy, it also coincides with the rise of the corporate mission statement and, later, the About Us page.

Innovation has become one of the Lofty Abstract Nouns spat out by value statement generators. Insert coin, pull lever. You got ‘Integrity, Innovation, Experience.’

Which is fine. (We get it: you have shareholders.) But the problem with About Us claims is that they don’t always crystallise into product department practices.

Which is to say: Innovation is hard

Much harder than just saying you’re innovating, anyway. So how do you go beyond lip service? What’s innovation when it’s at home? What does it look like? Do I have to use the word ‘innovation’?

For agencies like ours, the challenge is two-fold. First we need to keep up with our clients’ markets so we know real innovation when we see it – and we can call bullshit on the rest. And second we need to do some innovating of our own.

Play, Research & Development

Some time last year we renewed our vow to ‘do more innovative stuff.’

Once we got over the fact we had just used the word ‘innovation’ with a (fairly) straight face, we considered what it meant for us.

Something like: applying a new device, tool, method, or approach to a new marketing challenge. Or a better approach to an old problem. Or an old approach to a new problem.

You get the point. And the point is: we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. But – and here’s a bigger point – that’s not a bad thing.

There’s a reason plenty of people before us have made the connection between innovation and play. Like lots of creative play, experimentation needn’t (and often shouldn’t) have a known end goal.

So we added a P for play (or, if we’re being honest, pissing about) to our R&D practice and we asked ourselves what we wanted to try out – on the off-chance it sparked some new, useful ideas further down the line. I’m not sure exactly how we’ll be able to use this stuff in client work, or our own projects, but that’s why we’re doing it: to find out.

As well as new creative tools and formats, we’ve also been testing new processes – because with new ways of working will come new ways of managing the work.

Here’s a quick look at the kind of things we’ve been pissing about with.

1. Velocity tries VR

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Not now, Doug. We’re innovating.

Sometimes, innovation looks like a designer pissing about in ski goggles. But not just any ski goggles. Really expensive virtual reality ski goggles.

David from Everywhere Brand came to the office and showed us the virtual ropes. We played some (pretty damn immersive) games, and I went “Oooooh!” a lot, but the coolest bit was playing with the Tilt Brush by Google. It’s hard to show our work (you kind of had to be there) but you can get an idea of what the Tilt Brush is like here.

Will wrote a post about this particular bout of pissing about.

2. Printing…in 3D…with pens

Getting the VR guys in was Duncan’s idea. Emilie fancied something more three dimensional, so we invited Grace Du Prez in to give us a 3D printing pen master class.

It’s the same principle (and materials) as you’ll find in industrial 3D printers, but more…doodley. Like a more sophisticated glue gun. Grace makes amazing jewellery and art and LIFE-SIZE CARS – but in the class we were chuffed with our misshapen pineapples and weird lattices. Recommended.

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3. Woodcut printing

It’s not all VR air-sabers and World Wide Webs round these parts. Sometimes an old format in a new context can make surprising, original work. That’s the hope behind a favourite spare-time project that’s been knocking around the Velocity studio for as long as you can imagine it would in an agency with very little in the way of spare time.

Codenamed Winston, this project takes some famously uplifting quotations and repurposes them for a higher, more noble aim: nurturing content marketing prospects for ultimate conversion to revenue for us. Mel worked up the designs before taking the wood chisel to Honest Abe, Mother T, Albert and, of course, Winston.

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4. Building websites from a baseplate

Building websites can be fun, but also not so fun. Fun: writing, designing and building them. Not so fun: fixing bugs and handling design feedback all at once, towards the end of the process.

Late feedback was often justified – a design you approve in Photoshop might not sit right once it’s dropped into the site – but it was eating up our dev team’s time. So this was a process thing.

With a new project coming up, Nick developed a baseplate: a kind of an as-live web gallery that holds all the website design elements for review. Everything goes in: fonts, line sizes, header types, navs, design elements. It’s responsive so you see what it looks like on desktop and mobile devices. And because all the content is broken down to components, you only have to edit once and every instance of that component is updated.

It took Nick about a week to build but it’s already paid back in time-savings. We can get design signed off before the real web build starts, and it’s simpler now that all the components are ready to be stitched together. It’s our own new ‘best practice’ and it’s been used on client projects like this one.

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5. Tech tools

Nick’s baseplate makes our Rudy happy like only a digital project management hack can. Other Rudy-pleasers we’ve been using include: Trello, InVision, and Lucidchart.

View from the playground

If you read this post closely, in a quiet room, you probably heard the sound of me wincing every time I had to type the word innovation. (Working on not being such a skeptic.) But I confess: I winced a tiny bit less with every mention.

Nothing sends a word’s currency crashing to the ground harder than over-inclusion in corporate value statements. But sometimes it’s not just talk. If you look hard enough and find evidence of something like innovation in the workshop (like a real workshop, where people take raw materials and combine them in original ways; not a messaging one, where people take three Lofty Abstract Nouns and put them in a Venn diagram) then you can almost forgive the pomp.

When it’s done right (when it’s done at all), innovation is well named. ‘Pissing about’ works too.

To be continued…

Other stuff we’ll update you on in due course: pissing about with a Raspberry Pi, InCopy, drawing classes, and the massive old letter press in the factory downstairs at Velocity HQ.

Comments

Great article about innovation (wince). I wish all agencies would piss about this much without any/much sense of where it might lead. There’s an inverse correlation, in my experience, between how much companies say they are innovative and actually are innovative (double wince).

It’s a bit like trust. As soon as you utter the sentiment ‘trust me’, you’re acknowledging the fact there’s a reason the audience might already be seeing through your facade. Believe me, I’m a copywriter.

    Cheers, Glenn! Yeah definitely, it’s usually a case of telling-because-you-can’t-show. Plenty more you could list off: ‘innovative’ (wince), ‘trustworthy’ (side-eye), ‘dedicated’ (good for you), ‘passionate’ (really?)…

    But I don’t want to be too harsh. Could be they’re walking the walk too – just need better copy. (Good news for the likes of us.)

Everyone who managed to get to the end of this article without the word “innovation” morphing into any of number or combination of invocation, onvacation or Ovaltine deserves a nice hot malt milk substitute.

I’m glad you finally broke that word with too many ‘n’s and a ‘v’ in it down into some sort of sensible concept. “Pissing about” is much more to the point, and would improve 10/10 mission statements if it were swapped in.

Thanks, Velociraptor!

I mean… thanks, semantic satiation

Really an awesome post. I wondered by reading this blog post. Thanks a lot for posting this unique post which you have shared with us. Keep on posting like this exclusive post with us.

Full of salient points. Don’t stop believing or writing!

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